SALT LAKE CITY — A curious reporter approached Mehmet Okur at practice Friday morning to find out how the injured center and his sprained right ankle were feeling.
With the Utah Jazz's successful pre-Christmas road trip behind them and no games for another three days, Okur's progress was, after all, one of the main points of interest for this particular practice session.
While standing next to Okur as the big man pedaled on a recumbent stationary bike, the sports writer asked: "Where are you?"
Okur's response, without hesitation and from 2 feet away: "I'm at the practice site."
Everybody within earshot laughed at Okur's joke.
Later asked about what he sees his role being when both feet are fully healed from their respective injuries, Okur again didn't hesitate with his answer.
"I don't care if Coach bring me off the bench or start, whatever," Okur said. "I just want to be able to play."
This time, the fun-loving Turkish standout wasn't kidding around.
After mostly playing a reserve role in his first season in Utah back in 2004-05, Memo started in every game that he appeared in as a Jazz player after that heading into this season.
From 2005-06 through last spring, Okur took to the court at tipoff in 379 straight games that he played in with the Jazz — and with a 94 percent participation rate, he played in a lot of games those five years. That included 80 starts in his All-Star season of 2006-07.
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old is willing to sacrifice his previous starter minutes for sub time as long as it helps the team, which, at 21-9 and in first place of the Northwest Division, has been buzzing along nicely with newcomer Al Jefferson in his old starting center position.
But worrying about starting or subbing isn't Okur's main focus for the moment. He went through Friday's practice after missing the past two games with his mild ankle sprain, which interrupted his return from his eight-month left Achilles tendon rehab.
"Right now, one thing (is) in my mind: just go out there and play — off the bench, start, whatever," Okur said. "Ten minutes, five minutes. I just want to get into basketball shape first and be able to do all of the same motions like I used to be — running, jumping and stronger."
Okur's attitude — not to mention his work ethic and skill set — is appreciated by Jerry Sloan.
"He said he'd do anything we wanted him to do," the Jazz coach said. "That's always an encouraging thing when guys can do that — they take the role that you put them in and go on from there."
A week ago, Okur came off the bench for the first time since the 2004-05 season in Utah when he returned from his ruptured Achilles injury exactly eight months to the date after it happened at Denver in the playoffs last April.
The Jazz wanted to work him back slowly into the rotation, so subbing him in made the most sense.
Okur saw just over 10 minutes in his first game back and 13 in his second game. As bad luck would have it, Okur then sprained his right ankle in a pregame workout in Cleveland on Monday.
That injury kept him out of the Jazz's final two road games while also dampening his spirits a bit.
"I wish I was playing. I didn't want to sit down, but I guess (it) happens," Okur said. "It's really frustrating for me, because I was working hard to get better and get back 100 percent, especially basketball shape, and I had to sit down the last couple of games."
Sloan said the coaching staff would evaluate Okur's playing status when he returns. They assess how starters and subs do and how well they play with various combinations after each game.
"We'll approach that whenever it comes time to put him out there," Sloan said.
It does intrigue the coach how many options a healthy Okur gives the Jazz.
"The biggest thing is hopefully he stays healthy," Sloan said. "It's kind of strange. He gets hurt and we waited for him to come back and come back and then he sprains his ankle out there. You never know."
Once healthy, however, Okur can stretch defenses with his outside shot and his interior game had improved over the last couple of seasons as well.
"We're anxious to get him back," Sloan said. "But not to the point where we're going to push him back."
Before going through Friday's practice — a first since this injury happened — Okur was looking to play in Monday's home game against Portland. That would give Jazz fans their first chance to see him play this season.
Okur said he's putting in extra work to make that happen.
"I'll be probably out there," he said.
Though he's used to being a starter, coming back as a regular member of the Jazz's second unit intrigues Okur.
"It's a running group. It's good for me, actually, running with them, get into shape. I like it. I don't mind," he said, smiling. "First off, my goal is just to get (in) better basketball shape and be able to run with them."2 comments on this story
The Jazz's cavalry crew could really be a force to be reckoned with for foes with two 3-point threats — Okur and C.J. Miles — along with the feistiness of Francisco Elson and the spunk and spark of Earl Watson and Ronnie Price.
"He adds a lot to it," Miles said. "It's just more size and another guy to go to. It'll definitely help. It'll definitely open up driving lanes with him out there for myself, Earl and Ronnie Price.
"And on the other end," Miles continued, "it's just another person they (opponents) have to really focus in on and be aware of. ... He'll turn into a factor immediately."
Not just at the practice site, either.