A Dream Come True for Basketball Player Ryan Turell

A Valley Torah High School and YU Graduate, Ryan Turell is the first Orthodox Jew in NBA G League history.
October 27, 2022
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Yeshiva University (YU) Head Basketball Coach Elliot Steinmetz had high hopes for his Maccabees (Macs) team. It was the first round of the NCAA tournament, the last matchup of the season, and the nationally-ranked No. 19 Macs were up against the No. 10 Johns Hopkins Blue Jays. Steinmetz was confident that the team he had coached for nine years had a strong chance at victory. Unfortunately, a win eluded the team and ended the season, a season that saw a record-breaking 50-game win streak and put the YU Macs on the basketball map. 

“It was an away game so we stayed at a local hotel for Shabbat,” Steinmetz recalls. “That Friday evening, after our loss, we gathered in the hotel’s makeshift synagogue for Friday evening services. I was feeling down. I was feeling depressed. I kept to myself in the back of the room. Then someone came over and put his arm around me. It was Ryan. He said: ‘Coach, it is Shabbos. We are supposed to be happy. We can’t let a basketball loss ruin our Shabbos.’ He was right. That small gesture really changed my entire weekend.”

The Ryan that Steinmetz is referring to is Ryan Turell, 23, the 6-foot 6-inch Valley Village, Calif. star basketball guard (most articles place Turell at 6 feet 7 inches but he confirmed to the Journal he actually is 6 feet 6 inches) who led the Macs and caught the attention of the secular and Jewish media, pro basketball scouts, basketball agents and Jewish youth around the country and world.

Photo courtesy YU Athletics

And perhaps most significantly, Turell will be making sports history as the first Orthodox Jewish basketball player drafted by an NBA G League team. On Sat., Oct. 22, the Detroit Pistons’ G League affiliate, the Motor City Cruise, drafted Turell in the 1st round, a 27th overall pick. The Cruise play their first game Nov. 4 in Cleveland.

“I’m thrilled to become a member of the Detroit Pistons organization and play for the Motor City Cruise,” Turell said. “This is a dream come true for me, but it is only the start. The goal is to make the NBA. I appreciate the love and support of Jews worldwide that are rooting for me, it feels like we’re in this together.”   

Ben Carloni, general manager of the Cruise, echoed Turell’s excitement: “Some of the things [that are] non-negotiable as a member of the Pistons is high character, being hardworking and a strong figure in your community. Ryan fits that, so we’re really excited to add him to the mix.

“There’s so many current NBA players that played in the G league at some point in their career. One of the things that we really try to do is promote from within, so it is a very viable option that a G League player will play for an NBA team,” Carloni said.

The G League (formerly known as the D- or Development-League until 2017, when the name was changed after Gatorade became its sponsor), is composed of 30 NBA minor league teams that work to develop players, coaches and officials for the NBA. In prior seasons, upwards of 30% of G League players were called up and signed by major league NBA teams.

It is difficult to find one word that defines Turell. In interviews with those who know him as a teammate, student and friend, the words “modest,” “leader” and “role model” always emerge as his defining characteristics. For a young basketball star whose athletic ambitions are to reach for the stars (in his case, the NBA), he has lots to boast about, but prefers that his basketball achievements do all the talking.

While finishing up his senior year at YU with a bachelor’s. degree in Marketing, Turell had the chance to showcase his talents at The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, the only postseason camp restricted to college basketball seniors. He offered a great showing and caught the eye of NBA scouts, but it was early in the NBA draft process.

That is why it was so devastating when the young NBA hopeful suffered an injury right before the NBA Combine, where the best of the best basketball players audition for one of only 60 NBA spots (100 if you include the G League).

“It was devastating at first,” Turell said. “But Hashem [God] has a plan for everything. I knew things happen for a reason and I would just have to find a different path to where I wanted to go.”

“I remember driving and Ryan called me to tell me he was injured,” Steinmetz said. “I felt so bad for him. He was on his way to the doctor. But his reaction was pretty amazing for a young man. He wasn’t angry or wanted sympathy. He just said, ‘I’m going to figure it out.’”

