YU’s Turell dishes on Macs career, Sarachek, and preparing for the NBA draft
Even standing 6-foot-7 and wearing a fire-engine red shirt, Ryan Turell fits in here, a basketball superstar floating in a sea of Orthodox hoops fans who might worship him if it weren’t against their religion.
It’s the annual Sarachek high school basketball tournament, hosted by Yeshiva University in the same gymnasium where Turell made his name, first as a preternatural high school talent for the Valley Torah Wolfpack, and then as the greatest athlete in YU history. Since YU’s historic season ended, Turell has been training for the NBA draft in the L.A. area; he’s attempting to become the first Sabbath-observant Jew to play in the league. But he flew in for Sarachek and was a fixture at the games.
When he wasn’t firing up this year’s Wolfpack as an unofficial assistant coach, Turell was helping out everyone else. He played ball-boy during pre-game warmups. He manned the scorer’s table. He served as a keynote speaker for Sarachek players on Shabbat. And he never withheld a smile from the scores of photo-seeking fans who came to the Max Stern Athletic Center (known as “the MSAC”) hoping to get within breathing distance.
As a high schooler Turell never won Sarachek, which drew 24 Orthodox high schools from all over the U.S. and Montreal this year, and it’s become a funny footnote to an amateur athletic career that left little unconquered. But in a way, Sarachek won Turell. When I caught up with him after Valley Torah’s semifinal win over Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), he told me why he wouldn’t have gone to YU if not for the tournament. He also reflected on his YU career and spoke about his plans for the draft.
This interview — conducted on a brisk walk through Washington Heights — has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s it like being back in Washington Heights and seeing all the fans here? You’ve been taking a lot of pictures.
It’s pretty cool. It brings me back to how we felt during games and honestly, it feels like a time machine. It feels like just yesterday when I was playing in the tournament myself.
You told me earlier that you’re not sure you would have gone to YU if not for Sarachek. Why not?
The atmosphere of YU at Sarachek, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like playing in the MSAC. And Sarachek is a very cool demonstration of that for a high school kid. As a high school kid, your gym sometimes gets packed for the big games. But at this tournament every game is packed. And it’s just a lot of fun.
So tell me about your preparation for the NBA draft. Are you working on any particular skills? Have you heard from scouts what they’d like to see from you?
Yeah, so obviously, you can never be a good enough shooter. So you know, just keep on knocking down shots and being able to quicken my release and get the shot off against bigger, stronger, faster players. Then get into the best shape of my life. I’m trying to make sure my body’s right, and able to take the hits and you know, stay with it and defend all these guys. And that’s what I got to do.
You’ve been the go-to scorer for YU, but in the NBA, there aren’t many rookies who come in as the go-to scorer. So they often try to find a niche. Do you think of yourself as having a particular niche that you would fill as a role player at first, or how else are you pitching yourself to NBA teams?
Just gotta knock down shots, you know? All NBA teams need shooting, and if I’m able to hit 40-plus percent of my threes I’m going to be able to make the league. At the end of the day, it’s whatever the team needs me to do. If the team needs me to be a guy who’s gonna guard the other team’s best player I’m gonna try to do that. If they need me to hit shots, I’m gonna try to do that. If they need me to cheer on my teammates, I’m going to do that. Whatever they need me to do, I’m more than excited to do it.
You’ve talked about how you would walk to games if you made the NBA. Is there a rabbi who you look to for guidance on how to pursue this dream Jewishly to make sure that you’re staying within the lines of halacha?
Playing on Shabbat in the NBA is different from college because by playing you would be working for a paycheck. Is there a halachic way around that, and have you talked to those rabbis about that at all?
100%. They said as long as you’re able to walk to the gym it shouldn’t be an issue.
[Note: Rabbi Aharon Ciment, in an email to the Forward, said, “Ryan is the best young man out there though I never gave permission to play on Shabbos in any way . All blessing for the week comes from making the Shabbos holy.”]
Now that your time at YU is winding down: What do you think you’ve accomplished in your four years here?
Hopefully I inspire the next generation, and as a team we inspire the next generation, to think that as long as they put the work in they can achieve their goal no matter what it is.