MINNEAPOLIS — One was on the way out. One was on the way in.
Before crisis intimately intertwined the lives of Fred Hoiberg and Ronny Turiaf, the pair had little in common, save for the game they played.
Turiaf grew up on a scenic island under French jurisdiction, his childhood feet accustomed to the soothing sensation of walking along a Carribean beach. If Hoiberg played in any sand growing up, it was at an Ames, Iowa playground; row upon row of corn and soybeans were the closest thing to an ocean he could view from his boyhood home.
Hoiberg moved five blocks to pursue his college basketball aspirations. Turiaf emigrated 3,927 miles to chase his. A clean-cut, stoic shooting guard, Hoiberg earned the nickname “The Mayor” for his quiet, almost diplomatic dissection of the old Big Eight. Turiaf, well — does a cornrow-and-beard-sporting, sideline-jigging, gregarious bear of a big man even need a substitute moniker?
Jimmy Chitwood of “Hoosiers,” meet Baloo from “The Jungle Book.”
By the time their paths intersected, Hoiberg was a decade removed from starring for Iowa State, hopping off the bench and hitting 3-pointers for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Turiaf had just wrapped up a stalwart collegiate stint of his own, at Gonzaga, and was looking forward to his NBA days.
Then, in the summer of 2005, the two were shaken into realizing they shared a lot more than a career path.
Your aorta is the largest artery in your body, originating from the center of your heart and running all the way down to your waistline, where it branches out into a separate artery in each of your legs. Every drop of blood flowing through your veins is distributed via the aorta.
Under normal conditions, the aorta is about a foot long and just more than an inch in diameter. A routine life insurance examination revealed Hoiberg was not operating under normal conditions.
That was in January 2005. Inexplicably rejected for the policy, he attributed it to the abnormal, biscupid valve — the aortic valve normally contains three leaflets that open and close to direct blood with each heartbeat; Hoiberg’s has only two — he has had since birth and discovered his sophomore year of college.
Hoiberg finished the rest of the 2004-05 season and led the NBA in 3-point percentage. But after the final game, Timberwolves team physician Dr. Sheldon Burns sent Hoiberg to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., “just to be safe.” There, Hoiberg underwent a battery of tests.
Hoiberg recalls the Mayo cardiologist’s news with precise detail eight years after it was delivered. “‘You have a life-threatening condition, and you are very, very lucky you found out about it.'”
The Mayo doctors had discovered an aortic root aneurysm: a breakdown in the artery’s wall that allows a section of it to expand like a balloon. In their infancy, aneurysms require strict monitoring. But the larger they grow, the more likely they are to rupture.
Hoiberg’s was big. He was immediately scheduled for an open-heart operation that would remove the diseased tissue and replace it with a graft.
“That was a kick to the gut,” said Hoiberg, now the men’s hoops coach at Iowa State. “Open-heart surgery is definitely not something you ever think about as a professional athlete.”
The Mayor, once seemingly invincible during his college years in Ames, went under the knife in June 2005. The operation was successful, but post-surgery complications meant he’d need a pacemaker implanted in his left shoulder for the rest of life.
It would cost him whatever may have been left of his playing career.
Hoiberg then began a painstakingly slow, eight-month recovery process. The 32-year-old’s wife and four children helped him along, but the prospect of replacing weight training, shoot-arounds and conditioning workouts with strict bed rest and short walks around the block are about as frustrating as it gets for a man who has made basketball his life.
One day, about two weeks after his second operation, Hoiberg turned on the TV. He happened across an emotional news conference, where a visibly shaken Turiaf had some news of his own.
To date, five NBA players besides Hoiberg have had surgery to fix an enlarged aorta. Turiaf is one of them.
Like Hoiberg, Turiaf found out during a routine examination — this one a physical required by the Los Angeles Lakers, who’d drafted him 37th overall and signed him to a two-year, $1 million contract.
Like Hoiberg, a section of Turiaf’s aorta had swelled to the point where if he played another minute of basketball, his life would be in danger.
The Lakers voided his contract. His family could only offer input and encouragement from Martinique, an island floating about halfway between Puerto Rico and the northern tip of South America.
Turiaf could’ve hung it up right then and there without risking surgery, given the size of his aneurysm at the time. But after some consultation with doctors, family and friends, he decided to announce he’d have surgery in order to save his career.
Turiaf’s agent gave Hoiberg a call not long after the press conference, and Hoiberg immediately reached out to Turiaf.
“Going through the process, I knew how scared I was,” said Hoiberg, who had been contacted by a few survivors of the same condition. “I knew it had helped me a lot talking to people who had a similar procedure.”
