MINNEAPOLIS — Ronny Turiaf’s northern connections run deeper than meets the eye.
Judging by the passion in his voice while speaking with reporters Thursday night, a whole heck of a lot deeper.
“I’m so excited about it,” the eight-year, bench-presence veteran said of signing with the Timberwolves, “I feel like I’m a rookie all over again.”
In reality, there’s a lot of wear and tear on the 30-year-old’s 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame. Eight seasons of bouncing from city to city will do that.
But president of basketball operations Flip Saunders brought Turiaf in for, if nothing else, his sheer fervor. Whether it’s been spelling a starting center, handing out locker room advice or dancing on the sideline in celebration, that’s never been in short supply.
“The greatest thing about Turiaf is that he’s got great enthusiasm, great love for the game,” Saunders said recently. “He’s got great passion.”
What’s not as noticeable is that Turiaf actually played for Saunders during one of his journey’s briefer stops, long enough to form a cordial working relationship. (With a guy as bubbly as Turiaf, it doesn’t take long.)
And when Turiaf’s professional career appeared in jeopardy of ending before it could even begin, it was then-Timberwolves shooting guard Fred Hoiberg who helped him navigate the frightening prospect of open-heart surgery.
“It’s funny how things work out,” said Turiaf, a career 4.7 points-per-game scorer who’s started just 95 times. “Hopefully, it comes full circle.”
In some ways, the big man’s Thursday signing for $3.2 million over the next two years means it already has.
Even having worn so many different uniforms, Turiaf can recall his exact numbers while playing under Saunders. “I didn’t miss a shot,” he said.
His memory’s sharp: Turiaf played four games under Saunders in Washington during the 2011-12 season before a broken hand kept him out for nearly two months. By the time he was healthy enough to play again, he’d been traded to Denver, waived by the Nuggets and picked up as a free agent by Miami.
That didn’t turn out too badly when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra handed him an NBA championship ring a couple months later.
But Saunders still left an impression at the start of that lockout-shortened season. When he called Turiaf during the height of free agency, the robust, bear of a man listened.
And, not much later, was sold.
“Just looking at it, first and foremost from the outside looking in, when you have Flip making decisions, that’s very important to me,” said Turiaf, who spent last season in Los Angeles with the Clippers. “He knows what type of player I am, and he wants to get me in places I want to be on the floor.”
Off it, too.
Turiaf remained in Washington, D.C. for a month-and-a-half before being traded. Saunders relied on him to be an extra set of eyes on the bench and offer pointers to a young, injury-riddled roster.
“I only played four games, but I was like an extra coaching staff on the court,” Turiaf said.
Long before his path crossed that of Saunders, it was unclear whether Turiaf would ever be able to play the game again.
After he graduated as Gonzaga’s fourth all-time rebounder and scorer, the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Turiaf 37th overall in 2005. A team-conducted physical exam helped reveal an enlarged aortic root in his heart, forcing him to undergo open-heart surgery July 26, 2005.
It was a scary process, but Turiaf wasn’t alone.
Following a 10-year NBA career of his own, Hoiberg was diagnosed with the same condition that summer. Three weeks before Turiaf, he underwent the same procedure.
“He helped me through the worst time in my life, and it all worked out,” said Turiaf, who recovered quicker than expected and made his Lakers debut in February 2006. “He told me what would happen right ahead of me. Any time I had a question, he was there for moral support.”
While Hoiberg’s brief attempt at a comeback following his own successful operation fell short, Turiaf has been able to crack an NBA roster every year since then. Hoiberg, meanwhile, went on to become the Timberwolves’ vice president of basketball operations before landing his current role as Iowa State’s head coach.
Turiaf spent three years with the Lakers, coming off the bench during their 4-2 NBA Finals series loss to Boston in 2007-08. He signed with Golden State that offseason and was traded to the New York Knicks two years later. New York then dealt him to Washington, where he went 3-for-3 from the field in roughly 75 minutes under Saunders.
Growing up on the pictureseque, French-territory Caribbean island of Martinique gave Turiaf an appreciation for life in general, he said. Moving past a risky operation to an enjoyable NBA career has only expanded it.
“Everything is perfect in my life,” said Turiaf, who’s also spent time playing for the French national team. “I won an NBA championship. I lost an NBA championship. Right now, life is good. I guess you can say I became like a fine wine, like a 1960s bottle of Bordeaux that aged well.”
It’s the same age and wisdom that was so attractive so Saunders.
In addition to spelling incumbent starter Nikola Pekovic, a restricted free agent expected to re-up with Minnesota soon, Turiaf will be counted on to mentor rookie first-round draft pick Gorgui Dieng. He can also provide a defensive presence at power forward when Kevin Love needs a break, and his ball skills are often overlooked, Saunders said.
“He is a perfect fit for us, and what I mean by that is great at passing the basketball,” Saunders said. “He gives us something defensively. He’s a physical, aggressive defender.
“Whether he plays one minute or whether he plays 39, 40 minutes, when you talk to him before or after the game, you’re gonna see the same guy, with a smile on his face and the same passion. So to bring him into this mix almost as both a player and as a mentoring role, I think is going to be very positive.”
While most of his international Timberwolves teammates head to their respective native countries next month in preparation for the FIBA European Basketball Championship, Turiaf will be in Los Angeles training and spending time with his family.
He’s completely focused on the next chapter of an already memorable tenure.
“Going through all those experiences and ups and downs, it showed me finally what I can bring to the table,” Turiaf said. “It’s a fresh start, and I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward of turning the page on the last eight years of my life and getting a fresh start on eight more years of basketball.”