Just as he had often done at Indiana University, Landon Turner broke open, took a pass in the lane and quickly shot an easy layup.
"No!" he screamed as the ball bounced off the rim. He stared at the basket in disgust. "I can't hit, so I've gotta pass," Turner said to nobody in particular, although the crowd of several hundred at last year's Fort Wayne (Ind.) Easter Seal Hoops tournament heard every word.
It wasn't exactly Philadelphia's Spectrum, where Turner and the Hoosiers had beaten North Carolina 63-50 to win the NCAA championship 11 years earlier. But the paved parking lot, complete with temporary baskets and out-of-bounds lines marked with tape, was at least a basketball court-something Turner never thought he would be on again, even in a wheelchair.
Turner, a 6'10", 235-pound forward and center, played an important role with the Hoosiers as a junior in 1981, making the all-tournament team after averaging 9.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game during the regular season. He had hopes of playing in the NBA. But on July 25, 1981, a few months after helping Bob Knight's Hoosiers win the national title, he broke his neck in a car accident, and his career plans changed.
"I'm just glad to be out there, man," says Turner, who is paralyzed from the chest down and now patrols the foul lane for the Indiana Pacers Wheelchair Basketball Team. "If I can deflect a shot, if I can cause a person to miss, if I can give a good pass, if I can hit a couple of points, I feel that I have contributed."
After the accident, Turner says, he knew he wanted to make his life as good as it could be, because "it was a blessing that I was still alive." Surviving the crash despite not wearing a seat belt was only the first of Turner's blessings. Soon after the accident, Knight helped organize a national campaign to create the Landon Turner Trust Fund to help Turner pay his medical bills.
"I really was surprised," Turner says. "But I guess with Coach Knight leading the pack, everything is possible."
It was even possible for Turner to overcome his earlier bitter feelings toward the imperious coach. "There was a time when I really didn't care for him too much," says Turner, who played for Knight for three years. "I just wanted to get the heck out of Indiana University and go on with my life. But once I was hurting and I saw a side of him that I'd never seen before, I developed a love for him."
Turner enjoys being back on the court. "I saw him at a Pacer game three months after the injury," says Tony Williams, the president and founder' of the Pacers' wheelchair team. "I just rolled up to him and introduced myself and asked him whether he would like to come out, meet the guys on the team. Maybe he would like to play? He kept saying, 'No, no,' he didn't want to play wheelchair basketball. If he couldn't play on his feet like he used to, he didn't want to play the game anymore."
"Matter of time," Turner says, looking back at his seven years off the court. During that time he earned a physical education degree from Indiana and worked hard to become independent.
"Every time I would see him at social events or at Pacer games, I would say, 'You ready yet?' " says Williams, who played for the Indiana Olympians, another wheelchair team, before starting his own team in 1987. "Then I was putting on an exhibition in '87, and I saw Landon coming toward me, and I threw him the ball. He hit his first shot and was hooked."
Turner soon learned there is a world of difference between the able-bodied game and its wheelchair counterpart. "It's physical," Turner says. "I'll tell you, I've had many fingernails torn off from running into these wheelchairs and being rammed."
Turner is using his celebrity to help teach people about overcoming adversity and about being more thoughtful toward the handicapped. He started a motivational-speaking business, Landon Turner Enterprises Inc., in early 1989.
"I go around to different organizations-schools, churches or whoever would like to have me speak-and I basically tell them the story about my life," he says. "Things happen in life, and you just have to be able to accept them."
Carl Grody writes frequently about sports and lives in Decatur, Ind.