Detroit welcomes Ryan Turell as the NBA’s first Orthodox Jewish prospect.

Jewish sports history was made the afternoon of Oct. 22. At the 22nd draft of the National Basketball Association’s minor-league “G League,” Ryan Turell, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard, became the first Orthodox Jewish player selected in the G League draft. If he eventually makes it to the NBA, he would be the first Orthodox Jew to play in the league.

“Being the first Orthodox Jew in the NBA would mean the world to me, and a dream come true, God willing,” Turell told ESPN last March. “But, just as importantly, it would mean the world to others who never saw this as a possibility.”

Months after suffering a foot injury that prevented participation in the NBA’s Summer League, Turell’s dreams wouldn’t be exiled for long. He’d head to a new city to play for the Detroit Piston’s minor-league team, the Motor City Cruise. He’s first to play in a yarmulke. The first to be observant of Shabbat.

It was at Yeshiva University in New York where Turell, an NCAA superstar, led the No. 1-ranked, Division III Maccabees to a historic 50-game winning streak. According to ESPN, he was the highest-scoring player across all NCAA divisions with an average of 27.1 points per game and a three-point shot success rate of 47%.

On Oct. 23, he arrived in town for the first time as a member of the Motor City Cruise. He spent little time wandering as training was soon to begin. He unpacked in his new Midtown residence and saw the training space, neighborhood and city that he’d now call home.

He arrived with a keen perception of his status as a role model. “It’s God first,” Turell told the Jewish News. “You know everything else comes after that. I’m very faithful to Hashem, my God. I try to be a practicing Orthodox Jew, and I’m very prideful about my religion.

“I can help inspire all the young, Jewish or non-Jewish, people who [question] whether they can attain their goals because of where they come from or what they believe in,” he added, “to show them that it doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. As long as you put in the work, you can make it.”

Welcome to Detroit

After a few days on the ground, Turell still had little time to wander around. “I’m liking it. So far, so good,” he remarked after his first 100 hours. His draft announcement would be a top story on ESPN. And, after a couple days in Detroit, many would already ask how it is going.

“I’ve met a lot of nice people,” Turell said. “The Detroit organization is amazing. Training camp has been tough. You know, everybody’s competing, everybody’s working hard. It’s a very healthy basketball environment. And, you know, for someone who loves the game, this is amazing. It’s just an amazing opportunity and an amazing feeling.”

Detroit has welcomed an array of younger Jewish adults over the last decade, but this would be its first NBA player.

Rabbi Yisrael Pinson
Rabbi Yisrael Pinson

Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, founder of ChabaD of Greater Downtown Detroit, has seen the growth of the city as a place for young adults to work and live — and also to study — with medical residents and students from Wayne State University attending events and Shabbat dinners on many occasions.

For Pinson, though, this is the first time he’d welcome an observant professional athlete to his new home in the city.

“To me, it leads into a larger narrative of Shabbat observance in the city,” Pinson said. “There’s a growing group that observes the Sabbath and want to make sure the community can be as welcoming and participatory for others to observe it as well.

“We had 15 people for minyan this past Shabbat,” he said. “Ryan would always be welcome, and we’re glad to be a resource as well for anything he may ever need.”

Excited to Be Here

Turell shared his perspective: “I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason. I was out for four or five months with a broken foot, but then my agent received a call from the Pistons organization and the Motor City Cruise. They said they were interested. The feeling was definitely mutual. My agent and I felt like this was the best situation and the best spot. And I’m really excited to be here.”

Arn Tellem
Arn Tellem

Arn Tellem, vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons, knew of Turell for a year or so. He’s pleased that this is where Ryan wants to be to start his professional career. “He has a lot of skill, he has a great attitude, and is an upstanding person,” Tellem told the JN.

Turell has also had positive first impressions. “Everybody has been super nice. Everybody is very kind and wants you to succeed. And, you know, it’s a very professional organization and the city is a really cool city to be in.

“Arn has been very supportive,” he continued, “making sure I’m comfortable and, as a fellow Jew, making sure I feel welcome.”

As the National Basketball Association’s official minor league basketball organization, the G League provides a chance for prospects to advance their career in NBA.

“You understand that this is a process,” Turell said, “and this is something that could take longer or shorter than expected, you never know. You just have to take it one day at a time and keep improving yourself.”

He credits a wide array of people for their impact on his life. “I think it’d be all of my coaches, my mom, my dad, my teammates — everybody who has been involved along the way.

“And everyone I’m still interacting with has a role. Whether that be a guy I met one time who told me to come off a screen this way or a coach that I played with for three years. I just try to be a sponge and learn from as many people as I can.”

On the Court

Turell, a native of Los Angeles, is residing close to the Wayne State’s new 3,000-seat, $28.3 million basketball arena, where the Cruise play, to be within walking distance for games that occur on Shabbat. While growing up playing AAU Basketball, he’s dealt with issues of basketball schedules that fall over Shabbat on countless occasions.

Ryan Turell of the Motor City Cruise was a superstar in college.
Ryan Turell of the Motor City Cruise was a superstar in college.

“I would stay at hotels as close to the gym as possible,” he said. “Sometimes it would be up to three miles so that I could walk to the gym. My teammates and coaches always supported me through it. It’s something I’m used to and ready for and will be doable in Detroit as well.”

Ryan’s father, Brad Turell, told the Forward that the team arrived to play the Cruise’s first game in Cleveland on Friday, Nov. 4, well before sunset and stayed a 15-minute walk from the arena. After the game, Ryan walked back to the hotel. He stayed behind when the team returned to Detroit the next morning, and the Cruise arranged for Turell to be driven back to Detroit when Shabbat ended. The Cruise provided “at least four” pre-made kosher meals as well as an electric hot plate he used to keep them warm.

Fans from Chabad and Oak Park’s Kehillat Etz Chayim cheered Turell on at the Cruise’s home opener on Monday, Nov. 7. In his first appearance for the Cruise, he had one steal and one missed shot in 3:39 playing time. He’ll see much more court time this season, which extends through March.

On Oct. 30, Turell attended the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah dinner wearing a yarmulke with the Detroit Pistons insignia. Revered Piston Vinnie Johnson, the former “sixth man” known for his ability to score quickly off the bench, spoke at the dinner. He announced the newest resident to the city and the newest draftee to the Motor City Cruise — providing Turell a welcome in front of thousands of attendees. The new Detroiter stood up as the crowd applauded him.

That moment showed to many how important and meaningful it is to have legends like Vinnie Johnson or upstarts like Ryan Turell that embody an athlete being a mensch both on and off the bench.

Look forward to both Jewish history and basketball history being made this season in the Motor City.

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