Many University of Memphis basketball fans know the name Andre Turner.
Tiger fans know about the 1985 NCAA Final Four. During that run, Turner knocked down game-winning shots against the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Boston College in the Midwest Regional Tournament. He scored 12 points and tossed out 12 assists in a 63-61 regional final victory over the University of Oklahoma.
Tiger fans know his stats. Turner led his team in assists and steals each of his four years. He ranks 11th in points scored, and his 763 assists are still the most ever by a Tiger.
They also know about the titles and awards. The U of M won two Metro Conference championships under the direction of this 5-11 point guard. He won numerous All-Metro honors, and in 2003, Turner was inducted into the University’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Now Tiger fans can know Turner as a graduate of the University of Memphis.
In May, the man known as the Little General made one more move at the U of M when he earned a Bachelor of Liberal Studies with concentrations in business and sociology.
Turner left school in 1986 to pursue a professional basketball career after he was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers in the third round of the NBA draft. He spent several years bouncing from team to team before taking his game to Spain, where he’s played for the past 16 seasons.
Over the last few years, Turner started thinking about the 26 hours of coursework he needed to complete his degree. Those unfinished hours reminded him of his mother and grandmother.
Former Tiger standout Andre Turner recently earned a Bachelor of Liberal Studies from the Univeristy of Memphis. He has played professional basketball for 22 years and helped lead the U of M to the Final Four in 1985. Left, the Little General shoots over a group of Ole Miss defenders. Right, Turner scores on a fast break for his current team, Spain's CAI Zaragoza. Photos courtesy of U of M Special Collections (left) and Basket CAI Zaragoza (right).
“I had been thinking about going back to school for a while,” says Turner. “My grandmother and my mom stayed on me all the time. They were always very adamant about me getting my degree. It was important to them.”
Turner, now 43, dealt with many of the same challenges others face when attempting to go back to college. He had a wife and five daughters to care for along with a demanding job. But his job kept him more than 4,600 miles away from the university he wanted to attend.
He then looked to John Calipari, current head coach of the Tigers.
“I had a conversation with Coach Cal about going back to get my degree,” says Turner. “He told me that they would do whatever they needed to help me get back.”
And Calipari was glad to help.
“I am so happy to see that Andre came back and finished his degree,” says Calipari. “It’s even better to see this University reach out to former players and give them the opportunity to complete their degrees.”
The biggest hurdle was finding time to take classes, but Turner found his answer in the U of M’s University College, where he could finish his remaining hours online. Tracy Robinson, an academic adviser in the University College, helped Turner develop a class load that worked around his schedule.
Robinson and Turner worked closely together to make sure his dream of getting his degree became a reality. While Robinson was impressed with Turner’s work ethic, she didn’t know much about his past with the University.
“He was a great student,” says Robinson. “I’m not from Memphis though, so I didn’t know who he was. Then I got an e-mail from a co-worker who recognized his name. After that, I realized what a big star he had been at Memphis.”
Turner admitted it took some time to get back into the groove of doing homework and studying for tests.
“It had been over 20 years since I took a class,” says Turner. “I’m just thankful that I was able to do it online. It was difficult at times, but it was something that was going to benefit my future. You have to just get after it and do whatever it takes.”
Turner serves as a wonderful example for his daughters, who range in age from 4 to 17. He also gives motivational talks to children in community centers and churches.
“I’m always preaching to my daughters about the importance of education,” says Turner. “I talk to them and other groups of kids, and I stress that regardless of how talented you might be, education is always something you can use.”
Knowing Your ACBs
While Turner was drafted by the Lakers, he never suited up for them. He was released by Los Angeles and then picked up by the Boston Celtics, but appeared in only three games.
“My first experience with the NBA was kind of a whirlwind,” says Turner. “I went from one week playing with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson to getting released and practicing with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. It was like a dream.”
Turner played for four teams over the next three years. He never saw significant action until the 1990-91 season when he played in 70 games for the Philadelphia 76ers. That season, Turner averaged 5.9 points and 4.4 assists per game.
The following year, Turner played 70 games for the Washington Bullets, but the toll of being an NBA journeyman became too much for him.
“The biggest challenge for me was just changing venues every year,” says Turner.
Then came the call.
“One night I got a call from a coach I knew in the USBL (United States Basketball League),” says Turner. “He told me about this team in Spain that was looking for a point guard.”