Turell’s strict adherence to Orthodox Judaism is one attribute that makes him stand out in a sport that is not known for attracting Orthodox Jews. Nevertheless, his ambitions of playing pro basketball take a backseat to his commitment to maintaining Shabbat and keeping kosher, even as a pro player.

“I know I will find a way. If games are on Shabbat, I will stay within walking distance to the arena. Keeping kosher is never an issue. There is lots of kosher food I can bring along,” Turell explained. And the yarmulke that remains on Ryan’s bushy hair as he races down the court reminds everybody that young Jewish athletes can be proud of who they are, even while playing in the big leagues.

Turell started shattering basketball records as a varsity player at Valley Torah High School in Valley Village, California. And it didn’t stop when he was at YU. Just some of his many highlights include:

At Valley Torah:    

— California State Player of The Year D4 as a Senior.
— Led California in scoring at 34.5 PPG his senior year.
— McDonalds All-American Nominee.

While at YU:

— National Association of Basketball Coaches D3 Player of the year 2021-2022.
— Three-time first team All-American.
—Led the YU Macs to a 50 game winning streak and No. 1 ranking.
— Leading scorer in YU history with 2,158 points in basically three full years of playing (COVID created one seven-game season).
— Set YU record of 51 points vs Manhattanville.

These records are just a fraction of his basketball achievements, and he set record after record while at YU.

The road to Turell’s Orthodoxy is as unlikely as making it in the NBA. 

The road to Turell’s Orthodoxy is as unlikely as making it in the NBA. 

It all started when his parents, Brad and Laurel, met on a blind date in the most unlikely of circumstances. Brad was living in Los Angeles and worked for the powerhouse entertainment public relations firm Rogers and Cowan. His career in entertainment PR grew exponentially. At a young age he was recruited to head publicity for the new (at that time) Fox Broadcasting Network. He then climbed the entertainment PR ladder and is currently senior vice president at APA, a major talent agency.

While Brad was born Jewish, he wasn’t observant and actually knew little about his religion. “I am the youngest of three siblings,” Brad said. “My father died with I was five and my family wasn’t religious at all. But there was something inside me that felt I had to assure my family remains connected to Judaism. I am not sure what it was, just a feeling I had.”

A big part of that feeling emanated from Brad’s internal questioning about how a Jewish kid who grew up with no money and no connections could find himself hob-knobbing with A-list celebrities and living the good life that comes with that. As he explained, “I was working at Fox, living in the Hollywood Hills next to celebrities, driving fancy cars and dating beautiful women. ‘How did I get so lucky as a Jewish guy?’ It didn’t pass me by that if I was born in Warsaw in the 1940s I could be dead. So I decided if I looked into Judaism, I might discover where I came from and why I should be thankful to God for my life and success.” 

Ryan Turell with his mother Laurel Turell

Brad started studying with a local rabbi who taught him that to live a Jewish life there are laws, rituals and traditions to follow. “Ironically, while I was learning about my religion, I met and started dating Laurel who was not Jewish,” he explained. ”I told her that Wednesday nights she couldn’t come over because I was studying with my rabbi. But one Wednesday she dropped in anyway. She asked if she could study with us, but the rabbi said it would be a better if she studied with his wife, who happened to be a convert.” 

As Laurel explained: “I was born and raised in a small Texas town that was primarily Christian. I thought Jews were only in the Bible and no longer existed. Then as I delved deeper into Judaism, I realized they are God’s chosen people. I read the story of Ruth and how she followed the Jewish religion. That’s when everything changed.”

As Brad and Laurel got to know each other, Laurel’s interest in Judaism grew to a point that she thought about converting. “I took classes, met with rabbis and did everything I needed to do,” she remembers. “But they didn’t make it easy. It was a lot of work; a lot of study. It is a commitment and I am happy they didn’t make it easy because I now understand what a Jewish household is supposed to be like.”

After Laurel converted, Brad and Laurel married. They continued their journey of study with local rabbis and decided the only household they wanted was an Orthodox one. 

That led to a close relationship with Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, Head of School at Valley Torah High School. They became so connected that Rabbi Stulberger served as the sandek (the honor of holding the baby) at their first-born Jack’s bris. They eventually joined Shaare Zedek Congregation, where they remain members.

