The Kieran Shannon Interview: Superman Jermaine Turner still going strong

Once, back in New York, Ron Artest AKA Metta World Peace dubbed him Superman. But 17 years ago, he came to Ireland, where he had to get used to paying to take a shower, but where he also lit up courts across the land. Now 42, tonight he takes one more shot at National Cup glory.

After placing our beverage order, he asked if I knew anything about a player named Jermaine Turner. I had not met Jermaine nor seen him play in person, but I did know that there was no grey area in the stories I heard about his basketball exploits. The fans that supported his teams loved him. Those who cheered his opponents were of a decidedly different opinion. I was aware of Jermaine securing over 40 points in cup games, putting his elbow through the rim on dunks and antagonising any hostile crowd silly enough to taunt him. One thing that I already knew for sure – no matter which side you were on, his personality demanded attention.

Pete Strobl, Deadspin

He’s toned his act down a good bit these days – when you’re 42 years old, that tends to happen – but for anyone who was in the Neptune Stadium the other week for his team’s National Cup semi-final win over Marian, there was still enough of Jermaine Turner’s original swag on display to make him the game’s most compelling figure.

He was still wearing a black headband, black shoes and black socks, something he has been doing since he was in high school and captivated by the audacity of Michigan’s Fab Five, basketball’s first hip-hop stars, its NWA.

The teenaged Turner modelled his appearance and game on them, and a quarter of a century on, their attitude and aggression still inform his game.

Turner ripped down a monstrous 28 rebounds in that semi-final win, one for every minute he was on the floor. In his co-commentary, Pat Price would not only say it was the most significant stat line of the entire game but that it must have been a record for a men’s Superleague Cup semi-final or final.

Nearly every call for or against him by the officials prompted a ‘Yeah!’ or a ‘Damn!’ and a fist into the palm of his other hand.

Midway through the fourth quarter when Marian had cut Killester’s lead to four, Turner, sporting a haircut somewhere between a Mohican and a late ’80s flattop, made a power move to the basket and was fouled in the act of scoring.

Turner didn’t turn around and head to the free-throw line; instead he paused and posed on the baseline, a la Chris Webber back in the day, and pretended to rip open the front of his top, a la Superman, a nickname the NBA champion Ron Artest AKA Metta World Peace used to call him by when they played together on the playgrounds of a pre-9/11 New York.

The writer Emmet Ryan made another keen observation about Turner that night down in Cork.

As the final seconds ticked down, Turner, who had fouled out of the game, left his seat at the end of the bench to give every teammate and member of the coaching staff some bit of love: a bumped fist, a high five, a little squeeze around the shoulder. Then as the hooter sounded, he was the first man over to embrace Marian’s defeated coach, Ioannis Liapakis.

That too is Jermaine Turner. There’s a striking exuberance as well as intelligence about him once you meet him in person. It was something that Strobl, a teammate of his up in Ballina back in 2007, quickly detected upon finally being introduced to him.

“Jermaine was a native New Yorker, bursting with all the confidence and energy implied by the label,” Strobl would write in his acclaimed 2013 account of the life of a journeyman pro. “I could see how his East Cost vibe could be off-putting at first. But this was only the case for people who didn’t really know him.”

For the past seven summers, Turner has been put up in Strobl’s home in Pittsburgh where Strobl runs a successful basketball academy, The Scoring Factory, that Turner guest coaches at.

You just have to understand where he comes from. He was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, before at four his mother moved the family out, anticipating that the neighbourhood was about to turn into a ghost town. “You couldn’t be seen on the streets after a certain hour,” he says, “because the place was like the wild, wild West. Everyone had a gun.”

Their new home was out in LeFrak City, over in Queens. Turner attended John Adams High School, a renowned American football programme. Jermaine was a wide receiver, until at 15, he figured it might not be the game for him.

“One day at practice I went over the middle and caught a ball. Somebody hit me low and somebody hit me high and bent me into a pretzel. It was raining hard the same day and I said, ‘You know what, it’s too cold out here getting hit and hurt like this!”

One warm day the following spring, there was a bomb scare at the school and class finished early. Turner turned to a couple of classmates: what are we going to do? They said they were going up to the dunking courts, these eight-foot baskets where you could throw it down. Turner trooped along. He’s been dunking ever since.

“I wish I could just bottle the feeling of dunking a basketball. I know this is maybe a bad metaphor, but it’s like when someone’s shooting up heroin for the first time and they talk about this high that they get. Well, even now, I still get that rush.”

