A damp, chill gray seems to color everything on the Illinois campus this January day, and as Kevin Turner strides into Assembly Hall, the Illini basketball arena, he has his black scarf folded in a precise V under his neck, just as his late grandmother Pinkie would have liked. "I've had lots of sadness in my life," he says in a tone of elegiac regret, "but sadness has had a positive effect. It has made me stronger."
By sinking enough fallaway jumpers to be scoring 16.6 points a game through last weekend, Turner, a 6'3" senior guard, was helping the 13-7 Illini confound predictions that they would finish no better than seventh in the Big Ten. They were in a four-way tie for second after Sunday's 64-53 win over No. 16 Michigan as Turner led the way with 17 points. Three weeks earlier he put together back-to-back career highs of 32 points, against UCLA, and 35, against Indiana. "After all Kevin's been through, it's great to see him succeed," says coach Lon Kruger. "He's had an unfortunate run."
When Kevin was eight months old, his father was stabbed to death in a robbery on Chicago's South Side. Grandma Pinkie, who raised Kevin, died from a stroke in 1990. Three summers ago his mother, Yvette Jackson, fell victim to cancer. In March '96, his only sibling, older brother Kenneth, was fatally shot while walking to the grocery store, an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of warring gangs. "When I heard, I didn't know what to say," Kevin recalls. "I couldn't say anything." His immediate family was gone by the time he was 20.
Normally Turner talks about as often as he smiles—which is hardly ever. "It's hard for him to speak to people," says his roommate, senior forward Jarrod Gee. "He had to give a speech in one of our classes and got so nervous his palms began to sweat." Turner was known as the Quiet Assassin at Chicago's Simeon High, but that was for the unobtrusive way he scored in bunches while averaging 21.0 points his senior year. "He wasn't heavily recruited," says Simeon coach Bob Hambric. "I had to twist arms at Illinois to get him a scholarship."
Turner, who was inconsistent in his first two seasons in Champaign, rode the bench until Kruger took over in March '96 and installed a three-guard offense. Buoyed by Turner's long-range shooting, the Illini made the NCAA tournament last year but lost in the second round to Tennessee- Chattanooga 75-63.
"Tragedy has matured Kevin as a player," says Gee. "He's hungrier, more focused on the court. He takes charge. His confidence in himself gives us confidence as a team."
Turner says he is inspired by the memory of his family. "People used to say I looked like I was mad at the world," he says, "but before each game I think about my father, my grandmother, my mother and my brother. That puts me at peace."