On the basketball court, Karl Turk forgets that he walks with a limp and a cane. He’ll get so caught up in the moment that he’ll gesture with his hands to make a point and his cane will go flying. He’s in the zone.
Now, the man who was told he might never walk again is coaching his team in the state playoffs.
Turk is the head basketball coach at West Oso High School in Corpus Christi, Texas. His team just clinched the district championship after an undefeated season and are playing in the Texas State Basketball playoffs. It’s an impressive run for his first season as head coach — and an inspiration to his young players.
“Coach shows us to never give up on any of your dreams,” says 14-year-old starter Creighton Avery, who has known Turk since he was 9.
Turk has been obsessed with basketball since he was a boy growing up in Indiana. When he was 5 years old, he learned to read by studying the sports pages with his grandfather. By the time he was 13, he was dreaming of playing for the Indiana Pacers.
All that changed on January 21, 1994. That night, the 14-year-old watched the Chicago Bulls beat his Pacers in an intense game. He walked to bed.
He woke up paralyzed.
He was rushed in an ambulance to the hospital. For two weeks, he was completely paralyzed from the waist down and had temporarily lost some of his eye sight. After numerous tests, Turk was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a rare disease that causes inflammation of the spinal cord.
Turk and his family were facing the harsh truth about what his quality of life would be like. He had to cope with the fact that he may not walk again.
“Most patients do not recover well,” said Turk. He spent the next 66 days in the hospital.
A turning point came when Reggie Miller, the Indiana Pacers’ all-star player and Turk’s favorite basketballer, heard about what Turk was going through and paid him a visit in the hospital.
Miller and Turk spent the next couple hours discussing each of their stories.
The basketball player told him about growing up with pronated hips and having to wear leg braces, similar to the ones Turk was wearing at the time. He talked about what it took to be in the NBA: that many good ball players failed to embrace and work on what they were not good at, and personality and character weeded many good players out.
“Reggie inspired me and helped me to embrace who I was,” Turk said. “For that moment, I felt he believed in me and saw my potential for greatness.”
It’s a message that stuck with him as he entered high school in a wheelchair and began to adjust his dreams.
There was hope he could walk on his own again but he would have to have assistance. Turk participated in a rigorous physical therapy regimen and by his senior year he shed his last leg brace and began to walk with a cane, which he continues to walk with today.
“I keep that last leg brace today on my desk as a reminder of where I have come from,” said Turk.
Turk attended Indiana State University, where his dream to play college basketball turned into dreams of wanting to coach. In 2004, he met Coach Ronnie Arrow, the head basketball coach at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, at a summer basketball camp and later worked for Arrow as the school’s director of basketball operations.
“When you first see him, you may think he can’t do what others can,” Arrow, now retired, told CNN. “But he gets the job done no matter what.”
All Turk wanted was to coach his own basketball team. But it wasn’t so easy. From 2009 to 2010, he applied for 10 high school head coaching positions and numerous assistant coaching positions. He only received one interview.
The forced sabbatical led him to wonder if he really had a future in coaching.
“I knew my resume was competitive,” he said. “I knew my passion for the game wasn’t exceeded by anyone.” He began to wonder if “having a cane and an unusual gait” would prevent him from ever coaching.
In the two years when he didn’t have a team to coach, he studied other coaches’ methods and sought their advice on how he could improve.
In 2010, he was hired as assistant coach at West Oso. And in 2014, almost 10 years after moving to Corpus Christi, he became the head coach. He has strived to embody the ideals that Reggie Miller imparted to him all those years ago in the hospital.
“I want my students to know that I care about them, that I work for and belong to them,” said Turk. “So often, it’s the messenger more than the message, I want to be the messenger that my students embrace.”
In his dreams, he can still play basketball. In reality, he has fallen down in practice, and during games. There isn’t much room on the sidelines to walk up and down, and he often trips over his athletes’ feet.
“It hurts me that there are things that I cannot physically demonstrate — a lot of the footwork stuff with stops, turns and jumps.”
But his players don’t seem to mind.
“We don’t notice his disability, we see him as a great coach,” said starter Creighton Avery. “He is always positive and inspires us.”