Rockets’ Barbara Turner returns home to Cleveland with a proud legacy
The former UConn standout’s journey has taken her from prep star to groundbreaking NBA development coach
The car service driver guides his vehicle slow enough through the outer edges of downtown Cleveland so Barbara Turner can inhale many of her childhood memories. She points out her former house and wonders aloud where the milk crate might be that she and her older brother Cameron used for a basketball goal.
The neighborhood gym appears after a measured turn around the block. This is where Turner crafted her basketball skills playing against many of the better boys in the area.
About 4 miles west, directly across the street from a group of public housing apartments run by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, is East Technical High School. It’s the same East Tech that produced Olympic gold medalists Jesse Owens and Harrison Dillard, and Jack Trice, the only Black man whose name graces a Division I football stadium.
One of the most decorated and celebrated female athletes in Cleveland’s history is in town on a business trip with the Houston Rockets. She enters the building of her alma mater for the first time in 10 years because of her engaging schedule.
The wait was way too long.
“The last time I was here, I remember being excited about what I accomplished but also having some anxiety entering the next chapter of my life,” Turner said.
Turner helped galvanize a community as she led an unlikely girls’ basketball team to an unprecedented Ohio state title. She then became a two-time NCAA champion at the University of Connecticut, played in the WNBA and in Turkey. Turner is currently one of the few women player development coaches in the NBA, and is one of seven women listed as an assistant coach. She was also inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
All from someone who grew up in Cleveland, the poorest big city in the country (30% of residents and 46% of children live below the poverty line), where the degree of violent crime has escalated to historic levels.
Although now a resident of Houston, Cleveland remains home for Turner.
“It’s home because that’s where I’m loved after bringing the inner city of Cleveland to a better light, and showing people that you can make it out of any condition or circumstances,” Turner said. “I’m forever grateful and indebted to the city of Cleveland.”
East Tech plays in one of the oldest city public school conferences in the state, but has never had a reputation for girls’ basketball success. Budget cuts have limited schools to only a varsity roster, omitting junior varsity and freshmen, and many of the better players enroll in private school programs.
For Turner, it was important for her to remain in the community and achieve what no other school in her conference had before. She also found plenty of motivation when she rejected an offer from a coach to play for a private school.
“He said that he was offering me a chance of a lifetime, and if I remained at East Tech that I’d just become another statistic,” Turner said. “I never forgot those words. So every time we played them, I wanted to destroy him. Every time I wanted to achieve something, I kept those words in my mind.”
Those words weren’t enough to help East Tech advance beyond the state semifinals Turner’s sophomore and junior years. Heading into her senior year, a stress fracture in her right tibia threatened to wipe out her final high school season and a chance at a state championship.
“I was boo-hoo crying,” Turner said. “But my driving force was that I wanted to bring something positive to East Tech and to the area we call ‘Down the Way.’ I wasn’t going to allow that to stop me.”
To take the strain off her leg, Turner didn’t practice all season and only played in games. Despite her limitations, East Tech went on an unbelievable run, and the community supported the success with packed gyms not even seen at boys’ games.
“We’d leave work early to see their games,” said local barber Ted Lighting. “I’d compare the atmosphere here to how Chicago reacted during the Bulls [championship] era.”
“The neighborhood gravitated toward us,” said Mel Burke, who was then an East Tech assistant coach. “It was inner-city projects heaven. Fans were feeding us, raising money to buy the players socks, and fans raised money for T-shirts to wear in the state game. The support was off the charts.”
And the East Tech Mighty Scarabs didn’t disappoint in the 2002 state final. Turner led her school to the Division II championship with 30 points and nine rebounds. Shortly after her state title victory, Turner was named Ms. Ohio Basketball and to the McDonald’s All American team.
“We had some type of celebration at our gym with the students and with most of the people that would travel to see us play,” Turner said. “I remember feeling so happy and satisfied that we achieved everything we set out to do by winning a championship and bringing some positivity to the community.”
