“When I walk down a dark alley, I want Elston Turner with me,” Dallas Mavericks coach Dick Motta, 1983
Elston Turner is the epitome of cool.
He plays bass guitar to unwind from coaching. He fancies his two motorcycles, a BMW cruiser and a low-blow chopper that seemingly only works with cool. Weather permitting, Turner will tool one of those rides to work as the Kings’ lead assistant coach.
More easy rider, good living: Turner’s wife, Louise, beautifully sings “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sometimes before NBA games as Turner stands, watches and listens in awe.
“Oh, she’s good,” Turner, 57, said with a laugh. “Music is a getaway, and the motorcycles, too, of course. This place is so beautiful when it’s sunny. Louise and I will go to Tahoe, the Bay Area to see outdoor concerts. She’ll ride with me. Get on, hold on and take off.”
Turner has been an NBA fixture for nearly four decades. The 6-foot-6 Knoxville, Tenn., native played at Mississippi and was drafted by Dallas in 1981, lauded by coach Dick Motta for his defensive prowess. Turner grinded out an eight-year NBA career spanning three teams and 505 games. He played professionally in Spain, Italy and Greece and in the Continental Basketball Association, where he got his coaching start in 1994. He began his NBA coaching tour in 1996 and worked as an assistant on Rick Adelman’s Kings staff from 2000 to 2006.
Turner was Dave Joerger’s lead assistant the previous three seasons in Memphis. Joerger immediately hired Turner as his right-hand man in Sacramento.
“Great person, great coach,” was how Joerger sized up the unflappable Turner.
“This coaching staff we have now is the best we’ve had since Adelman was here,” said Jerry Reynolds, the Kings’ television analyst and former Kings coach and executive. “One thing people will say about Elston Turner is he’s a class guy, a sportsman. But I remember him as a player, and when the ball went up, he competed. Very tough-minded. He looks like he can still play, but can he? No. Not even a little bit!”
Like any lead assistant, Turner serves as a buffer. He’s the good cop to the head coach’s bad cop tasked with lineups, playing time and discipline, among other things.
“The lead guy is the confidant, someone you can trust,” Reynolds said. “With assistant coaches, it’s more important to have good relations sometimes than the head coach has. The assistant can be the good guy. That’s a natural role for Elston.”
Turner has eyed being a head coach. He has been in the running for several jobs but doesn’t bemoan not landing one.
“He’s paid his dues with a lot of success in a lot of places,” Reynolds said. “He’s proved himself and deserves more consideration.”
Turner keeps it in perspective, the loyal lieutenant soldiering on.
“I still get a kick out of being in the running for jobs,” he said. “I try to put a positive spin on it. You just keep working, and I’ve never been afraid of work.”
Work ethic was instilled in Turner and his three older brothers in the 1960s and ’70s in Tennessee. Their father, Frank Turner Sr., was a brick mason. It was honest, hard work, Turner said. Elston recalled construction at all hours, in all temperatures, to the point his back ached and his hands blistered.
“We put down a lot of bricks,” Turner said. “If things never worked out in basketball, I knew I could always fall back on bricks and blocks. I do know how to do that. And we didn’t lay brick at 9-to-5 hours. It was when Dad was ready to go, sometimes in the dark. It taught me how to work. I’ve never been a stranger to work, either in basketball between the lines or in the yard. You grumble about it then as a kid but realize the benefits later on.”
In 1990, Frank Turner Sr. died of lung cancer, largely from inhaling asbestos from cement dust. He saw Elston win a state championship in high school in 1977 and emerge as a standout at Ole Miss, where in 1981 he powered the Rebels into their first NCAA Tournament. He saw his son play in the NBA, and he held Turner’s son, Elston Jr., now in his fourth year of pro ball in Italy.
Turner embraces his role as a sage. He will pull players aside and discuss defensive assignments, composure and life.
“Infusing wisdom, that’s an enjoyment,” Turner said. “Outside figuring out chess matches in games in real time, sharing knowledge with the players and fixing things is fun. The guys have been receptive to to the tutelage, and it hasn’t always been a pat on the butt.”
Kings guard Ben McLemore beamed at the mention of Turner.
“Oh man, ET!” McLemore said. “He’s a great coach, a smooth cat. His wisdom? Oh my God! He keeps it real, very honest. I love ET.”
Turner learned how beloved he was in a region that remains passionate about the Kings despite lean years. He and Louise moved back into the Roseville neighborhood they called home in the early 2000s.
“It’s really good to be back here,” Turner said. “Neighbors came by to say hello, knocking on the door with cakes, cookies, pies.”
Turner was on the coaching staff when the Kings last reached the playoffs in 2006. He recognizes that drought’s impact.
“I know there’s frustration,” he said. “We can get back there, but it’s not an overnight fix. I know I’d sure love to be a part of helping bring this team back to prominence.”