That summer Turner would be out on the courts six hours every day, throwing it down, by now on 10-foot-high rims. But when he tried out for the school team that fall as a junior, he didn’t make it, his coach pointing out to him that there was more to the game than dunking.

That year Turner would regularly shoot around in a hall just off Queen’s Boulevard where he’d encounter Vincent Smith, brother of one Kenny Smith, a college teammate of Michael Jordan’s at North Carolina and an NBA star with the Houston Rockets.

“One morning I walked into the gym and there Vince was, working Kenny out. It was the summer before the Rockets won their first championship. He had Kenny running full court by himself, coming off chairs and shooting nothing but three-pointers, for 30 minutes. I remember sitting there in awe at his intensity and focus.”

Vince would tutor Turner in footwork, how to come off screens, dribbling and finishing with his left hand. In his final year in high school, Turner didn’t merely make the team; he was the main man, winning himself a scholarship.

His college career was a rather turbulent one. He first played with Orange County Community College but his brash, flash style didn’t enamour him to his coach. On one road trip Turner and a teammate would get into a scuffle after that player knocked Turner’s tray in a fast-food joint.

The coach told Turner to cool it but once they got back on campus, Turner exacted retribution. The next day when the coach saw that teammate sporting a black eye, he summoned Turner to his office and kicked him off the team.

“He said I was a terrible player and a terrible student with a terrible attitude. I even remember him saying, ‘This is why I don’t recruit urban kids.’ Of course, by ‘urban’, I knew he really meant ‘black’.

"I could really have lost it but I took it in my stride and shook his hand and thanked him for his time. I told him I disagreed with him but that I wouldn’t be out to prove him wrong, I’d just be trying to do the right thing for myself.”

Turner enlisted in a junior college right across the road from the old World Trade Center, prompting him to be recruited by a Division Two college. But a couple of ineligible players had also been signed so the programme was put on probation. Turner dropped out of college hoops for a few years to take a job working for FedEx.

He still played plenty of basketball though. There were indoor leagues all over the five boroughs. And then there were the playgrounds.

One time he was playing in a tournament final in Brooklyn, right across the street from the projects. Turner hit three early baskets but after fist-bumping the wired fence, the nearest spectator lifted his shirt to show a gun. “It changed my whole perception of the game! I barely put up another shot. I passed all night.”

Another memorable figure he’d meet on the playgrounds was Ron Artest, a future NBA star and world champion who’d play alongside Kobe Bryant with the LA Lakers. He’d develop something of a reputation for being one of the league’s great eccentrics, getting into a brawl with spectators in Auburn Hills, walking around in public places in nothing but his underwear, and changing his name to Metta World Peace. But the Artest that Turner knew was a hugely likeable, grounded kid.

“We were playing in this tournament in Rucker Park [a legendary Manhattan playground]. I used to pick him up for our games because we were playing on the same team and we both lived in Queens.

He was big into Nas because they were both from Queensbridge, but I’d be like ‘Come on, Ron Ron – it has to be Biggie!’ He was one of the most genuine down-to-earth people you could meet. I remember another tournament on 4th West Street and he was there outside the wire, cheering me on. At the time they used call me Superman and Ron Ron would be going, ‘Go get them, Soup!’”

The following summer Artest left St John’s early to be drafted by the Chicago Bulls. Turner would go back to college, playing for a Div 2 school called Dowling where he’d average 20 points and 10 boards. It earned him All American status and the invite to a showcase game in Utah where he’d catch the eye of the organisers who promised they’d recommend him to any interested European teams. A few weeks later in that summer of 2000, he got a call. Dungannon from Ireland were interested.

My post-victory joy took a sudden nosedive when it dawned on me that we were being asked to pay two euros for taking a shower. I had played all over Europe and had never heard of such a thing. I was just about to blow my cool when Jermaine Turner, with a good-natured smile across his face, started feeding coins into the slot and shouted, ‘Showers are on me today, guys!’ Life has its little surprises and sometimes it’s just best to stand back, take a big breath, toss in a coin or two, have a laugh – or hot shower – and be grateful.

Pete Strobl, Deadspin

At first Jermaine Turner didn’t know what to make of Ireland. He was struck by the locals’ hospitality and intrigued by the country’s history, having studied the discipline in college. He’d read up books and websites on it, especially the 1916 Rising, and soak up Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. But as for Irish basketball? Early on, it left him cold – literally. When he went to take his first shower in the Parochial Hall, he could see his own breath.