The Orthodox Jewish household Brad and Laurel created consists of Jack, 27, daughter Austin, 26 and Ryan, 23. 

As residents of Valley Village, and with their close relationship with Rabbi Stulberger, all three Turell children attended Valley Torah with older brother Jack playing on the varsity basketball team and laying the groundwork for younger brother Ryan who several years later put Valley Torah on the basketball map.

“When Ryan came to Valley Torah, he always played,” Rabbi Stulberger said. “I can’t say he was our ‘go-to’ guy, but over the years, and as Ryan grew taller and honed his skills, he emerged not only as a Valley Torah basketball star, but we knew he had athletic potential well beyond high school.”

When it comes to basketball, Valley Torah has been a force to be reckoned with. According to Lior Schwartzberg, Valley Torah’s athletic director, it is the only Jewish High School to win all three national Jewish tournaments. They also won three State playoff games in one season and it is the only Jewish school to have a State player of the year (Ryan Turell, 2018, and Johny Dan, 2022). Furthermore, Schwartzberg said, the school has sent more basketball players to play collegiate basketball than any other Jewish school in the state. 

While most Jewish elementary and high schools in Los Angeles have built modern gyms where students can practice, Valley Torah still aspires to build a gym. “Of course we would love to have our own gym,” Schwartzberg, said. “We can’t have home games with students cheering our team, and practices can be challenging. We have to rent space from other schools or sometimes practice in the park. But those challenges have only made us a better team.”

Ryan Turell with his father Brad Turell at Senior Night at Valley Torah High School

When Ryan started looking past high school to colleges, he knew basketball would be a big part of his college experience. He had offers from several Division I colleges that offered him full scholarships, but instead chose to attend YU, a Division III ranked university.

The difference between attending a Division I and a Division III college can be career making or career breaking for someone with their eye on the NBA. Virtually all college athletes who get drafted for the NBA come from large, Division I universities. So right off the bat, Ryan was putting himself at a disadvantage, not to mention competing against tens of thousands of college and international players for a spot in the NBA. 

When Ryan told his parents he wanted to attend YU, after turning down the offers from high-profile universities, they asked their son why he would pass up a chance to play for a top ranked Division I school, and instead play for a Division III college that hardly enters the basketball conversation. “Why did you send me to Valley Torah and other Jewish schools if I am not going to continue my Jewish education?,” Ryan asked his parents. 

While it seems Ryan has had an easy life dominating the basketball court and gaining the admiration and respect from fellow students, he also faced his struggles. In fourth grade he was diagnosed with dyslexia and struggled with his reading. But while he worked to overcome his reading challenges, he found solace in the gym, which became his “protected space.”

The buzz surrounding Ryan is multi-faceted. In addition to his record-breaking athletics, he is equally known for his sportsmanship, soft-spoken personality and commitment to his religion.

 The buzz surrounding Ryan is multi-faceted. In addition to his record-breaking athletics, he is equally known for his sportsmanship, soft-spoken personality and commitment to his religion, all of which lends itself to being a natural role model. “I want Jewish kids to know they can be both a star athlete and still remain devoted to Judaism,” Ryan said. “There should be no reason a Jewish kid can’t grow up to be a pro athlete while at the same time keep Shabbos, kosher and even wear a yarmulke on the court, if they want.”

A perfect example is told by Rick Ronquillo, former coach of the Earl Watson Elite Basketball team, which Ryan joined while in high school. The league is comprised of the best high school basketball players in Southern California, all of whom have their sights set on pro basketball careers. It was a Friday afternoon and Ryan had a game in the South Bay. Ronquillo, who is a religious Catholic, was driving to the gym with his son and saw Ryan and his father walking toward the gym. “I asked my son if we should stop and offer them a ride,” Ronquillo remembers. “I thought their car had broken down. But with all the traffic, it wasn’t safe to stop. The gym was only a few more blocks and I knew we’d meet them there.”

When Ryan and his father entered the gym, Ronquillo immediately asked them if they were alright. They then explained that they arranged to stay at a nearby motel because the game would end after Shabbat started, and they wouldn’t be able to drive home after the game.

