Game complete, Ryan Turell gathered his stuff, changed into a clean pair of sweats and began saying goodbye to his teammates. “You’re not coming back with us?” a few asked as they saw him preparing to leave.
Turell explained that he couldn’t, that it was a Friday night and about three hours past sundown — which was at 6:08 p.m. — meaning Shabbat had already begun, meaning he couldn’t use his phone or any sort of electronics, or cook, or get in a car, or, in this case, board a bus chartered to take the Motor City Cruise, the G League affiliate to the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, back to Detroit.
It was the first Friday of November, and the Cruise, in its first game of the season, had dropped a nail-biter in overtime, 113-111, but for just a moment, the visitor’s locker room in downtown Cleveland’s Holstein Center sounded more like a freshman-level class about religion. The Cruise players knew Turell was an observant Jew — among other things, they’d seen the blue yarmulke that he clips to his flowing blond hair, and at a team event the night before, he’d been given separate kosher food — but most didn’t know what that label actually entailed. So they asked questions: What was Shabbat? What was the reason for Shabbat? Also, why did it mean he couldn’t board a bus?
Turell relishes moments like these; those opportunities where his public embracing of Judaism offers him the opportunity to talk about his religion and why it matters so much to him, and so he did his best to answer them all before walking outside onto East 21st Street. He thought back to the map that Mike Faletti, the team’s director of operations, had shared with him before the game and which Turell had memorized. He pulled his hood over his head, turned west and began the 1.2-mile walk to his hotel.
A Shabbat meal was waiting for him back in his room; an eight-ounce bottle of Kedem grape juice for Kiddush (the prayer over wine recited before the Shabbat meal), two challah rolls for HaMotzi (the blessing over the bread, which on Shabbat requires a pair of whole loaves), some chicken, some rice, some salmon, all of which he’d bought that morning in a kosher supermarket in Detroit and transported in an ice chest. He was hungry and knew it’d take nearly an hour for the warm food to heat up on the electronic hot plate he’d brought and plugged in before sundown. He knew that, being alone in a hotel without the ability to watch TV or scroll on his phone, he was in for a long night. He knew the following day would be even longer.
None of it mattered.
He was doing something that no one else ever had.
His lips curled into a smile.
“This is so cool,” he thought to himself as he walked in silence. “The first Shabbos of my professional career.”
Many Jews have played in the NBA, from Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes to Ernie Grunfeld to, currently, Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija. Even if he does make the league, Ryan Turell will not be the first. What he is, though, is the first to try doing so while observing Orthodox Judaism’s rules and traditions.
To understand what this means, and why it means something, it’s important to understand what exactly Orthodox Judaism is. For the sake of brevity, let’s define it as a sect of Jews who believe that a set of laws were handed down to Moses by God and then transmitted over the generations and that life should be lived in accordance with these laws. This includes the Written Law (the Torah) but also the Oral Law (the Talmud), the latter of which was written down by rabbinic leaders around 500 CE and continues to be expanded today. There are rules to everything, from the routine (eating and drinking and sleeping) to the rare (which blessing to say upon seeing a rainbow), all of which is done not to deprive of life’s experiences but rather to enhance them, to serve as constant reminders that the world was created by a loving God and man was created in his image.
Now, within Orthodox Judaism, there are multiple sects. For example, there are Haredi or Hasidic Jews, which are basically the black-hat, white-shirt-wearing Jews you’ll see roaming the streets of, say, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They believe in putting up walls between themselves and the rest of the world. And then there’s Modern Orthodox Judaism, which consists of Jews who want to live a life that adheres to Judaism’s laws and beliefs while participating in a modern society. You can eat fine foods — but they have to be kosher. You can work a modern job — except from sundown Friday night to an hour after sundown on Saturday night. You can and should study science — just make sure you always return to your faith.
It’s all about identity. Modern Orthodox Jews believe you can be almost anything, as long as Judaism remains at the core.
If you understand that, then you can understand Ryan Turell.
On the last Monday night in November, three teenagers wearing Kippahs took their seats on the baseline of Detroit’s Wayne State Fieldhouse, a few feet away from the bench of the Motor City Cruise. Next to them was a fourth friend, a boy wearing a blond wig over his head. They were there for one reason, and it was not because they were diehard G League fans.
This was the Cruise’s 10th game of the season and Turell, who had never played above Division III organized basketball before and was sidelined for most of the summer and offseason with a foot injury, was still familiarizing himself with the bigger and stronger competition. You could tell the game was moving just a little fast for him. He only played 11 minutes that night, and he missed five of his six shots.