On July 26, 2005 — about three weeks after Hoiberg — Turiaf went through the same exact operation. He spent six hours under anesthesia at Stanford Medical Center, two hours of which his heart was stopped.
Like Hoiberg, he survived.
Suddenly, each had an advice partner with which to share a long, arduous road back to basketball.
When Turiaf had a question, Hoiberg was there to answer it. When Hoiberg was experiencing a rougher day of treatment, he’d remember Turiaf was going through the same thing.
Hoiberg’s advice and support were “vital,” Turiaf said. “Capital V, capital I, capital T, capital A, capital L. He helped me go through the worst time in my life.”
The most common theme in their conversations, which took place at least twice a week for the next few months: patience.
“They crack you open, shut down your system and then when you come to, they put you on a heart-lung monitor,” said Hoiberg, who’d played for Indiana and Chicago four years each before signing with Minnesota as a free agent. “It’s a hard thing to come back from not only physically, but mentally. The big thing that helps is being able to talk to somebody and develop a support group to get through those times.
“I’d played 10 years in the league. It was something else where I’d lived out my dream. … For Ronny, he was just starting his journey. I’m sure that was just overwhelming for him.”
Six weeks of virtually no activity. Then light walks up and down the street. Finally, after about two months, both men were permitted to dribble a basketball again.
They each lost a significant amount of weight; Hoiberg dropped about 20 pounds. One morning, they’d wake up full of energy and feel significant progress had been made. The next, they’d barely be able to get out of bed.
Hoiberg, Turiaf’s senior by 10 years, watched from afar as the big, jovial center attacked the rehabilitation period with the same fervor and enthusiasm that’s endeared him to fans everywhere along his eight-season, six-team NBA career.
“I loved to get to know him in that process,” Hoiberg said. “He helped me with just how positive he was. He’s the kind of person that you can’t have enough of in your life.”
Hoiberg almost became the first NBA player to compete with a pacemaker keeping his heart in rhythm.
“I was coming off the best season of my life,” said Hoiberg, who averaged 5.4 points and 2.7 rebounds per game for his career. “I didn’t want to let (my condition) beat me. I wanted to go out on my own terms.”
By the middle of the 2005-06 season, he and the Phoenix Suns had agreed to a contract that would’ve let him finish out the year in the desert.
But one wrong fall, one misplaced elbow to the left side of his chest, and Hoiberg’s heart could stop. He decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
“Their team doctor basically said, ‘You can’t do this,'” Hoiberg said. “That’s what I’d been waiting to hear. So I hung up the shoes and started the next phase of my life.”
That phase began with four more years in the Twin Cities, serving three years as Minnesota’s assistant general manager and one as the club’s vice president of basketball operations.
In April of 2010, he took the head coaching reins at his alma mater. He’s led the Cyclones to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and orchestrated the biggest turnaround in Big 12 history (2011-12).
When Hoiberg received the job, Turiaf was one of the first to congratulate him.
“I know when Fred went through it, he didn’t see it as the end of his career; he saw it as the start of a new career,” Turiaf said. “He didn’t want put his health in jeopardy for his family.”
Turiaf had post-surgery complications, too, but the blood clot that cropped up didn’t stop him from returning to good enough physical condition to sign with the Lakers again. He played there for three seasons before stops with the Warriors, Knicks, Heat, Wizards and Clippers, reaching the Finals with the Lakers in 2008 and winning a championship with Miami in 2011-12.
“Everything is perfect in my life,” said Turiaf, who’s also played for the French national team, including in last summer’s Olympics. “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.”
Playing minimal minutes and starting just 95 games, Turiaf’s never lost that emotional luster.
“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,” said Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations. “To bring him into this mix almost as both a player and as a mentoring role, I think, is going to be very positive.”
Hoiberg and Turiaf maintain frequent contact and have found ways to share their stories with others. In addition to helping prompt the league to make echocardiograms — the exam that unearthed his and Turiaf’s conditions — mandatory as part of preseason physicals, Hoiberg is involved with the American Heart Association and takes an annual trip to Bloomington, Minn., to visit children with heart disease at Camp Odayin.
“It certainly puts your life in perspective when you go through something like that,” said Hoiberg, who at some point will require another operation on his bicuspid valve.
In 2009, Turiaf established the Ronny Turiaf Heart to Heart Foundation, which helps provide children without health insurance access to electrocardiograms, defibrillators and heart surgery.
“I want the Ronny Turiaf legacy to help others,” Turiaf said.
Fred the Mayor and Ronny the Bear. Two polar opposites with similar hearts.
“It shows that basketball is a game that goes far beyond,” Turiaf said. “It transcends generations. It transcends colors. It transcends everything, to have someone like Fred Hoiberg and myself just becoming partners in this crazy ordeal.”