The next chapter
Turner’s basketball career continued at UConn, where she was a member of two NCAA title teams and ranks among the Huskies’ all-time scoring and rebounding leaders. During her career, she was named most outstanding player of the Big East tournament and was a member of the Big East all-tournament team.
There was an adjustment period despite Turner’s on-court success. The added competition pushed her.
“There was a lot of pressure at UConn because of what was expected,” Turner said. “They were superduper good and on a great run when I got there. And it was the first time I was in an environment where all 11 players were stars in high school.
“I’ve always had a fear of failure, and what helps me overcome my fear of failure is my will to want success. Success is my only result.”
Success continued as she became the 11th overall pick in the WNBA draft by the Seattle Storm. Turner had an average WNBA career from 2006 to 2009, but she was more consistent in Turkey, one of the top overseas leagues. She recently completed her 15th pro season and is a naturalized Turkish citizen. Once she became a citizen, Turner chose the name Bahar Ozturk (Bahar means spring in English; Ozturk is the last name of the team owner who helped her get a passport), which she did to show respect for the country and culture.
“I benefited from playing overseas because I was able to have a longer career,” Turner said. “I made a hell of a lot of money. I embraced the country and got to learn the culture of a country that I’ve come to love.”
The time in Turkey is when the coaching bug began to bite Turner. She started closely watching Europe’s male stars such as Luka Dončić, Cedi Osman and Furkan Korkmaz.
“It gave me a feel of what I need to look for and how I can help guys improve,” Turner said. “It started my passion to work in the player development field.”
Making the NBA transition
Turner worked as an intern with the Rockets last summer under the direction of her mentor John Lucas, a former NBA coach who has been a Rockets assistant since 2016. Turner has known Lucas since he helped train her while he was the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2001 to 2003.
At the end of 2020, Turner came to a turning point and sought her mentor for help.
“I don’t know if I’d call it depression, but there was a moment I was really lost because I didn’t know what was next,” Turner said. “Lucas asked me what I wanted to do and I said player development. He brought me in.”
With the Rockets, Turner worked offseason practices, pre-draft workouts and camps with NBA prospects, and assisted Lucas at his personal camps. Once the Rockets drafted Turkish center Alperen Şengün in July, a door of opportunity opened. She was hired to translate for Şengün and assist the team during summer league in Las Vegas.
“I had a conversation with Coach [Stephen] Silas and he told me what my role would be, and the rest is history,” Turner said.
In her position, Turner’s not only responsible for translating for Şengün, but also working out the younger players and breaking down videos for the coaching staff with an emphasis on the team’s offensive playbook.
“Barbara has all the four components of coaching,” Lucas said. “She’s been a counselor, she’s been a mentor, she teaches the game and one of her greatest assets is positive confrontation. She knows how to challenge young men without offending them.”
Turner’s latest trip home had some challenges once she walked the empty halls of East Tech. Her tour guide, athletic director Leroy Carter, impatiently waited for her return to show Turner that she’s never been forgotten.
It started with a tour of the gym. The state championship banner is on the wall behind one basket, and a poster of Turner is behind the basket on the opposite end. From there, a walk to a trophy case reveals relics from two of the greats — Owens and Dillard — along with a banner of Turner.
Finally, there’s a trip to the school’s indoor track. A painting of Turner, along with her quote following the state title, causes her to pause.
“She probably thought we forgot about her and she almost got emotional,” Carter said. “We always talk about her around here and use her life as an example for our students to strive for excellence.”
Turner managed to hold back the tears, but she couldn’t control the rush of emotions.
“I felt extremely proud,” she said. “Probably even more than when I won the national championship in college, because winning here was like a national championship.
“I can’t put into words how proud I am of myself and being able to do what I’ve accomplished coming out of East Tech. This will always be something that’s a part of my legacy.”