After discussing the idea with his family, Turner tried out for Coren Orense and was headed to play in Spain’s premier league, the Asociación de Clubs de Baloncesto (ACB).
This was Turner’s first time to travel outside U.S. borders. He says it was more difficult adjusting to the cultural differences than the style of basketball. The language barrier was especially trying.
“It wasn’t difficult; it was impossible,” says Turner with a chuckle. “I couldn’t speak any Spanish, and there were no English-speaking individuals on the team except a couple of my coaches.”
Turner confessed he did not put forth much effort in learning Spanish at first. He bought a book and memorized several phrases, but it wasn’t until his third year that he really took to the language.
“During my third season, we had a player from Spain who also spoke English,” says Turner. “His whole thing was you’ve just got to speak and be wrong. He said, ‘I’ll be there to help and correct you.’”
And slowly Turner picked up the language. Now he speaks Spanish fluently.
However, it didn’t take Turner long to adjust to the Spanish style of basketball. In fact, teams had to adjust to his style of play. In his first season with Orense, he averaged 23.1 points, 5 assists and 2.9 steals per game and was named to his first of six all-star teams.
“When I first got there, they weren’t used to guys being as aggressive,” says Turner. “I picked guys up at 91 feet and hounded them all the way down the court. The referees had to adjust some as well to the style myself and other Americans were bringing to the table.”
Turner has surpassed 6,000 points, 1,500 assists and 750 steals over his ACB career, and in 2006, he became only the second player in league history to play past the age of 42.
Currently he is wrapping up his 22nd season as a professional basketball player with CAI Zaragoza of the Liga Española de Baloncesto.
“I’m still just as much in love with the game as I was when I started,” says Turner. “I’ve really been blessed.”
Talk of retiring has been a topic of conversation lately though. Turner isn’t sure when he’ll play his last game, but he knows the time is coming. And he’s OK with that.
“My family says they’ll believe it when they see it,” says Turner. “It’s getting close to that time though. My oldest daughter will be graduating next year, and I definitely want to be around for those special moments.”
When Turner does decide to retire, he doesn’t necessarily want to hang up his sneakers.
“I absolutely want to work with student-athletes,” says Turner. “It may be in coaching or as a mentor. With my experience, I think I may be able to offer some advice to student-athletes. I’ll just have to see what opportunities come along.”
It would also be OK with Turner if an opportunity came along in Memphis.
“Memphis is home for me,” says Turner, a graduate of Mitchell High. “It’s where my roots are.”
It seems fitting that Turner’s basketball career took off at the University of Memphis, and with that career winding down, the U of M will help him take off again — this time with a degree in hand.
“If the timing hasn’t been perfect, it’s been awfully close,” says Turner. “Things have kind of come full circle for me, and everything came at the right time.”
Even though the end of his playing days is on the horizon, Turner’s story is far from complete.
“My degree will definitely open more doors for me,” says Turner. “My destiny is still unfolding.”
Watch a recent clip of Turner at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYyrDZZCXak
| Net gains
Andre Turner wasn’t the only former Tiger who graduated in May. Three other past players put on their caps and gowns and received theirs degrees from the University of Memphis.
Antonio Burkes, Chris Garner and Cedric Henderson are part of a rising trend happening at the U of M - student-athletes finishing their degree requirements.
“With Andre and the others returning to school, a lot of former players have called and inquired about coming back as well,” says head coach John Calipari. “That’s great, and we want other former student-athletes to do the same.”
Dr. Joe Luckey, director of athletic academic services, has noticed the trend, too. According to Luckey, 15 out of 18 seniors have graduated since the 2002-03 senior class. That number can be bumped up to 20 if you add recent graduates Penny Hardaway, Shyrone Chatman, Marcus Moody, James Harris and Aaron Mulvagh.
“I think Coach Cal has just put an emphasis on the word graduation,” says Luckey. “It’s something that’s been a conversation with the team, the city, on campus and any environment he can speak to. He has brought up graduation and reiterated the importance of it.”
Luckey and his staff work with current student-athletes and give them the academic support they need. With former student-athletes, athletic academic services acts more as a liaison. Luckey says that his office does two main things. First, they get the former student-athlete in touch with athletics to inquire about any available funding. Second, athletic academic services puts the student in touch with the academic department he/she will major in.
Calipari sees this as a win for the U of M and a win for past players.
He added, “The best thing this does is it sends a message that this University cares about its own — current and former students.”