SALT LAKE CITY —
When former Jazz center Mehmet Okur announced his retirement last week, I thought: There goes one of the good ones. It's always nice to have a 7-foot, perimeter shooter. But more than that, he was among the most pleasant players I ever met.
Okur occasionally called me by name, which was a rarity among recent Jazz players. I wasn't there with the team on the road, except during playoffs, and wasn't even there for every home game, either. As a columnist, I was just a random face. He could have treated me like one of the potted plants.
But that wasn't his style. Former Deseret News writer Tim Buckley ran into Okur on the street one year when the Jazz were playing in New York. Okur was going to lunch with his wife. He greeted Buckley like a friend and invited him to join them.
A player dining with a sports writer is like a cheer captain hanging out with the kid that has cooties.
While reading several Okur stories, I came across an article about former Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, now in Minnesota. If there were two better guys in the NBA in recent years, I want to meet them. Kirilenko was open and carefree, a fresh breeze in a stuffy place. After the season ended in 2011 — his last with the Jazz — he was asked about the turbulent season.
"It's like — how do you call that animal with the stripes? — zebra," he said. "I think it's that kind of season we have this year."
Kirilenko called playing in Utah "a blessing" and said it was "never going to be forgotten."
This is the same Kirilenko who offered to walk away from millions of guaranteed dollars the Jazz owed him if they didn't feel he was meeting expectations.
I can't recall an American player ever making such an offer.
One of retiring NBA commissioner David Stern's best moves was welcoming international players. That idea originally put me off. It's not like there weren't plenty of great players down the street.
Why invite a bunch of guys with high shorts and flat shoes?
It began with a trickle of players such as Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc and Arvydas Sabonis, but grew to a stream. This year's opening-night rosters included a record-tying 84 international players — 19 percent of the league.
To my knowledge, they're not only good players but good guys. At last spring's playoffs, San Antonio's Tony Parker (Belgium, France) was repeatedly interrupted by a reporter during group interviews. Parker politely asked him to please stop, saying the interruptions were "very annoying." Nevertheless, he agreed to answer two of the reporter's questions.
I can think of numerous uncivil things he might have said.
It was a similar situation with teammate Manu Ginobili (Argentina). Asked to respond about botching a dunk in a playoff game against the Jazz, Ginobili smiled sheepishly and said, ""I know I overachieved on the first two (dunks). I got too excited in the beginning. I tried to dunk everything and I'm not up to the task."
Ginobili went on to note the Jazz's Gordon Hayward had "great athletic abilities" yet candidly added, "His shot is getting there. He's not the most reliable one yet, but you've got to respect him. He has length. He has the whole package. He's going to be a great player."
Hmmm. A complimentary yet candid response — a rare combination in sports.
Laker Pau Gasol (Spain) usually enters postgame press conferences dressed in tie and jacket or suit. He takes his seat and says something like, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. How may I help you?"
He's as courtly as a butler.
Steve Nash (South Africa, Canada) is one of the league's most respected players, by both media and players. One year during the playoffs, a writer was in mid-interview with Nash when the practice whistle blew, ending the session. The next day Nash took the trouble to look up the writer at practice and ask if he wanted to continue the interview.
Who knew superstars made house calls?
The times I was around Houston's Yao Ming (China), he was pleasant and polite.
That's not easy when you spend most of your career in the doctor's office.4 comments on this story
Enes Kanter (Turkey) is maybe the Jazz's most appealing personality this year. Or maybe you haven't seen his dancing moves.
I worry about what's going on in the Middle East. I'm afraid of what they're thinking in North Korea. Is Saudi Arabia our friend? I don't know about any of that. But I do know if there comes a day of true day of world harmony, I'm going to credit the NBA for moving it along.
Go in peace, Memo, go in peace.