VETERAN ASSISTANT HAPPY IN MEMPHIS, BUT WOULD LOVE A HEAD COACHING OPPORTUNITY
MEMPHIS, Tenn. Understated and dignified, Elston Turner continues to go quietly about his business as an assistant coach in the NBA.
For the past 19 years, Turner -- now an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies -- has been a member of an NBA coaching staff.
From Portland to Sacramento to Houston to Phoenix to Memphis, Turner has held a job coaching NBA players for nearly two decades. He doesn't take it lightly.
"There are so many guys every summer looking for work, and some of them are former All-Stars and (members of the) NBA 50 greatest (players), trying to get in, trying to get these jobs," Turner said. "And I have one of them."
Turner is in his second year on Dave Joerger's staff with the Grizzlies. Memphis is familiar country. Turner was born and raised in Knoxville and played his college ball at Ole Miss, 85 miles from Memphis.
"I know a lot of people here, and I'm meeting people almost weekly who know me from college," Turner said Tuesday as the Grizzlies prepared for Wednesday night's Game 2 of their first-round playoff series with Portland. "It's been a great fit. I feel right at home, and it's a good organization to be working for. I'm loving it."
After an eight-year career as a mostly reserve swing man with Dallas, Denver and Chicago, Turner began his NBA coaching career with the Blazers. He served his first season (1996-97) under P.J. Carlesimo, then three years with Mike Dunleavy.
"Man, time has flown," Turner said with a laugh. "When I started in Portland, my kids were in elementary school."
Now Elston Jr. is in his second season playing professional ball in Italy after spending two years at Washington and his final two years at Texas A&M. Daughter Taylor will graduate in May from Texas A&M.
Turner's introduction to NBA coaching came in Portland during the early "Jail Blazers" years, featuring players such as Isaiah Rider, Rasheed Wallace, Gary Trent and Stacey Augmon.
"It was a a pretty emotional group," Turner said, choosing his words carefully. "Being new in coaching, I remember thinking, 'Is every team like this now?'"
Turner worked alongside such assistants as Rick Carlisle, Dick Harter, Bill Musselman, Tony Brown and Jimmy Eyen.
"The staffs I was on were tremendous," Turner said. "I remember learning very quickly about the work load required to be an NBA assistant -- way longer hours than playing. Even when you went home, you still had to work.
"Nothing but good thoughts from my experience in Portland, though. Loved the city. Loved the people. Every time I go to Portland, I look up at the banners (at Moda Center). We had some successful years."
Turner's final season with the Blazers (1999-2000) was a heartbreaking one. After winning 59 regular-season games, the Blazers led by 15 points early in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, only to lose 89-84.
"We had Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudamire," Turner lamented. "Seemed like we had good enough players for somebody to put us on his back for a one- or two-minute stretch. That's all we needed -- two or three points at the right time. Anybody could have said, 'Look, I'm making this happen.' But it didn't happen."
Turner endured heartbreak again two years later as a member of Rick Adelman's Sacramento Kings staff. The Kings lost a controversial Game 6 of the Western Conference finals to the Lakers -- many still swear the referees fixed the game -- then fell in Game 7.
"Those two years (2000 with Portland, 2002 with Sacramento) were the closest I've come to coaching in the NBA finals," Turner said. "Both teams were capable of winning titles, so that's disappointing. But I've been fortunate. I coached in two All-Star games with Rick. We had the best record in the West three times at Sacramento."
Turner has learned from all of the head coaches he has worked under, but none more so than Adelman, with whom he spent 10 years in Sacramento and Houston.
"We were tied at the hip for a lot of those years," Turner said. "We went through so much together -- the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
Turner, who turns 56 in June, has never been a head coach. He's been to the altar a bunch, though, having interviewed many times for head positions.
"At least seven times, maybe eight," Turner said. "I've been a finalist for at least four of those jobs. It was me and Terry Porter in Phoenix. Me and Terry Stotts and a couple of others (Steve Clifford and Kaleb Canales) in Portland. Me and Kurt Rambis in Minnesota.
"I've been right there for a lot of jobs. I appreciate the opportunities, but I have to say, some of the reasons I was given for not getting the job were kind of bad."
So is Turner bitter about not getting an opportunity?
"Not at all," he said. "Most definitely, I still want to be a head coach. I'd love the opportunity. No question, I'm prepared. But I know there are only 30 jobs, and when one opens up, 300 people have their names in the hat. If it doesn't happen for me, I'm just as blessed as can be to be where I am."
I hope Turner -- one of the classiest guys ever to come through the Blazers' organization -- gets his shot. His demeanor reminds me a lot of Paul Silas, who served 12 years as head coach with Cleveland, the San Diego Clippers, Charlotte and New Orleans. And also of Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Famer who is second on the NBA coaches' career win list.
Turner is still hoping it will happen.
"The chances are small, but I have a hell of a résumé, and I'm still adding on to it," he said. "I'm not bitter at all, but I'm ready if the opportunity comes, that's for sure."