Still, after watching him for an entire night, I came away thinking that there was something more there. For one, he’s 6-foot-7 and in pregame warmups, flashed a 3-point stroke at least bordering on NBA-level. Then the game started and what amazed me the most was how much he fit in. He wasn’t the most athletic guy on the court, but he didn’t look deficient, either. If you didn’t know who he was, you’d assume he was just another former D-I star trying to find his way. He jostled with Gabe York, a 29-year-old former all-conference guard out of the Pac-12. He boxed out the 6-foot-10, 240-pound, 29-year-old Norvel Pelle. He crashed the offensive glass from the corner and put the ball back midair.
He threw smart passes. He moved into the right spots on defense. Nobody on his team played harder. At one point, with the Cruise down 22 early in the fourth quarter, he called the players on the court together for a quick huddle.
“Let’s keep fighting!” he said.
When he wasn’t on the court, Turell became the team’s chief cheerleader. He sprinted to greet teammates during timeouts. During defensive possessions he turned to the crowd and, whipping his fist in a circle, would kick off chants of “De-fense!” His teammates had noticed. Before the game, Kyler Edwards, a Cruise guard, told me that while most chants at Cruise games were asking for Turell to be subbed in, “Ryan always tries his best to make sure everything the crowd is doing is about the team.”
On the night I watched him play, the Cruise lost by 12 to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Motor City however, outscored the Mad Ants by a point in Turell’s 11 minutes. That did not feel like a coincidence.
After the game, Turell signed autographs at a courtside table. He and I were scheduled to meet and the team’s PR staff suggested to him that we begin the interview at the same time, figuring it’d allow him to be done earlier. He didn’t like that; he wanted to be able to fully engage with the fans waiting in line, which on this night included Jews but also about a group of children from a local city program.
“I’m glad I have an opportunity to shine a light on the Jewish people,” he told me later that night. “Some of this is bigger than basketball.”
Part of that, Turell said, is that he wants to “motivate and inspire kids and people to be true to who they are and still chase their dreams. In the Jewish community, trying to do what I’m doing isn’t something that, for kids, is really encouraged.”
He remembered hearing rabbis tell him, “‘Basketball can only take you so far.’ So to be able to show that you can do it, and that you can make a real Kiddush Hashem“— act in a manner that reflects well on Jews — “through basketball, hopefully this opens the pathway for more Jews.”
But there’s another force driving him as well. Back in the spring, Turell was training with Jamal “Dash” Lovell, a renowned skills coach who’s helped dozens of NBA players and previously worked as an assistant for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. They were preparing for the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a postseason invitational restricted to college seniors which draws more than a hundred NBA executives and scouts. One day at the gym, a man they’d never seen before walked onto the court and started launching shots, interrupting their workout.
Lovell asked if he could give them some space. “We’re training for the draft,” he said.
“What draft?” the man asked.
“The NBA,” Lovell replied.
The man burst out laughing. “What are you talking about?” he said, pointing at the Kippah on Turell’s head. “This guy’s Jewish.”
Recounting the story to me months later, Turell said he was “used to” this sort of response. When he was younger it would bother him. It’s why he’d take his Kippah off when playing in local pickup runs.
That changed after his sophomore year at Yeshiva University, after his play began to garner him some press.
“That stuff doesn’t really bug me that much anymore,” Turell told me. “For me, it’s more about proving people like that wrong.” But, as his father Brad told me in one of our many conversations, “Ryan also knows that, for his goals to come true, he’s going to have to hit shots.”
* * * * *
Turell was raised in a home built on two religions: Judaism and basketball.
His father was born Jewish and raised Reform, a more liberal sect that de-emphasizes the religion’s rules and law. After graduating from U.C. Santa Barbara, where he played and averaged 1.8 points per game, Brad went into PR, eventually landing a job as a communications executive at FOX.
He was young and successful but also searching for more. So he started meeting every Wednesday night with a local Orthodox rabbi. Around the same time, he started dating the daughter of a Texas pastor named Laurel. She dropped by Brad’s place on Wednesday night, grew intrigued by what she heard, began studying with the rabbi’s wife — who happened to be a convert — and before long was herself converting. After that, she and Brad married.
Brad and Laurel’s kids picked up basketball at young ages. They were given dribbling coaches and shooting coaches. When Ryan was around 8 years old, Brad packed Ryan and his 12-year-old brother Jack into his car and drove them five miles west to the Encino home of Kiki VanDeWeghe. Brad and VanDeWeghe, who played 13 years in the NBA and worked as an executive in the league for two decades, had been friends for years; they’d played together on an amateur team and, once Vandeweghe made the NBA, Brad became his publicist.
On this day, Brad wanted VanDeWeghe to put Jack through some drills on the full court paved into his backyard. Ryan was just tagging along — and yet every time he picked up a ball, even on the far end of the court, VanDeWeghe couldn’t help but notice. He was more coordinated and focused than most kids twice his age. During a quiet moment, VanDeWeghe pulled Brad aside.
“Jack’s a pretty good player,” he told him, “but Ryan’s special. You can see it already.”
