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Year in and year out NBA junkies are awarded with a "League Pass Team," a collection of players and coaches that mold a style of aesthetically pleasing ball that doesn't often cross the national airwaves, but well worth making appointment viewing for on some random Tuesday night at 7:30. Well before a current generation of league followers bought into their pass, the Rick Carlisle-led Detroit Pistons from 2001 to 2003 were a go-to League Pass squad. The team was put together by GM Joe Dumars as a rebuilding outfit full of disparate parts and expiring contracts, after Grant Hill had left the squad and a George Irvine-coached group slogged through the 2000-01 season, but under the first-time head coach Rick Carlisle the group grew into not only one of the more entertaining watches in the NBA, but a 100-game winner over two years before Carlisle was shown the door.
Taking a piece of that action as a rookie in the 2002-03 season was Turkish center Mehmet Okur. Okur, who retired on Thursday at the too-young age of 33, was exactly as those nascent NBA scouting sites had advertised — a sweet-shooting big man quick enough to move adroitly without the ball, and burly enough to do some occasional damage in the post. Working with a formidable defensive unit, Okur's all-around offensive skills at age just 23 seemed to give note that he could be the inside-out force that could eventually put Detroit over the top.
Though his minutes were bumped up a bit in 2003-04, new coach Larry Brown had quite a bit to juggle between Okur, Ben and Rasheed Wallace, Elden Campbell (stop it, he was a strong contributor), and Eventual Future of the Detroit Pistons Darko Milicic. Facing a contract offer from the Jazz that Detroit (literally, thanks to pre-2005 collective bargaining agreement rules) could not match, Okur happily soldiered on to Utah.
He wasn't alone. Do-it-all forward Andrei Kirilenko and big forward Carlos Boozer (coming to Utah under the same rules, with far more consternation, as Okur did) were already in place. A year spent finding his starting legs was rewarded with the acquisition of Deron Williams in 2005. A year spent watching Williams work his way into NBA shape was rewarded with the most rewarding season of Okur's career, a 2006-07 run to the Western Conference finals that also saw the big man make the All-Star team. He had just turned 28, and because the Jazz seemed to have Houston's number and the Lakers appeared to be two players away, Utah seemed right in line to take over once age crippled the San Antonio Spurs.
Problem was, we're still waiting for age to hit the Spurs. Issue being, the Lakers got those two players in the developing Andrew Bynum and a deal for Pau Gasol. And the Jazz just shuffled their way into second and first-round fodder for the Lakers in consecutive years. Okur sometimes appeared out of step with a game that seemed to be getting quicker and quicker, often left as an underutilized option. By 2010, Boozer had jumped to Utah. By 2011, Okur's career was in jeopardy following a postseason Achilles tear.
He never recovered. Achilles tears like those send most orthodox forms of conditioning work out the window, and Okur was already battling back issues in his late 20s. A deal to the then-New Jersey Nets in December of 2011 left his teammates saddened, but the move for a trade exception and window to open up new minutes for youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter was agreeable. Kanter, also of Turkish descent, was hit hard by that news and Thursday's retirement announcement, telling The Salt Lake City Tribune's Bill Oram that he "was a Utah Jazz fan," prior to becoming their reserve center, "just because of him."
Okur didn't contribute much in New Jersey, shooting well under 40 percent for the second straight injury-plagued season, and after no teams came calling during the offseason, the writing was on the way.
Which is just a huge bummer.
Okur enjoyed a fine career, but as a fan watching from afar you still never got the feeling that there could have been more to it. He pumped in 43 points one night and was a cornerstone on several good-to-very good teams, but that 2007 postseason run and All-Star turn felt like something that should have been routine, instead of a career highlight.
Mehmet, to his credit, seems to be taking things in stride. From his wonderfully worded retirement announcement:
"A player of certain level should say goodbye to the sport he loves when his body doesn't let him to be as he used to be," Okur said in remarks carried by the Anadolu Agency.
Okur also said: "I want to thank my family, coaches, partners, and all those who have accompanied me in basketball.
"Also, a special thanks to the fans who have always supported me."
The pleasure, for not nearly long enough as it should have been, was ours.