INDIANAPOLIS — The introductory theme music synonymous with March Madness blares from a television in a northwestside restaurant, immediately drawing the attention of one of its patrons.
“Oh, man,” says a man in the blue sweatsuit and cap, turning around to face the screen. “That’s my song.”
It’s been 32 years since Landon Turner helped lead Indiana University to the fourth of its five NCAA men’s basketball tournament championships as a 6-foot-10, 235-pound junior forward.
We’re talking Isiah. And Randy. And Ted. And the 6-foot-9 man in the middle, the lone senior starter, Ray Tolbert.
People tend to forget that team outscored its five NCAA Tournament opponents (Maryland, UAB, St. Joseph’s, LSU and North Carolina) by an astounding sum of 106 points.
Turner scored 12 points, snagged six rebounds and ultimately fouled out of the 63-50 victory against Dean Smith’s Tar Heels in the finale. He also got slapped with a technical foul for grabbing the rim, a frequently called infraction of the times even in the most minor of cases.
Landon Turner continues to reach.
Even today. Especially today.
A traffic accident in July 1981 left the Indianapolis native paralyzed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair through his 20s, 30s and 40s.
Now 52, Turner speaks candidly about that fateful morning. About how he and three friends left his Bloomington apartment in his 1975 Ford LTD with sights set firmly on a fun-filled day at Kings Island in Cincinnati. About how none of them were wearing a seat belt.
The young lady riding in the passenger seat suffered a broken pelvis. Bumps and bruises for the couple in the back seat. Turner, who was driving, didn’t fare so well.
“I wake up and I was in the hospital. I thought I was having a nightmare ... all these lights in my eyes,” he said. “When I woke up, I found out I had broken my neck. That sucked.”
Turner had been unconscious for five days. He remained in the hospital for five months.
Life’s little windows are strange. Close one, and another opens up. Maybe more than one.
Like anyone else whose physical and emotional existence gets turned upside-down without warning, Turner initially experienced bouts of self-pity. He was one of the top returning players for the defending national champions, a likely NBA player in the matter of mere months.
But Landon Turner lived. Lived to keep breathing, keep loving, keep laughing, keep telling his story as a means to motivate others.
The early-50s version of Turner maintains the youthful appearance of yesteryear. His legacy is so well-known, so solidly cemented into hoops legend in this state that he’s recognized today every bit as much as he was 30 years ago.
“A lot of people tell me they’re sorry for my accident. They say positive things like, ‘IU wouldn’t have won it all in ’81 without you,’” Turner said. “I’m not amazed when people are nice. I’m amazed when people are mean.”
Turner’s glass is always half-full. Always. The final two words of every email he sends are “Positive me.” He keeps busy in a number of ways. Hunting. Fishing. Speaking engagements. Catching up with friends.
Most recently, Turner has teamed up Darrell “The Hammer” Francis for a new sports talk show, “Sports Talk with LT and The Hammer. It airs from 5 to 7 p.m. Mondays on Rock Room Radio, rockroom.radionext.tv.
Johnson County Daily Journal sportswriter Mike Beas caught up with Turner recently to gauge his thoughts on the undisputed basketball vibe of March, former IU coach Bob Knight and more.
Do you still get as excited as ever for March Madness?
Oh, man. I love it. It brings back a lot of memories. That was my last stint playing ball, so that’s special to me. I’m always going to be an Indiana guy. I root for IU, but I like to see the other in-state schools do well, too.
You’ve now lived more years without the use of your legs than you have with the use of them. How would you describe these past 32 years since the accident?
(Pausing) I never thought of that question. It’s not as easy as it used to be. Some days are a struggle; some days are cool. But I’m not one to lay around and and not enjoy my life because life is a blessing.
At this point have you given up hopes of ever walking again?
I’m like this ... if they find a cure, I’ll love it. I’m taking it day-by-day and still going to live my life to the fullest. This is what’s been dealt to me. I’m just glad I’m alive. Most people die of a broken neck, but God loves me and protected me.
Where does the phrase “Positive Me” come from?
It comes from being positive in life. I’ve been meaning to get T-shirts and hats with that message on them. There are so many negative people, but I don’t want to be around them. I want to be around positive people who do positive things.
I know you played for coach Knight, but what are your thoughts of Tom Crean and this (somewhat) new regime at IU?
I think Tom Crean has done a great job. When he started coaching IU, they were really in the gutter. Man, they’re good. They’ve made me proud. They play tenacious defense, and that’s what I love about them.
Compare the Landon Turner of today to the one pre-accident.
Everyone takes things for granted. That you can walk up stairs, that you can make it through a doorway. But back then I was 20 years old. I’m 52 now, a lot more mature. I’ve always had the will to win and get the most out of my abilities, and this is no different. Life is a win-or-lose game. I want to win.
When was the last time you spoke with coach Knight?
(Marian University athletics
director) Steve Downing had a fundraiser last September or October, and he was there. It was good to see him again. (Knight) wasn’t one of my favorite people when I played for him, but when I got hurt he showed me another side. He raised money. Gave me money out of his own pocket. I
love the dude. I saw the real side of him.
How would you describe your relationship with him today?
We respect each other. If he needs me, I’m there. If I need him, he’s there. There’s an event at the Carmel Palladium coach Knight is speaking at on April 12, and he asked me to introduce him. (Smiling) I’m going to introduce him in my own way.
When you speak to others who are paralyzed or perhaps endured other misfortune in their life, what is your primary message?
You’re alive. You’re blessed. You can either feel sorry for yourself and let life pass you by or work hard and get the most out of your abilities.
After the accident, coach Knight’s friend, Red Auerbach, drafted you in the 10th round of the 1982 NBA Draft. Do you still have that jersey?
I didn’t get a jersey. They sent me a Celtics jacket and a couple of championship watches. I would have rather had a ring, but that’s cool. Growing up, I hated the Boston Celtics. Their colors and everything. But I’m a fan now.
Who from that 1981 NCAA championship team have you remained close to?
Ray Tolbert. When we were playing, I always knew he had my back if someone went around me. That’s my boy.
You can take film of one of your performances in an Indiana uniform with you to the grave, what game is it?
My best game ... it definitely wasn’t the championship game. Even the Final Four game against LSU, I scored 20 points and that wasn’t my best. I would have to say my sophomore year at Illinois. I had 24 points.
In November 2012 you were inducted into Indiana University’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Describe that experience.
It means a lot to me, but I was so up and down in my play. ... I wish I could have played my senior year and showed my talent. But I’m still proud to be in there. It’s prestige, man. So many great players to have come before me. It’s a blessing to be inducted.
Who is your favorite player on this IU team?
I’ll go with the big guy. As Cody Zeller goes, the team goes. I love Victor Olidipo and how hard he plays. He’s a playmaker.
Does Cody know he has Landon Turner in his corner?
He should know. I always tell him he needs to shoot that hook shot more. It’s unstoppable.