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We spoke with Mehmet Okur of the Utah Jazz, a team that started their preseason workouts with "at least a Western Conference Final" goal and who were eliminated 4-1 by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the play-off's, upon his return to Turkey with his wife Yeliz and daughter Melisa.
Question: Utah Jazz and Mehmet Okur. How would you comment on their season?
Memo: If we had to make a qucik observation, everything that could possibly go wrong did. It was that kind of a season. Injuries were the most prominent of the adversities. In one season we had 22 different starting line ups. That is hard to believe. I mean that is realy a high number. When you consider that we are a team that has system and we usually get that system down the best we can in order to succeed you can see easily how it had a negative effect on our season. However we never gave up, we made the play-off's and if we had not had a couple of unacceptable losses to Minnesota and Golden State at home towards the end of the season, we could have finished much higher and avoided Los Angeles. Deron, Carlos, Andrei and I missed a toatl of 84 games. Nobody on the team played in all 82 games. We had a chance to finish as high as second in the West as late as two weeks left in the season. I got hurt in the Clippers game. Missed the last game of the regular season, and then missed the first three games against the Lakers. I tried to play in the last two play-off games, but I had no lift, no mobility, no lateral movement and we were done. So yes it was a tough and unlucky season.
Question: It was also a tough season for Coach Sloan wasn't it?
Memo: I think there were black clouds over all of us this season. The illness and the eventual passing away of Larry Miller had an effect on all of us. However Mr Miller was a friend, a coworker, a boss of coach Sloan for over 20 years. He wasn't just a team owner. He was like a teammate, a big brother, someone who watched over us, someone who was with the team all the time. Then the coach lost his brother whom he was very close to. Then his former teammate Norm Van Lier, and his former friend and coach Johhny Kerr both in one day. He had some health issues himself. He had an operation right after the season. So it was a very tough and hard to bear season for coach Sloan.
Question: What kind of a season was it for you?
Memo: I had a similar season to my All-Star season actually, at least comparable. If the season did not end with me hobbling and fighting a hamstring it would probably have been better. I had some tough times as well.
Question: We were talking about your father Abdullah and his major health issues.
Memo: My father's illness is not something new. It has been almost three years. His condition deteriorated rapidly this last year. If my dad thought his condition was affecting me, he would really be sad. It is not easy being half way around the world, while your father is fighting for his life, but I try minimize its effect. This year we came to Turkey as soon as the season ended. As you know I also made a visit during the season, when the doctors felt that I might not get another chance. Kevin O'Connor and Jerry Sloan urged me to go. I will never forget their support and understanding during a very tough time for me anf my family.
Question: Is that one of the reasons you continue to say that you want to finish your career in Utah?
Memo: My family and I love Salt Lake City. As they say it is a perfect place to raise a family. From our neighbors, to the people of Salt Lake City, to my teammates, to the staff to the Miller family we alwasy saw love and felt warmness. Salt Lake City is our second home. However NBA is a business. I know this and my family has learned this. In the end some of the decisions made will be business decisions first. As Mehmet Okur I am ready to make some sacrifices to stay here. I will not be changing teams if there is a difference of $ 3-5 million in the total worth of the new contract. I belive my managers and I have let our feelings be known by the Jazz management. Whatever is in the best interest of the Jazz and my family and I let that happen.
Question: You have some strong relationships with the staff as well especially Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson. Are they part of the reason for the will to sacrifice?
Memo: I always say that coach Sloan and coach Johnson also have had a great influence in my carrer and also in me becoming the player that I am. I became an All-Star in Utah. I became the player I am as a Jazzman. I know I am one of the best 8-10 centers in the league. I have the staff to thank for that. All of the coaches here are great, straigh forward people who don't know how to play games. They say it to your face, and they say it directly. I like that. They are tough but they have understaing as well.
Question: It has been said that the Jazz can't win a championship with this roster. The team needs an athletic defensive force in the lane. The team needs consistent outside shooting. The team needs to get more athletic overall. The team needs better man to man defenders on the perimeter?
Memo: These are not decisions that I will make. Every team has room for improvement. Positions where they could be better. These are decisions the be made by the management and the staff. I know that when we are healthy and playing well we can beat any team in the league anywhere. I believe this and that won't change. We had a very tough season filled many unfortunate events and it affected everything about how we play.
Questions: Now you are back in Turkey and everybody in the country is wondering if you will play for the Turkish National team? What can you tell us about this.
Memo: Its too early for me to talk. I have not met with anybody yet. We are in Turkey but I have been spending a great amount of time with my father. I have been hurt by some of the things that has transpired the last few years though. I am not being used in a way that I can be a plus on the team and contribute the way I am capable of, and yet whenever something goes wrong I am the scapegoat that is put in front of the media. Everybody is expecitng the Memo they stay up and watch late at night on NBA TV, however I am not utilized that way here. Its a tough situation to be in. I am not your classic back to the basket low post presence in the lane. If that is what you want, there are players on the team that can provide that .
Question: It is said that you have some issues with coach Tanjevic. If the coach of the Turkish National team was not Tanjevic would things be different for you?
Memo: There are no issues and or personel problems with coach Tanjevic and myself. He as a coach does not have to like my game or utilize my strong points just because I play in the NBA. I am only bothered by the "Memo does not want to play on the National team" attitude that surfaces every summer. I tried twice under Tanjevic and both times I gave my all. When I am not able to play the way the Turkish people expect from me I just get down and depressed. The federation has never stuck up for me. There has always been the fear that if we stick up for Memo and Hedo the other players will be bothered. So it was also when with so many things wrong in the structure of the team and the way it was put together to throw us to the lions. Last summers national team was one of the best rosters put together. They had a bunch of young guys that were focused and on the same page put together around Hedo' leadership. Hedo brought them together, he led and they were succesfull.
Questions: A few weeks ago Tanjevic was interviewed and he pointed the finger at you for wanting special previliges. Have you had a chance to talk with him since?
Memo: No I haven't. He called my manager and told him that he did not say any of those things. So my manager said that then the federation should release a rebuttal saying so. They did not. They said that it was not necessary. Now Tanjevic can say anything he wants to my manager, but if it is not rebutted in the news papers where the original interview was printed, what good does that do me? People still get the same idea. Honestly I don't believe that coach Tanjevic would or could say those things. He might now likemy game, he might not want me on the team but this no. He is just not that type of person. However people who read the paper are still saying well he said this, and he said that and without a rebuttal they continue to believe what was printed is what he said. However I have developed some tough skin thanks to the national team. The former manager of the national team, even some of my closest friends on the team have always thrown me under the bus here. The fedeartion did not do anything then, so it does not surprise me that they did not do anything now.
Question: Does this mean you will not put on the Turkish National Team uniform again?
Memo: At the moment my hamstring is still not healed. The situation with my father continues. I can not spent any quality time with my family during the busy season. So for me to go in a two month camp with the national team, knowing I will not be used in a way I can be productive and in those surrounding only to be heartbroken again. Well I don't want to go through that. There is not going to be a change in the way coach Tanjevic evaluates as a player, and how he looks upon my game, and in his system. There will not be a change in the way federation thinks of me. Now it does not mean I will not wear the uniform, however I want to play in a situation where I can be succesfull and make a positive contribution.
Question: How do yoyu think the National Team will do in this summers European Championship?
Memo: If we can catch the atmosphere that we had last season then there is no reason not to have success. The key is to have everybody on the same page and focused.