By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Elston Turner, Sr., won’t be front and center in Tad Smith Coliseum tonight when Texas A&M plays at Ole Miss.
But the former first-team All-SEC honoree for the Rebels, the school’s fifth all-time leading scorer, will be there in spirit. . .and in namesake, with a high-arching sweet jumper.
On the same court that Elston once patrolled in his skin tight No. 33 jersey, hot pants shorts, knee socks and Converse Weapons, No. 31 for the Aggies clad in baggy maroon shorts and Adidas will attempt to beat his dad’s alma mater for the second time in two weeks.
Texas A&M senior guard Elston Turner Jr., the SEC’s third leading scorer who has scored more than 35 points three times this season in league play, knows playing on his dad’s old homecourt for his first and only time is special.
“My dad always talks about (playing for Ole Miss),” says Elston Jr., who transferred to A&M for his last two college seasons from the University of Washington. “I’ve seen some of his (college) highlights. He averaged 20 points (as a senior), so I noticed he was very active.”
But according to Elston, not as active as No. 1 son, who this season has scorched Kentucky for 40 points in early January, Tennessee for 38 last Saturday and Ole Miss for 37.
“I don’t know if I scored 40 total in four years of going to Rupp, and he (Elston Jr.) got it in one game,” laughs Elston, 53, who as an undersized 6-5 forward scored 1,805 career points for the Rebels from 1977-81, his final team as a senior winning the SEC tournament and advancing the Rebs to the NCAA tourney for the first time ever. “I’m not surprised though, because I trained him. I can show you DVDs on him playing back in elementary school. He’s always been able to shoot it. I just had teach him how to set up defenders and come off screens.”
A couple of weeks ago in College Station with Elston in the stands, Elston Jr. put on a clinic against the in a 69-67 A&M win over Ole Miss. Just this Saturday, he nearly rallied the Aggies for four-overtime win over Tennessee, almost reaching 40 points again.
Elston won’t be in Oxford for Aggies-Rebs Part 2. Having resigned his spot as an assistant on the Phoenix Suns staff after a staff shakeup on in January, he’s currently in Phoenix with his wife packing before they move back to Houston. It’s where the Turners moved when Elston became a Rockets’ assistant in 2007.
But even with his father not in tonight’s crowd, Elston Jr. definitely wants to make his dad proud.
“My dad pretty much taught me everything,” said Elston Jr., who likely will join his father as the first father-son duo ever to be named first-team All-SEC. “He watches my films. He knows exactly what I need to work on and knows exactly what to say. He does a great job of teaching me in a positive manner. We talk every night.”
While Elston Jr. has been driven and guided by Elston, what motivated Elston to succeed back when his future was all ahead of him?
It’s something as simple as hurt feelings.
Elston was raised in Knoxville, 2½ miles from the University of Tennessee campus. Playing for Austin-East High, his team won the state championship, he was tourney MVP and he averaged 20.6 points and 13.3 rebounds as a senior in 1976-77.
He was a wanted commodity, and naturally, after watching a parade of Vols’ stars through his childhood, he imagined himself in Big Orange uniform. Despite getting offers from other major colleges, including Ole Miss, he didn’t get anything from then-Vols’ coach Don DeVoe or any of his staff.
Not a phone call. Not a letter. Not a chance meeting. Nothing.
“I never got an answer why,” Elston says. “I guess they just didn’t like the way they played. It would have been a local phone call. I had a lot of other schools interested in me.
“Ole Miss wanted me real bad. I picked them because they had a lot enthusiasm for me and I wanted to play in the SEC, because it gave me a chance to come back to Knoxville and play.”
During Elston’s career, he was 6-4 against Tennessee, including 2-0 in the SEC tournament.
“Elston is just a steady guy,” recalls Sean Tuohy, former Ole Miss point guard who played alongside Elston for three seasons. “But when it got to the UT game, he would go craaaazy.
“We didn’t score but 50, because of the style we played, and Elston went for 30 on Tennessee one night with two dunks. I remember Don DeVoe yelling, `Elston, I give up. I’m sorry!’ ”
When the Rebels played the Vols in Oxford in Elston’s senior season, Ole Miss’ 71-52 victory over then No. 10 UT was just the third time in two decades-plus that the Rebs beat a ranked team.
Tuohy remembers Elston delivering a message on the game’s opening tip to a Vols’ team that featured three future NBA draft choices including Dale Ellis.
