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Barber: Fort Bragg's Packie Turner trains the NBA stars

Do you remember Dec. 18, 2015, when pop culture nearly trembled and collapsed upon itself? That was the night the most popular player in the NBA, Stephen Curry, hung out with the most popular artist in hip-hop, Drake, after a Warriors game in Oakland.

Buzzfeed.com documented the intersection of creative genius in a photo essay, and it blew up. Most of the pix (and a video that made the rounds separately) were shot at an In-N-Out Burger, with Curry's wife, Ayesha, also in attendance. But one of the Buzzfeed photos was taken at Oracle Arena. There's Drake on the left, and Curry on the right. In the middle, with Drake's arm around his shoulder, is a nondescript white dude. Who was this lucky person?

“They named the other two guys. Wouldn't the guy in the middle be kind of important?” Patrick “Packie” Turner asked with a laugh.

But this was Packie Turner's natural position: largely anonymous, and in the middle of everything.

Three years ago, the Fort Bragg native was selling bedding through his father's business, and doing some basketball training on the side. Still just 29, Turner has since become the trusted workout partner of NBA players like Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic, Skal Labissiere of the Sacramento Kings and Festus Ezeli, the former Warrior who is attempting a comeback after being sidelined by knee surgeries.

It has been an improbably rapid rise, and Turner is almost bashful when he explains it.

“It sounds really crazy when I say it every time,” he said, “but …”

But as recently as 2013, Turner seemed destined for the bedding business. He was training kids part-time in the art of basketball. At the same time, he and his wife, Bianca, had a mattress topper they wanted to sell you.

Packie's father, Dave Turner, owned a sleep shop called FloBeds. Packie knew the business. When he was at Holy Names University, he noticed that all the bedding for the dorm rooms had to be school-approved, meaning everything had to be non-flammable. Turner knew that no one was making a non-flammable mattress topper. So he designed one as a school project, and he and his father brought it to production. Dave Turner, the former mayor of Fort Bragg and still a city councilman there, sold a few through his website without trying too hard.

Sensing an opportunity, Packie and Bianca threw themselves into the business. Packie might be Mr. Bedding by now if it weren't for his quirky basketball breakthrough.

It came in the summer of 2013, when a 9-year-old boy from the Bay Area attended Stephen Curry's hoops camp in North Carolina and seemed to know all of the drills the camp organizers were demonstrating. “Where did you learn this stuff?” they asked the boy, and he told them he'd been working with Packie Turner. Curry's trainers were impressed. So in the summer of 2015, when Curry decided to stay in California rather than return to North Carolina and his trainers came to him, they asked Turner to help out.

The regular trainers soon went back to Carolina. Curry, who had just won his first MVP award, asked Turner to stay on. From late July until the start of the 2015-16 season, they worked out six days a week, sometimes twice a day. Turner gained Curry's trust, and eventually received his seal of approval. In basketball circles, that's a golden ticket. Turner began to assist other Warriors, like Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Ezeli.

“You know someone like Steph, especially during his MVP campaign, was not gonna work out with somebody who didn't know what they were doing,” Ezeli said. “But I wanted to see, was it smoke and mirrors?”

Turner had told the NBA players he was available anytime they needed him. Ezeli, who was backing up Andrew Bogut at center, decided to take him up on it.

“To be honest, it was a test,” Ezeli said by phone from Los Angeles, where he lives and trains. “I'm a late-night dude. One night I hit him at 10 and said, ‘Hey, I'm gonna shoot.' I mean, I'd hit him at 11. It's Friday night. And Pack, there was never one time he said no. That alone, that passion, brought me to him. We've been rocking together a long time now.”

And Turner's stable has grown. He trains consistently with Labissiere, a 6-11, almost-22-year-old Haitian phenom. He has worked a lot with the Warriors' Patrick McCaw, with prominent collegians like Stanford's Reid Travis and Cal's Ivan Rabb (now a Memphis Grizzlies rookie), and local high-school blue-chippers like James Akinjo of Salesian and Dylan Belquist of Los Gatos.

Turner's signature client is Gordon, the dynamic young forward from San Jose who is currently averaging 18.3 points a game for the Magic. They met in the summer of 2016, just after Gordon's second NBA season, and formed an immediate connection. As soon as their first workout had ended, Gordon asked Turner when they could do it again. Tomorrow morning, Turner said. Can I spend the night? Gordon asked. Packie had to call home to Bianca and alert her to stock up on breakfast items.

Turner now spends a week with Gordon and his brother, Drew, working out in Santa Barbara during the offseason.

Above all, what seems to draw clients to Turner is his diligence. In the first half of the 2016-17 season, when Labissiere was hardly playing for the Kings, Turner would drive to Sacramento, skip the games and arrive at Golden 1 Center as traffic cleared out to put Labissiere through his paces.

“I know what passion is, because I have it,” Ezeli said. “When I see it in someone else, I can recognize it. That's why we get along.”

But a lot of people reading this would probably hop in their car at a moment's notice and offer to rebound balls for NBA players. These guys wouldn't be working with Turner if he couldn't offer them more.

Turner is soft-spoken, but he acknowledged a couple strengths. One is that he isn't afraid to frustrate his elite clients. He attacks their weaknesses. Competitive as they are, they usually respond to the challenge. Turner's other asset is improvisation.

“If they're not feeling it, being able to switch it and go to something that can engage them and push them,” he explained. “So I don't really stick to the script.”

Once, when Ezeli had an injury setback and couldn't run, Turner made him dribble and pass, over and over again, while sitting on a box.

“We started out just shooting, and eventually I saw his knowledge base,” Ezeli said. “After games, I'd hit him up, like, ‘Yo, what did you see?' Maybe he'd say, ‘Yeah, you passed out of the post when maybe you had a look there' or something. You can get honest feedback from him. Because first, you know he knows what he's talking about, and second, he has your best interests at heart.”

That's the tricky part, though, because a basketball player's best interests don't always perfectly align with those of his team. When Ezeli was with the Warriors, his job was to defend and rebound aggressively, and to occasionally clean up in the paint when Curry and Klay Thompson were guarded. But Ezeli's future earnings might well depend on a better-rounded game. Turner must tread a thin line, helping his clients without alienating their NBA coaches.

In the end, though, most teams aren't going to stop their young players from developing on their own time.

Turner's life got a lot easier last September when he found permanent gym space. Before that, he was constantly hustling for courts. Unlimited Potential Basketball - Aaron Gordon inspired the name - is down a long driveway in an industrial neighborhood in Millbrae/Burlingame, across the freeway from San Francisco International Airport and right next door to a Bekins storage facility. He has several employees, including top assistant Larisa Nakasone.

Turner continues to work with kids, as young as 6, even as he rubs elbows with future All-Stars. He'll do that as long as his schedule permits.

“The way I look at it, a 9-year-old created this path for me,” Turner said. “If I were to shut all of that down and just work with pros now, I'd be kind of turning away what brought me this whole opportunity. You never know who's gonna be your referral.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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