“It was like you were outside. And the smell was like a 42nd Street urinal. If you had told me back then that I would still be here in 2017 I’d have said you were crazy. I was still on my spoiled American high horse. ‘The locker rooms are too small. I’ve got to carry my own bag. We don’t practise enough. They want me to coach the local kids when I just want to play.’

“But when I went back to America for the Christmas break, I realised that I had to take my blinders off or I’d end up just like my friends at home, doing nothing or working in a job they hated.”

And so, he’d come to embrace it all. Coaching the kids. The smaller crowds. Even the showers in the Hall, or, when after a Cup game win down in Killarney with Ballina, they had to pay €2 each for the privilege.

It’s how he’d approach the rest of his career. He played for Tralee Tigers in his second year in the league, helping them to a runner-up spot and winning the old Top Eight national championship. But that summer they hired a new coach, Rus Bradburd, who wanted to recruit his own professionals. Bradburd passed on Turner who instead took up the offer to play with UCD Marian.

“At the time I was pissed with Rus but now I thank him. Only for him I probably wouldn’t have met my wife.”

The night Marian’s season ended, he was out with his fellow Americans and teammates when they were taken by this girl wearing a black dress. Stop the press, who’s that?! Leesa Grennell. Jermaine knew of her. She was from one of Irish basketball’s great families, a daughter of Martin, a sister of Johnny, and a fine player in her own right.

But when he’d seen her before she was usually wearing Killester orange with black; not just simply black. The next night he met her again, out on the dance floor with her friends. Tupac’s California Love came on but just as Jermaine was about to break out his moves, Leesa declared she didn’t like that track and was going to sit down. Jermaine asked could he join her and talk. Thirteen years and four kids later, he can only thank Rus Bradburd he was in Dublin and not Tralee that night.

He’s been something of a nomad, a hired gun, for most of his career. In Ireland alone he’d play with Dungannon, Tralee, Marian, Tolka, Ballina and St Vincent’s whom he would inspire to a league title in 2006, scoring 38 and 33 points over the finals weekend. It wasn’t until the 2009-10 season that he would finally be brought into Leesa’s other family that is Killester.

He’s also had stints playing in Finland, Romania, Switzerland and, for two years, Spain.

Romania just didn’t feel right. Leesa came over to visit him one weekend and they could feel the eyes of others as they walked down the street, a blonde woman with a black man. “We came to this outdoor restaurant and it was like one of those Needle Off The Record moments. Everyone just stopped eating and stared at us.”

Switzerland was much better; he’d win a Division Two league title and MVP honours there. Spain was the best – the ball, the weather, the money; little Leilani even learned Spanish over there before he decided that it was time to make Ireland her permanent home.

Since then, Killester has basically been his. In 2010 he would help them win everything in sight and claim the MVP trophy in a 25-point Cup final hammering of Blue Demons. The following year he would help them win another league final but he could detect a rot had set in.

“Our mental state wasn’t right. We still had the best but we weren’t playing cohesively. As a senior player, that falls on me. When I looked back on it, I didn’t do a good job as a leader.”

The next few years were poor ones by Killester standards – with the exception of the 2014 season when they would win the league. Turner himself endured a difficult period. For two seasons he didn’t play. He had secured an Irish passport but it still wasn’t enough for him to play as an Irish player in the league. Although he could easily have played as Killester’s designated American player, the rebel in him refused to do so on principle.

“I thought it was a silly rule. If I wanted to play in Germany, I could play there as a European player, an Irish player. Ireland is the only country in all of Europe that I would not be recognised as a European player, an Irish player.”

Turner thought that was him finished with the league, but then he was part of a team that won a national 3x3 competition and represented Ireland at a European qualifying tournament in Riga. “It just sparked me all over again. I realised then, you know what, I really do love basketball, so screw all that, I’ll play again.”

And so here he is, back in another Cup final, six years on from his last. Twelve months ago he was part of a Killester team that were eight points up against Templeogue in the semi-final entering the last quarter. In those last 10 minutes, he went 0 for 7 from the floor and they’d lose by two.

“I was very emotional afterwards in the locker room. I’m the paid professional. It’s my job to come through for the team in the big moments and I didn’t. My focus wasn’t where it should have been. I remember chit-chatting to Pat Price before the game because I have so much time for him, but it disrupted my pre-match routine. This year in the car down Keith Anderson and Pete Masden carried on a conversation and I wasn’t speaking to them. I was fully focused.”

Tonight he’ll be the same. Ready to rock and be jeered and loved all over again. Still demanding attention.


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