“The opening play we ran a backdoor lob to Elston,” Tuohy says. “I told Coach (Bob Weltlich), `He’s so jacked up, we’ve got to run something for him. If we play normal basketball, he might run up in the stands.’
“We hadn’t run a backdoor lob all year. But first play, I lobbed and E.T. almost broke the goal dunking. He just about hit his nose on the rim. The game was over on the first play. We won by 19.
“It reminded me of what his son did to Ole Miss a couple of weeks ago. When that happened, I called him and say, `Boy, y’all Elston Turners sure go crazy against teams that you don’t like because they didn’t sign y’all.’ ”
Elston said one of his favorite games against Tennessee was when he scored 20 points in the first half of a game that Ole Miss led 34-20.
“The next days paper in Knoxville read, `UT 20, E.T. 20, Ole Miss’,” Elston says. “That always sticks out in mind.”
When Elston got to Ole Miss, he had to adjust his game to Weltlich’s deliberate style. On a rather non-athletic team that relied on intelligence and execution, Elston was the best athlete.
“I was a free-lance up-and-down player coming out of high school, and I think he (Weltlich) just molded all of us to play his way and fit that system,” Elston recalls. “What made it work was we had a bunch of guys that were unselfish who worked hard.
“It wasn’t a star-studded group. We just got down and dirty when we played, mainly because he (Weltlich) was going to kill us if we didn’t.”
For his first three years, Elston played alongside John Stroud, a steady 6-7 forward who remains today as the school’s all-time leading scorer (2,328 points) and third on the SEC career list. In Elston’s last three years, he played with Tuohy, who’s still the SEC’s all-time assists leader.
“Tuohy is the one who made it work,” Elston says. “All I had to do was move, lose my guy and look for the ball. He had such a high basketball I.Q. and a feel for the offense.
“He had the timing of a quarterback throwing to a receiver. He always knew where people should be open, and the ball was already there when you broke open.
“I got so comfortable with him. There were some plays that were timing cutting off screens. There were some plays that I had eye contact with Sean. We played together for awhile, so we just had this thing between me and him.”
Tuohy says he still regards Elston, who plays bass guitar, as one of coolest guys he’s ever been around.
“Every day before we went out to practice,” Tuohy says, “he’d hit me on the shoulder and say, `Feet don’t fail me now.’ ”
Elston quickly understood that Weltlich’s deliberate system, in which players accepted their roles and rarely stepped outside those boundaries, was the way the often-outmatched Rebels could win.
“We worked the shot clock and wore down teams,” Elston says. “Everybody knew their roles and we had stamina that a lot of teams didn’t have. We really worked so hard in practice that the games were easy. Late in games, we just kind of shifted gears. We were molded to play five overtimes if we needed.
“That stamina helped us in the Georgia game in the SEC tournament finals. We were hanging around, but around that five-minute mark they got worn down. We had to turn it up.”
Elston’s defensive assignment that day was chasing around a 6-8 forward named Dominique Wilkins, the SEC’s Player of the Year. Wilkins, as any basketball fan knows, went on to become a nine-time NBA all-star who averaged 24.8 points in his career and who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I was assigned to Dominique, but I had to have help,” Elston says. “I’d score on one end, then I’d have to go to the other end and deal with him. There weren’t any minutes off.”
But such a defensive assignment was typical during Elston’s college career. He found himself matched Wilkins, who could leap so high for dunks that he was nicknamed “The Human Highlight Reel.” Or trying to guard Alabama’s Reggie “Mule” King, which was like leaning against the side of a building. Or Tennessee’s 6-9 Reggie Johnson, who had Elston by four inches.
“When I got to the NBA, I was guard,” Elston says. “But in college, I was at forward and I was out of position. I knew I wasn’t the same size of the cats I guarded. But I had a tenacity about me. I accepted challenges.”
After losing seasons in Elston’s first two years, Ole Miss went 17-13 in 1979-80, advancing to the second round of the NIT. Then as a senior, ending the regular season 13-13 entering the SEC tournament, the Rebels had a magical three-game run to win the league tourney and get the automatic NCAA postseason invite.
On consecutive days, Ole Miss knocked off No. 10 Tennessee by 10 in the first round, beat Vanderbilt (which had knocked off second-seed Kentucky in round one) by 20 in the semis and then edged Georgia (which beat league regular season champ LSU in the semis) by four in the finals.
