‘He changed everything’: How Orthodox Jewish basketball player Ryan Turell broke barriers

FanSided Features, NBA

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Despite going undrafted, Yeshiva’s Ryan Turell still hopes to break barriers for Orthodox Jewish basketball players in the NBA and beyond.

At the 68th annual Portsmouth Invitational in Virginia, college seniors with professional basketball dreams competed for the four-day tournament in front of NBA and international scouts. This year’s rosters included college stars like guard J.D. Notae from Arkansas and Miami point guard Charlie Moore, who was coming off a dominant March Madness performance that led to Miami’s first Elite Eight appearance in program history.

While the majority of the players came from Division I basketball schools like UConn, Syracuse and Michigan, one Division III player got an invite to participate in the oldest pre-draft tournament – Ryan Turell, a 6-foot-7 guard from Yeshiva University.

Wearing his YU yarmulke over his blond curly hair, Turell excelled against Division I competition. He put up 21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in the second game and helped his team win the tournament championship by tallying 14 points, 4 rebounds and three assists. His performance earned him a spot on the  All-Tournament team.

During that same weekend, the Turell family catered a kosher meal to observe the Jewish holiday of Passover. They invited anyone at the Portsmouth to take part in the Jewish traditional seder.

“We had agents, executives, press and parents,” Turell’s father Brad wrote on Twitter. “[It] was special.”

Turell is trying to become the first Orthodox Jewish basketball player in the NBA, a barrier he hopes to break after bringing the national spotlight and scouts to a small Jewish college in New York City. He became a national sensation, garnering attention from the national media including ESPN. His success drew interest from NBA teams including the Celtics, Bucks and Knicks for pre-draft workouts. Turell was the only D-III player invited to the NBA G-League Elite Camp.

However, an undisclosed injury Turell suffered during the Portsmouth Tournament sidelined him all the way through the draft, where he went undrafted, and now NBA Summer League. Turell is currently weighing his future playing in the G League next year in hopes to be called up to the NBA or competing professionally in Israel.

Yeshiva University vs. Illinois Wesleyan University at the Max Stern Athletic Center on Thursday, December 30, 2021. Yeshiva University #11 Ryan Turell takes a shot in the first period.
Yeshiva Vs Illinois Wesleyan

Ryan Turell isn’t giving up on his NBA dreams

Despite his accomplishments and leading his team to a 50-game winning streak, Turell finds himself in an all-too-familiar position, with people questioning if an Orthodox Jewish basketball player from a small school can keep up with high-caliber players. After proving his doubters wrong throughout high school and college, Turell aims to become the Jewish hero he has always strived to be and show the world you can be a man of strong faith and a top-level basketball player.

“Ryan made going to Yeshiva University cool,” Brad said in an interview. “It’s a destination. When he got there, it never won an NCAA tournament game and only had played in one. He changed everything.”

Turell was born and raised in Los Angeles, California in a modern Orthodox home where his family kept kosher, attended temple and observed Shabbat, which means not using technology during the Sabbath. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, Jack, and father, who played at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Ryan first started playing basketball as an undersized first grader with coach Bryan Kaplan.

“I don’t think he weighed 50 pounds, but he’s got this brilliant smile with a head full of blond hair and he wants to play basketball,” said Kaplan, who has coached Orthodox boys basketball players for the past 25 years. “I put him on the third-grade team, and he prospered. He was always playing with kids two-to-three years older, which is pretty impressive for a little kid.”

He became a ballhawk on defense, earning the nickname ‘the broom’ because he would dive on the floor and get all the loose balls. When he got to the sixth grade, Kaplan realized Ryan had untapped potential as a point guard. At first, Brad was against the transition, imploring Kaplan to help his son become a dominant post player like his brother Jack.

“Even though he wasn’t the best point guard or have the best handles at the time, he always had a high basketball IQ,” Kaplan said. “I convinced Mr. Turell, ‘Ryan will be the Magic Johnson of Jewish basketball because nowhere in Jewish basketball have [we] ever had a 6-foot-7-point guard with his developing skill sets so you’ve got to trust me.’”

Turell soon excelled in his new role. He became the central offensive playmaker, running the court and finding his open teammates. Kaplan said he become a phenomenon that high school coaches from Southern California basketball powerhouses like Mater Dei and Harvard Westlake “were salivating for.” However, he wanted to continue his Jewish education for high school and enrolled at Valley Torah, an Orthodox prep school.

“He changed the perception that you can’t get the trifecta,” said Lior Schwartzberg, Turell’s former high school coach. “You can get the Jewish education; you can get the secular education and you can still play basketball at a high level.”

While at Valley Torah, he emerged as a leader with an excellent mid-range and 3-point jumper. Even with his success, he would not let himself get in the way of his teammates. Instead, he would help them to be better.

High school teammate Akiva Kamornick remembers Turell pushing him during team sprints.. “He was always there to help,” says Kamornick, who was Turell’s high school teammate and now the men’s basketball student manager at Yeshiva. “In practice,  he realized the team needs to get better like he was not there to just bust these kids all day. He played the game the right way.”

