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Thursday, May 8
 
'Memo' to the league: Okur has game

By Jerry Bembry
ESPN the Magazine

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Mehmet Okur didn't know enough about the NBA to have any fears. But the rookie from Turkey did know of one massive man in the league.

Okur admitted being a bit nervous the first time he took the court against Shaquille O'Neal.

"A big man," Okur said, in his broken English. "You must give everything for defending him."

Mehmet Okur
Mehmet Okur can do damage from long range, too.
So it's kind of ironic that, against O'Neal, the Pistons found out they had a player who had a chance to be pretty special. The game was on March 14 when Okur -- called "Memo" by his teammates -- scored 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting and helped limit O'Neal to 24 points in a 111-88 Pistons win.

"He really battled Shaq that game," Pistons forward Ben Wallace said.

You can excuse fans not familiar with the Pistons for being a bit wide-eyed by Okur's performance Tuesday against Philadelphia. Okur hit all seven of his shots in scoring 16 points -- eight in the fourth quarter -- in a 98-87 Game 1 win. Now, the 76ers' game plan of stopping Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Wallace must include limiting the impact of Okur.

"Memo was huge," Hamilton said of Okur, one of two Turkish players, along with Sacramento's Hedo Turkoglu, in the NBA today. "He picked the right time to step up. As a 7-footer, he can do many things. He's the total package."

Okur, who is actually 6-foot-11, hit perhaps the biggest shot of the game for Detroit on Tuesday. After trailing by as many as 13 points, the Sixers pulled to within four points early in the fourth quarter and were feeling they were back in the game after Billups left with a sprained ankle. But Okur, with the shot clock winding down, pump-faked a Sixer defender into the air and confidently hit a 3-pointer to give the Pistons an 81-74 lead and a momentum swing that lasted the rest of the game.

Not bad for a guy who didn't pick up a basketball until he was 14. ("It took a week to know I was good," he said.) By 18, he was playing on the Turkish national team. His size and shooting range led to his selection as the 38th overall pick in the 2001 draft by the Pistons.

Okur didn't join Detroit right away, spending the 2001-02 season with the Turkish club team Efes Pilsen and winning the MVP of the Turkish National Cup. That professional experience helped Okur's adjustment to the NBA this season, and his impact during these playoffs.

"Nothing about him surprises me anymore," Wallace said. "For him, it was just a matter of getting into the right system. When his number was called, he was ready."

Okur struggled when the playoffs began as he scored two points in the first three games against Orlando. He broke out with nine points in Game 4 and followed that up with 11 points in Game 5, including seven points in the final two minutes of the Pistons' 98-67 win. Okur's performance raised the ire of Tracy McGrady.

I feel more confident about the way I play. But I'm a rookie -- and I don't have time to celebrate one game.
Mehmet Okur

"I'm going to tell you what was offensive," McGrady said afterward. "When we were walking off the court, I looked at him and he looked at me with a cocky attitude, like, yeah, this is what's going to go on the next game. So his ass better be ready to play."

Asked about the incident with McGrady, Okur smiled and said, "I don't know what happened. I read it in the paper the next day."

While the Sixers had to be stunned by Okur's perfect shooting in Game 1, they should not be surprised. Okur had 18 points in a 113-85 win against the Sixers on March 20, hitting seven of nine shots, including two 3-pointers.

"He's had his struggles," Pistons coach Rick Carlisle said. "He could've folded it up, or he could have stepped it up. He has stepped it up, and he has been able to gain momentum."

Okur is believing in his ability more and more each game.

"I feel more confident about the way I play," Okur said. "But I'm a rookie -- and I don't have time to celebrate one game. I know when I go out there, I have to do something right away."

Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.

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