“Our core group that won the SEC tournament had seen a lot of guys come in the program and leave,” Elston says. “The core group stuck together and developed some real good chemistry on and off the floor.
“We were expected not to do anything in that SEC tournament. We had finished sixth in the league. But we believed, especially when it got to the finals. Georgia might have beaten us in a best-of-five series, but anything can happen in one game.
“We had a never-say-die-attitude. Since we weren’t expected to win, we played relaxed. We had a different guys contribute and we had a helluva quarterback (Tuohy) to keep the offense flowing. And we were a scrappy group of guys.”
One of Elston’s best traits was his toughness, one of many reasons why the Dallas Mavericks drafted him No. 43 overall in the second round of the 1981 NBA draft.
“Through junior high, I played whatever sport was in season – football, basketball, baseball and I ran track,” Elston says. “But every year I played football, I’d get hurt and miss my first basketball game of the season, so I quit football after my first year of high school.
“But football translated into my basketball. It helped me tremendously. I learned not to be afraid to hit people and I wasn’t afraid to get hit.”
Elston started his career with the Mavericks where he played three seasons before playing two years with the Denver Nuggets, two with the Chicago Bulls and one last year with the Nuggets.
He averaged 4.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 505 regular season games, 5.1 points and 3 rebounds in 43 playoff games. The most minutes he played came in his rookie and final seasons.
Elston immediately developed a reputation as a defensive specialist. While it helped him stick in the league for almost a decade and was one of the reasons the Bulls acquired him so he could give Michael Jordan fits in practice, he thought all his pro coaches forgot he could score.
“I was blessed that I had a long career,” Elston says, “and I tried to do whatever a coach wanted me to do. I wanted to be a team player.
“But one of the things I’d like to do over again is not be known solely as a great defender. I’d always guarded the best perimeter player on the other team, and once it circulated, it was tough to overcome.
“I’d led my high school team in scoring. I led my college team in scoring my senior year averaging 20. I don’t know how you average 20 in the SEC, and then all of a sudden you don’t know how to score.
“Dick Motta, my first coach in Dallas, loved the way I defended, so I was characterized as a defender. Nobody wanted me to be shoot. So if I had to do it again, I would have taken a stance on that.”
Still, being a defender was one of the main reasons the Bulls acquired Elston in 1986-87 as Air Jordan was about to begin his third pro season.
“You could have charged admission to some of our practices,” Elston said. “Michael and I were both competitive. I was scrapping and holding, and he didn’t care who was guarding him. He was just trying to punish them. We had some real good battles. He was a good friend then and he’s still a good friend.”
Elston played six more seasons after his last year in the NBA, playing some in the CBA before going overseas and working his way back to the CBA as a coach. For the last 15 ½ seasons, he has been a NBA assistant, from four years with Portland to six seasons in Sacramento to four in Houston to 1½ in Phoenix.
While Elston earned the reputation as one of the NBA’s best defensive strategists – he has been close several times to being hired as a head coach – Elston Jr. got constant exposure to the highest level of basketball on the planet just by being around his dad.
"I’ve been around the game so long, that I’ve seen a lot of different things," Elston Jr. says. “That’s why I can quickly figure out what defenses are trying to do with me. Knowledge makes the game easier.”
And because Elston experienced so many things as a player, he still can relate with his son, like his Washington to Texas A&M transfer.
Elston Jr. had solid freshman and sophomore seasons for Washington, a school Elston Jr. committed to just after his junior season before the Turners moved from Sacramento to Houston.
He played a key role in Washington’s 2010 run to the Sweet 16 after they unexpectedly won the Pac 10 tourney to get automatic NCAA tourney bid. But it wasn’t but a month or two later that he announced he was transferring.
“I just didn’t want to be a standup, stationary shooter who stood in corners waiting for the ball to come to me,” Elston Jr. says. “I thought I was better than that. I wanted my overall game to get better.”
Elston gave his blessing to the transfer. He remembered about being labeled as a defensive specialist in the NBA. Since he always regretted that he didn’t demand more of an offensive role, so he was proud to see Elston Jr. make a tough career decision.
“He didn’t want to finish college like that,” Elston says. “He’s proven to be a complete player for Texas A&M. I’m happy for him, but he’s put in the work. He’s earned it.”