Yet, many doubted his level of competition because he was playing at a small Orthodox day school. Ryan joined the Earl Watson Elite A.A.U. team, which included former top recruit and Duke point guard Cassius Stanley. It was clear he could keep up with all levels of basketball players.

“He was knocked down,” Schwartzberg said. “They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s great. But you know, he plays at Valley Torah It’s not like he’s playing against the top of the top.’ But, when he was playing club basketball, you’re playing against those guys, and he was still playing well. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, that guy doesn’t fit in.’”

Turell and his dad would travel with a cooler of kosher food and stay within a walking distance of the tournament so they could still observe Shabbat away from home. At that time, he declined to wear his kippah and his dad would instead wear a baseball cap.

“He was white, was skinny and going to Valley Torah High School,” Brad said. “Those are three checks against him in the world of competitive A.A.U. basketball and so the fourth check being him wearing a yarmulke. He didn’t want to bring that much attention to himself on top of all the other attention he got.”

It was there that he caught the eyes of West Point associate head coach Ben Wilkins. In July before Ryan’s junior season, Wilkins went to a West Coast Elite All-Star Game where he saw this thin 6-foot-7 guard draining 3s.

“I was the only coach in the gym and I was like, ‘Who is this kid? This kid’s really good,’” Wilkins said in an interview.

The whole West Point staff was soon on board with Turell and Wilkins extended him an offer.  On the other hand, other schools could not look past that he played in a small high school basketball league and that he was not being heavily recruited. Vincent McGhee, a former assistant coach at the University of North Colorado, fell in love with Turell’s s ability to shoot the three. He immediately told the rest of the staff to offer him, but they resisted. McGhee, who played at Sacramento State and Cal State Northridge, resonated with Turell considering he also was not heavily recruited out of high school.

“Nobody else was looking at him and I’m like, ‘nobody was recruiting me, but I still ended up being good,’” McGhee said. “They just couldn’t get over it. They could never just pull the trigger on him.”

Turell committed to West Point. The coaches were willing to work with him, catering kosher food and finding a way for him to play on Shabbat without driving. However, it dawned on Turell: he wanted to be a “Jewish hero” and show everyone he could still play basketball at a high level and pursue a Jewish education. He decided to enroll at Yeshiva.

“He said, ‘I worked really hard in a year to get offers, but I’m going to be a role model to kids and show them that they can attain their goals in life athletically and still remain true to kosher, Yontif (Jewish holidays) and Shabbos,” Brad said.

And he did just that. With Turell at the helm, Yeshiva won two consecutive Skyline Conference Championships and was ranked as high as No. 1 in the D-III rankings. This past season, he led the nation in scoring with 21.1 points. The two-time national D-III player of the year is leaving Yeshiva as the school’s leading scorer with more than 2,000 points. The small Jewish university in Washington Heights has become a basketball destination.

“He’s going to be known as the greatest YU basketball player of all-time,” Kamornick said. “I don’t really think it’s arguable.”

Yeshiva University vs. Illinois Wesleyan University at the Max Stern Athletic Center on Thursday, December 30, 2021. (Center) Yeshiva University #11 Ryan Turell with teammates before the start of the game.
Yeshiva Vs Illinois Wesleyan
Syndication The Record

Ryan Turell has become the Jewish basketball hero he wanted to see

Turell can’t go many places without someone asking for a picture.  At this year’s Saracheck Tournament, the annual national tournament for Jewish high-school basketball teams, Turell, flew to New York from Los Angeles just to cheer on Valley Torah. As he sat in the gym, Kamornick said every 20 seconds someone would come up to them to get a picture with his friend.

“We were just sitting there being like, ‘When are you going to say no?” said Kamornick. “He never got frustrated; like he played catch with a little kid. He does not care for his own relaxation time. He’ll do whatever anyone wants him to do whenever it’s just making kids smile.”

Schwartzberg added Turell is never “too big time” for anyone. He even showed up to his high school’s Purim celebration, a Jewish festival where everyone dresses up in costume. Many kids were dressed as Ryan Turell, wearing his basketball jersey with a blond wig to emulate his iconic blond hair.

“He shows up at our high school right at 10 p.m.,” Schwartzberg said. “He probably should be sleeping or lifting weights, or I don’t know signing NBA contracts. But he shows up dressed as a Dodgers player to our little high school to have some candy and hang out.”

Now, the 22-year-old kid who once declined to wear his yarmulke will be wearing it proudly, his father said, to show the world and NBA scouts an Orthodox Jewish kid can stick around with any level of basketball talent. If the NBA does not work out, Turell plans to play professionally in Israel — two teams have already offered him three-year contracts.

Even if he does not make the NBA he has proven that he did not have to take the conventional basketball route of top-basketball high schools and universities.

“You can see how generations look up to him, whether they’re three, four or 13 and 14,” Schwartzberg said. “They want to be on his path and they’re okay being themselves and being Jewish.”

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