Ryan loved everything about basketball. He was one of those kids to whom the game came easy but who also couldn’t get enough of the sport. He spent nights and weekends in the gym of Bryan Kaplan, who over more than two decades had established himself as one of the top coaches for Jewish kids in the L.A. area. When Ryan was a first-grader, Kaplan put him on his third-grade team.
“He was just ferocious,” Kaplan said. When Ryan reached the fifth grade, Kaplan switched him to point guard, even though Ryan towered over all his peers. “I thought he could be the Magic Johnson of Jewish basketball,” Kaplan recalled. “He just had such a high basketball IQ. He was calling plays before his Bar-Mitzvah.“
High school coaches from local powerhouses noticed, but the Turells wanted Ryan to attend a Jewish school. He enrolled in a Valley Torah High School, an Orthodox prep academy where, in addition to a typical curriculum, students pray twice a day and are required to take Judaic classes. School starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Ryan starred for Valley Torah’s team and also joined Earl Watson Elite, a local A.A.U. team run by the former NBA player and Phoenix Suns head coach.
“Ryan could always play,” Watson said, “but the thing that stood out most about him was that he was a gym rat and a straight baller. He wasn’t just about scoring either, he played both sides of the court and wanted to win every possession.”
Mid-major scholarship offers came rolling in from schools like Air Force, UC Irvine, Cal State Northridge and Army. His family was pushing for Army. So was his trainer, Lovell. “I wanted him to go D-I,” Lovell said. “I didn’t think anything else would give him a platform to be seen.”
Ryan had other thoughts. Growing up, his teachers and rabbis had often referenced the Book of Isaiah quote about how the Jewish people should strive to be a “light unto the nations,” and stressed the concept of Kiddush Hashem, and both had struck a chord within him. That’s what he wanted — to be a light, to promote the Jewish people and their faith — and what better way to do so than playing for a Jewish school.
“I wanted to be able to motivate and inspire kids and people to be true to who they are and still chase their dreams,” Ryan told me.
His brother had played at Yeshiva University — a Division III school whose main campus and gym is tucked into the Washington Heights neighborhood at the northern tip of New York City — and loved his experience. And it wasn’t like the NBA was on Ryan’s radar yet anyway. His goal was to play professional basketball in Israel. He figured the platform provided by Yeshiva would be more than enough to catch the eyes of international scouts.
He led the Skyline Conference in scoring as a freshman, but it was in the spring of 2020 — his sophomore season — where things really took off. It wasn’t just that Turell was named Skyline Conference Player of the Year. On March 6, Yeshiva faced off against Worcester Polytechnic Institute at Johns Hopkins University. This was the earliest stages of the pandemic, and so not only was the game played in an empty gym, but numerous NBA executives tuned in — virtually and in person — to see what a game without fans looked like. What they saw was Turell drilling 13 of his 16 shots, including 7-of-9 from deep, for a total of 41 points in a 102-78 win, Yeshiva’s 29th straight.
By coincidence, VanDeWeghe was in attendance that day. He was working as the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations at the time. Over the next few months, he heard people around the league talking about Turell, so one day that summer, he called Brad to relay the news. Brad kept it to himself until getting home for dinner.
“You’re not going to believe the conversation I had with Kiki today,” he told Ryan.
* * * * *
Turell spent the pandemic training with Lovell, playing pick-up with a mix of NBA and Division I players. Ben Hammer, a longtime friend of Turell’s, recalled Turell telling him after those runs, “I think I can play with these guys.”
Yeshiva kept winning games. The winning streak stretched to 50. It — and, by proxy, Turell — drew headlines across national outlets like ESPN, the New York Times and FOX News. A billboard promoting Yeshiva’s basketball team towered over the West Side Highway. The NBA sent out a tweet from its official account congratulating the program.
Turell averaged 27.1 points per game as a senior, the most in all of college basketball. He could have put up more, but, despite prodding from friends and coaches, only hoisted on average 17.5 shots. “I kept telling him to shoot more,” Kaplan said. “He wouldn’t do it.”
Turell’s play piqued the interest of NBA scouts and executives. After the season, multiple NBA teams scheduled workouts, including the Milwaukee Bucks.
The night before, Turell FaceTimed Hammer. Hammer was stunned by how relaxed he seemed. “I figured if I get 10 NBA workouts, I’m going to do well in at least three of them,” Turell recalled. The Bucks had him shoot 100 three-pointers; he made 70. He also connected on six of his seven deep looks during a scrimmage. After the workout, he called his dad.
“It went really well,” he told Brad. That night Ryan went to sleep “thinking this could really happen.” Brad told me Ryan had upcoming workouts scheduled with the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. He was also slated to participate in the G League’s draft combine the next week, in Chicago. Then, during a workout back in L.A, he fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. He called Brad that night and relayed the news as tears streaked down his cheeks.
