A perfect role model, Okur ends great career

A perfect role model, Okur ends great career

Çetin Cem Yılmaz - ISTANBUL
A perfect role model, Okur ends great career

Mehmet Okur will have a lasting legacy in Turkish basketball. ‘Memo’ (L) has been a pioneer of Turkey in the NBA, leading the way for a bigger interest from the league in athletes from Turkey. REUTERS photo

Turkish basketball player Mehmet Okur announced his retirement from the sport yesterday, putting an end to one of the greatest careers a Turkish athlete has ever achieved.

The former Utah Jazz, Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets, Anadolu Efes, Tofaş and Oyak center issued a heartfelt statement, saying that injuries forced him to quit at 33, a fairly young age to retire for a player of his caliber.

“Due to a string of injuries in the last three years, I have come to understand that I will not be the Mehmet Okur I used to be [on the court],” he said. “I have received offers from many NBA teams and elite European clubs but when a player’s body does not let him be as good as he used to be, he now has to bid farewell to the sport. The time has come for Mehmet Okur.”

Okur was out of contract since being waived by the Portland Trail Blazers in March, just a week after being traded from the New Jersey Nets. Being seen as a surplus to requirements hardly befitted the Turkish player’s career, which saw him achieve memorable firsts.

Okur became the first Turk to win an NBA title when he helped the Detroit Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers as a second-string player in 2004. The finals performance earned him a valuable six-year contract from the Utah Jazz worth $50 million, an unheard of amount for a Turkish athlete.

Okur’s Jazz years were the highlight of his career, as he averaged 15.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game over the course of seven seasons. Okur’s performances, fueled by his astonishing three-point rate for a center, have also earned him a spot in the 2007 All-Star Game, making him the only Turkish ever to participate in the NBA’s showcase event.

Okur’s records for the Jazz franchise include the most three-pointers ever made and attempted in the 2006-07 season, as well as being placed fifth in the list of three-pointers made by players at least 2.10 meters. The image of Okur just blowing his hands, as if they were “on fire,” when he started to convert his three-pointers, will remain as a trademark image of the big man.

However, his last season at the Jazz was the start of an injury-plagued late-career. After playing just 13 matches, he was traded to the Nets, where he would go on to play only 17 matches.

Mehmet Okur’s impact in Turkish basketball goes beyond his career: He was not the first Turkish player to play in the NBA, but became the first player to become an integral part of his team – more than a fringe player, along with Hidayet “Hedo” Türkoğlu. Okur could also be listed among the very few Turkish athletes who had started and completed a successful career in abroad, not only among the basketball players, but in all team sports. It should be remembered that Okur and Hedo were the two players that were mentioned by the President of the United States Barack Obama, who was “committed to renewing the alliance between our nations and friendship between our people,” when he was addressing the Turkish Parliament in 2009.

“The ties among our people have deepened as well, and more and more Americans of Turkish origin live and work and succeed within our borders,” Obama has said. “As a basketball fan, I’ve even noticed that Hedo Türkoğlu and Mehmet Okur have got some pretty good basketball games.”

Despite his glamorous career, Okur was not immune to criticism, especially in those Eurobasket summers where he failed to carry his masterful performances at the Jazz to the national team.

However, he was never an arrogant player, never took it to the media, and always accepted criticism with grace. Shy in interviews, not hostile against opponents on court, and a family man in his private life, Okur was arguably the perfect role model Turkish sports scene produced in the last few decades.

In his final statement, Okur took his time to thank whoever had contributed to his career.

“I, Mehmet Okur, am the achievement of my family, my coaches, managers, teammates and the Turkish people who have always supported me,” he said. “I thank you for accompanying me through this adventurous 19-year journey.”

The Turkish people and the sport of basketball owe Okur an even a bigger “thank you” - for being a true role model off the court and a successful athlete on it.