He is either an old man in a young man’s body or a young man in an old man’s face. Appearances are deceiving with Mehmet Okur. He is a rookie, but he looks like he could have four kids and a minivan. He is a strong rebounder, but his body looks like the “before” ad for one of those muscle gyms.
He is supposed to be nervous in this, a new country, a new league, his first time in the playoffs, but he was a perfect 7-for-7 Tuesday night, and he hit two big three-pointers with the clock almost gone, waiting until the Philly defenders flew past before firing with the calmness of a bus driver waving bye-bye.
“I feel confidence now,” Okur said.
So the nerves are gone?
“No, I still have nerves. But I feel confidence.”
Hey. Whatever works. The playoffs are about ups and down, losses and discoveries. And though the injury to Chauncey Billups shadows tonight’s Game 2, the emergence of Okur throws a promising light.
How can you put this? Okur is not what you think. At first glance, his blocky, 7-foot frame suggests a guy who bangs around the inside, looking for tip-ins. But there he is, out at the perimeter, shooting treys with repetitive European accuracy.
Or this: You see his flopping mop of brown hair — somewhere between Matt Damon and Glen Campbell — and you expect a “wild and crazy” Turkish import grabbing the mike at a karaoke bar. But there he is, staying in his hotel room, declining nights out because he needs his rest.
Or this: You see his gawky gait and hear his overseas accent, and you figure he’ll be in awe of a super-slick, tattooed urban dynamo like Allen Iverson. Instead, Okur said, “It doesn’t matter who is playing against me. I play Shaq, too.”
Coins, compliments and 50 Cent
Okur was sitting in the Pistons’ locker room, slumped comfortably in a leather chair. I asked if he preferred the media here or back in Turkey.
“Oh, here,” he said quickly. He stretched out his arms. “Much more room here. And you can sit while you talk.”
Sitting is a luxury, then?
“Oh, yes. In Turkey, the media wait for you outside. You go down to them, in tunnel, and sometimes, people are yelling and throwing things. They throw coins. I get hit in the head” — he points to his skull — “bleeding. There is blood.”
Hmmm. No wonder he’s so happy here.
And he is. Okur displays little of the homesickness typical of many first-year overseas players. He doesn’t even know when he’ll go back to Turkey this summer. He said the Pistons have made him feel so welcome, “I feel like I live here 10 years.”
Also, no one throws coins.
They do, occasionally, throw compliments. Michael Curry said, “Memo will be an All-Star. No doubt. I tell him that, and I tell him we expect him to play to that level. The sky’s the limit for him. He’s already our second-best rebounder.”
I asked Curry if the language barrier is an issue.
“Aw, Memo speaks great English,” Curry said. “I think he puts something on when you guys are in here. I’ve heard Memo singing along with rap records. He can do 50 Cent.”
Memo can do 50 Cent?
A rookie in name only
Ah, well. It’s all part of exceeding expectations. Okur and Tayshaun Prince — two rookies on a team that drafted late — have been assets and challenges for Pistons coach Rick Carlisle. Not particularly fond of using rookies, Carlisle knows these “kids” are unique. Prince, though a first-year player, has dealt with big-time pressure during his years with Kentucky. And his lithe body and gangly frame seem tailor-made to today’s big guard/small forward game.
Okur, meanwhile, is a rookie in name only. He played professional basketball in Turkey. He played in international championships. He is 23 the way an ambassador’s kid is 23, having seen a lot and absorbed almost as much.
“Last year at this time, I was in Turkey,” Okur said. “I watch NBA playoffs sometimes. But it is 3 a.m. when they are on TV. I am playing my own games. I must sleep. So I don’t see too many.”
Now, he plays in them. On Wednesday, Okur just missed making the NBA’s second team All-Rookie squad. But in time, he may prove to be one of those Dennis Rodman draft day steals — a little-known second-rounder that turns out to be a diamond.
For now, needing all they can get, the Pistons will take the dazzling calm of his three-pointers, the deceptive strength of his rebounding, and his disarming lack of intimidation.
I, for one, would like to hear his 50 Cent.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).