A 52-year-old Elston Turner Sr. will oversee the court at Reed Arena Saturday. Tucking in a maroon and white jersey for the opening tipoff, No. 31 will likely give his pop a glance and an acknowledging nod.
And with that, the poetic symmetry will grow as thick as Whitman’s beard.
“It comes full circle — the same name,” Turner Sr. said Thursday.
Elston Turner Jr. is a senior at Texas A&M (16-10, 6-7 SEC). He’s the kid wearing 31 that dropped 40 points on 20,000 stunned faces at Rupp Arena in January. He’ll try to do the same to Tennessee (15-10, 7-6) Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. TV: MyVLT).
More on that later.
Years back, Turner Jr. was a familiar face in Knoxville. He’d accompany his father for trips to the old neighborhood. Turner Sr. has clout around the intersection of Dandridge Ave. and Wilder Place. A star at Austin-East High School, he led the Roadrunners to the 1977 state title before excelling at Ole Miss, jet-setting the country as an eight-year player in the NBA and establishing himself as a fine basketball mind over the past 16 years as an NBA assistant coach.
As he grew from an NBA rookie to a tenured assistant coach through the decades, Turner Sr., an admitted momma’s boy, scheduled summer visits to Knoxville to see his mother, Virginia Turner.
When he was a pup, Turner Jr. accompanied dad for the trips home. He climbed his family tree, meeting aunts, uncles and cousins. He got to know the faces in the neighborhood.
Years later, when the pup grew into a sweet-shooting, 6-foot-5 bulldog, Turner Sr. found himself with a son ranked as one of the top 100 basketball recruits in the country.
That’s when Bruce Pearl called. The former Tennessee coach had a contradiction to resolve — in the late 70s, when Elston Turner Sr. blossomed into a high school standout living 2.8 miles from the UT campus, Vols coach Ray Mears made a crucial misstep.
“It’s a long story with me,” Turner said by phone from Phoenix, where he still lives after being dismissed by the Suns in January when head coach Alvin Gentry was fired. “We won the state and I was MVP — the whole nine. I was right under their nose and they just didn’t offer me anything. Not even a phone call.”
Slighted, Turner Sr. went ahead and scored 1,805 points and grabbed 828 rebounds in four years at Ole Miss. He captained a 1981 team that stood as the first group of Rebels to ever make the NCAA tournament.
He also made it a point to remind Tennessee of its oversight. Turner Sr. beat the Vols six times in 10 tries and ousted them from two SEC tournaments.
Now it’s Junior’s turn.
“My son knows my story and he’s looking forward to playing in the game,” said Turner Sr., who is traveling to College Station for the affair.
Clarifying things with a resonating laugh, he added, “But that was 20-some-odd years ago — there’s nothing motivating him in terms of what I went through.”
We’ll see about that.
Even with Pearl’s best sales pitch, Turner Jr. never landed at UT. Living in Sacramento while dad coached with the Kings from 2000 to 2006, he couldn’t pry himself from the great northwest. He accepted a scholarship to Washington.
After two years with the Huskies, Turner Jr. transferred to A&M. The elder was on Rick Adelman’s Houston Rockets staff at the time.
Now, at 16.5 points per game, Turner Jr. leads the Aggies in scoring.
“I’m so happy for him and a lot of people in Knoxville feel the same way,” Turner Sr. said.
But not all the people. The Vols have to figure out how to slow down Turner Jr. Saturday. Josh Richardson, coach Cuonzo Martin’s finest defender, has drawn the assignment.
“Elston Turner is a really good guard,” Martin said. “He does a great job attacking the rim, making shots and shooting the pull-up.”
And with that skill set, Richardson better be up for the challenge.
Back in Knoxville, meanwhile, some conflicted UT fans from the old neighborhood will be pulling for No. 31 today.
No, no, claims Turner Sr. Bygones are bygones and it’s just another game for his son.
Or something like that.
“He’s been down there (Knoxville) tons of times,” Turner Sr. said. “There are people that know him there and he knows a lot of people there. So he wants to perform well for them.”
And for pop.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn