Evan Turner was content to prepare for another basketball season with the Boston Celtics by working out near home in Columbus, Ohio.
Then came the chance to make National Basketball Association history half a world away.
“Originally, when my agent asked me if I wanted to do trips (to play), I was like no. When they offered for me to go to Africa, for sure I wanted to go,” Turner said.
Turner, who grew up in Oak Park, was among 19 current players to participate in the first NBA Africa Game Aug. 1 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
This was the first officially-sanctioned NBA game played in Africa, where soccer remains the No. 1 sport. Team World and Turner defeated Team Africa 101-97 in front of a sellout crowd at the 5,000-seat Ellis Park Arena.
“That made it even more fun that it was the first-ever game in Africa. The memories I’ll have to be a part of that,” Turner said. “To be able to travel through South Africa I thought would be a great experience. I think the game of basketball keeps growing in popularity. I think this trip was all positive excitement.”
The game also provided the backdrop of an incredible adventure for Turner with Jelani Floyd, his business manager and friend since their pre-teen days together in Oak Park. Each player could bring one guest. Floyd, currently living in River Forest, is preparing for his second year at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Turner asked about two weeks prior to their departure.
“To be able to see a whole other side of the world is life changing and a blessing,” Floyd said. “Also being able to talk to basketball greats and meet guys behind the scenes was amazing. It also allowed me and Evan to get closer.”
Airplane and van rides alone provided plenty of time together. They shared impactful visits to the Apartheid Museum, the U.S. Embassy, a wildlife excursion with lions just a few feet away and an SOS Children’s Village for orphans.
“I think the whole experience was the highlight for me. On the trip, basketball was really secondary,” Turner said. “Being able to mingle among the people was unreal. The NBA did a great job merging with the community and letting us see, learn about the community. I got to learn so much in a week.”
Following their wildlife observations, Floyd said he was particularly moved after last month’s killing of Cecil the lion by an American recreational big-game hunter in Zimbabwe.
“It broke my heart,” Floyd said. “When I got a chance to see up close and personal this lion and how beautiful the cubs were, we have to preserve our wildlife at any cost.”
At the SOS Village, Turner said children readily recognized him and other NBA players, asking to take photos. One of the children asked Floyd if he was the Indiana Pacers’ Paul George, who was not on the trip.
“It was unreal. The kids greeted us, welcomed us and were singing songs,” Turner said. “They showed us where they lived. They didn’t have much, but they were grateful for the things they did have. It was great how happy they were and, coming from what you have, what we take for granted.”
The NBA players were split into Team World and Team Africa for players that are first or second-generation descendants of African families. Respective team captains were multiple all-stars Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers) and Luol Deng (Miami Heat), born in what is now South Sudan.
Turner was the Celtics’ only representative, although head coach Brad Stevens was an assistant for Team World head coach Lionel Hollins of the Brooklyn Nets. The Chicago Bulls’ Pau Gasol also played for Team World.
Turner made an impressive showing (14 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists), including a fast-break, behind-the-back pass to the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal for a slam dunk. Team World overcame a 77-62 deficit after three quarters.
“The crowd was involved the whole time,” Turner said. “It was pretty laid back until the fourth quarter. Everybody was playing tough. It was just great, a fun game.”
“It was pretty intense. Guys started getting after it,” Floyd agreed. “It was like an NBA players’ open gym with referees.”
Retired NBA players Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo were honorary captains for Team Africa. Floyd sat next to Mutombo, but then he and Olajuwon later were surprise participants in the game.
“When (Mutombo) had his sneakers next to me, it kind of made sense. The next thing I knew he was subbing into the game,” Floyd said.
The Turner-Floyd friendship began through Khirey Floyd, Jelani’s younger brother. As a seventh grader at Brooks Middle School, Khirey was cut from the basketball team, but eighth-grader Turner consoled and encouraged him and his abilities. Khirey Floyd went on to play for Oak Park and River Forest and Concordia University and professionally in Estonia.
“(Khirey is) my best friend in everything. Evan kind of showed his true character (with him),” Jelani Floyd said. “We always respected each other’s games. When I knew that story, we clicked and formed that special relationship. Evan’s that same type of person today.”
After middle school, Turner moved to Chicago, attended St. Joseph High School and starred for three seasons at Ohio State.
Jelani Floyd played for Whitney Young and one year at Brown before earning a degree in managerial economics from Cal-Davis. He played professionally in Germany and Luxemburg for the 2012-13 seasons.
“We’ve had that same relationship and bond (always),” Turner said. “We pretty much are the same people.”
Turner and Floyd are hopeful that next summer will bring another new adventure – the first basketball camp hosted locally by Turner for grade-school and middle-school athletes.
“We’re going to try and work it out and make it happen,” Turner said. “This whole part of my career is something cool and to be able to share it with my family and friends – I’m proud to be living it.”