“That was my first exposure to the commitment Ryan and his family have to their religion,” Ronquillo said. “I’ve coached many players who observed other religions and sometimes the kid would ask me to talk to their parents to get them excused from religious classes that conflicted with a game. But Ryan was different. His commitment to his religion was his choice, not forced by his parents. I gained a new respect for him.”

To refer to Ryan as a bit of a celebrity is not an overstatement. Gabe Leifer, who in high school played against Ryan (Leifer went to high school on the East Coast) and then became teammates and close friends when they both attended YU), remembers the year he ran a summer basketball camp for Jewish boys. He was on the phone with Ryan when a group of young campers overheard them talking. The group ran to Leifer and begged him to FaceTime Ryan so they could join in the conversation. “To run a camp of 800 youngsters and all over a sudden I am surrounded with kids begging to just talk to Ryan really said something about the respect he has garnered from Jewish kids all around the country,” Leifer said.

That attention has garnered Ryan tens of thousands of views on YouTube videos and 12,000 Instagram followers. He has been interviewed on television, radio and internet programs which has added to his celebrity. “I just think it is cool,” Ryan said. “If I can be a positive example for other Jewish kids, what more can I ask for?”

The YU 50-game win streak for a Division III school did not go unnoticed by major media such as ESPN, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times who made it a national sports story. It also positioned Ryan as a possible NBA prospect.

When the LA Times story came out, it caught the attention of Sam Goldfeder and Sean Kennedy, basketball agents at mega sports agency Excel Sports Management in Beverly Hills. “I knew nothing about Ryan Turell until I saw the story in the Times,” Goldfeder said. “I thought it was really interesting that Ryan holds true to his faith while being an amazing basketball player. We, of course, closely looked at his basketball skills, and he did great at the Portsmouth Pre-Draft Camp. But aside from that, we also found him to be a great kid, and a true team player. It was our feeling that he is Division I material but chose a Division III college for other reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. We see him as a great athlete who happens to be an Orthodox Jew rather than an Orthodox Jew who happens to be a great basketball player. We got to know Ryan and his family. We were impressed, and that’s all we needed to sign him.”

According to Goldfeder, it is unusual for their agency to sign a player from a Division III school.

According to Goldfeder, it is unusual for their agency to sign a player from a Division III school. In fact, he couldn’t think of any in all the years he has been a basketball sports agent. When signing college athletes, it is almost exclusively from large Division I universities. 

Commenting on Ryan’s selection by the Cruise, Goldfeder added, “We are excited that the first step in Ryan’s NBA journey will be in Detroit. Ryan’s basketball path to this moment in time has not come easy. It took a lot of faith, grit, determination and hard work, which happens to be the characteristics that the Pistons’ have always shown. Ryan is healthy, happy, eager and ready to contribute to a winning season.”

After Ryan’s injury, he hit the weight room really hard with his trainer Jamal Lovell while he healed, a daily routine he maintains to this day. Just two months ago he was cleared healthy enough to work out in the gym.

“Ryan is so humble, I really don’t think he knows how good he is.” – Mike Sweetney

If anyone is qualified to comment on whether Ryan has a chance to make it in the NBA, it has to be Mike Sweetney, the assistant basketball coach at YU. Sweetney was the ninth overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft and played for the New York Knicks and then for two years for the Chicago Bulls. “Ryan is so humble, I really don’t think he knows how good he is,” Sweetney said. As far as whether Sweetney believes Ryan will be successful in the NBA, he said, “I firmly believe that with his mindset and talent, Ryan definitely has an opportunity to make it as a pro player.”

Speaking with Ryan is like speaking with any recent college graduate with his sights set on a career. But few have the opportunity to join the very exclusive NBA and G League clubs, let alone become the first Orthodox Jewish professional basketball player.

“Everybody knows making it to the NBA is super competitive, Ryan said. “It is like winning the lottery. But at the same time if you put in the work, it is something you can achieve. You can get there. What I really want to do is inspire other young Jewish athletes. I hope I am a role model for them because dreams can come true as long as you believe in yourself and put in the work.”

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