“It just stopped all the momentum I had,” Turell said.
The injury required a five-month recovery. Turell spent his days at Sports Rehab LA, doing as many knee extensions and shoulder presses as he could. Meanwhile, his agent, Sam Goldfedder of Excel Sports, worked the phones.
During the draft combine, Arn Tellem, the vice chairman of the Pistons and a former power agent, had told Goldfedder that he was interested in signing Turell.
“I thought he was a really good prospect and someone that would add a lot to our organization,” Tellem told me. “We’re always looking for opportunities to enrich our organization through diversity.”
He said that, as an agent, he saw how much his players had benefited “when given the chance to be exposed to people of different racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds. That’s something I think is important and that we’re always trying to do within our organization.”
Tellem is Jewish and active within the Jewish communities of Detroit and Philadelphia, where he previously lived. I asked him how he would respond to people who believed that he’d only signed Turell because they’re both Jewish, or that Turell had been signed as a prop.
“I wouldn’t have done it, and Ryan wouldn’t have done it, if this wasn’t a real thing, if, from a basketball standpoint, this wasn’t legitimate. Before anything else, he had to meet our basketball standards. It all starts with basketball, but then after that you factor in other things.”
In November, Turell suited up for training camp. He struggled at first. “I was slow and not in great shape because of the injury,” he said. Unlike many of his teammates, he hadn’t been around the Pistons during the NBA’s annual Summer League. He’d faced off against NBA-level competition before, but never in an organized setting. As he put it to me, “I loved my coach at Yeshiva, but he’s a lawyer, coaching was his second job. We didn’t have a weight coach. The game in D-III is methodical. Here everything is” — he started snapping his fingers — “fast, fast, fast. It was all an adjustment.”
So, he did what he’s always done. He’d come in early and stay late. He cheered on his teammates. Little by little, he gained the trust of DJ Bakker, the Cruise’s head coach. He didn’t play in the Cruise’s first game, but in their second game, Bakker subbed him in for the final three minutes of a blowout loss. With about 90 seconds remaining, Turell dove on the floor and recovered a loose ball.
“It blew me away,” Bakker said.
The next day, Bakker highlighted the play during a team film session.
“Look at that clip,” he told the group. “If you’re going to give me this type of effort, you’re going to play.”
Not even two months later, Turell looks like a different player. He’s getting some minutes, and not just in garbage time (entering Monday’s G League Showcase, he was averaging 8.1 per game). He hasn’t found his footing yet from deep — he’s just 4-for-20 on 3s, which he knows isn’t good enough — but his passes are on point; his defense has mostly held up. He even went viral in late November with a Kevin McHale-like ball-fake-into-a-spin-move-into-a-pivot.
“I don’t know what his ceiling is,” Bakker said. “But I do know, just because of the kind of person he is, and the worker that he is, and how coachable that he is, that he’s going to reach it.”
In late November, Turell, like many Jews throughout the country, began fielding questions from colleagues about Kyrie Irving. The Brooklyn Nets star had recently promoted an antisemitic film on his social media accounts, and then refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and Turell’s teammates were curious what their Jewish teammate thought.
[Kyrie Irving is back on the court, but aftershocks are very real]
Turell shared his feelings, how Irving’s actions had made him sad, how his girlfriend’s grandparents had both survived the Holocaust, and her grandmother still had the number the Nazis used to identify them tattooed on her arm as proof, and how the act of denying such an atrocity was both hurtful and harmful.
It’s hard not to juxtapose Turell’s story with that rise of antisemitism around the country. One study in April said that antisemitic incidents in the United States were up 61% from the previous year and had “reached an all-time high” — and that was before Kanye West decided to use his massive platform to attack Jews and express admiration for Hitler.
For his part, Turell mostly avoids condemnations. “I don’t think Kyrie hates people,” he told me. “I just think he was uneducated on the subject.” He avoids the comments on Instagram and Twitter under his highlights, knowing that there will be a fair share of hate sprinkled in.
For him, the work occurs in the small moments. Walking back to a hotel on Friday night with Bakker, talking about Shabbat. Answering questions around the locker room about the foods he can and cannot eat, or Jewish traditions, or the Bible. Knowing that for many of the people he comes in contact with, he’ll likely be the first Orthodox Jew they’ve ever met, and the responsibility that comes with that distinction.
“I’ve learned so much about his religion and culture,” Edwards said.
On Sunday night, the first night of Hanukkah, the Pistons hosted kids from four different local Jewish day schools to light the holiday candles. With two of his teammates standing behind him, Turell, led the kids in the reciting of the blessings and after the first stanza of a song called “Ma’oz Tzur,” translated into “Rock of Ages,” which tells the story of Hanukkah, and really the Jewish people, which is that of a people who, even when the odds are long, find a way to persevere.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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