NEW ORLEANS — People who had eight months exactly in their "How long before Mehmet Okur returns?" office pool can bask in bragging rights.
For the first time since he ruptured his left Achilles heel on April 17, the Utah Jazz center and his surgically repaired tendon saw action in an NBA game Friday night.
"It's been eight months," Okur said after his near-11-minute outing. "It's nice to be out there."
It wasn't exactly a triumphant return, considering Okur only had two points on 1-for-4 shooting, one assist and zero rebounds off the bench in Utah's 100-71 blowout loss to the New Orleans Hornets.
But simply returning was a triumph for Okur, who spent nearly eight grueling months rehabbing his Achilles and building strength in his left leg following surgery in early May.
"It could've been better, but I'll take it because it's first game," said Okur, who didn't experience any soreness Friday. "I've got to continue to work harder."
Nobody in the Jazz organization will question the work it took for Okur to get to the point of return. He bypassed his annual summer-long Turkey retreat to stay in Utah to rehab and rebuild muscle and regain mobility in his left leg.
Okur also made three separate hard-working visits to a performance training lab in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"He's killed himself. I mean, he really has," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said. "He's busted his tail to get himself back to doing what he has."
Okur described the two-thirds-of-a-year journey as being the "toughest ever," both physically and mentally.
The hardest part?
Hint: It wasn't the workouts.
"When you got up in the morning, you feel like I have nothing to do. I'm going to do nothing and stay home," Okur said. "I used to think about I'm going to eat breakfast, practice, go play a game, this, that. But first couple of weeks was nightmare."
Throughout his rehab process, the Jazz and Okur were reluctant to announce a timetable. Both parties wanted the center to take as much time as he needed to get himself as physically and mentally prepared as possible.
Okur's Achilles has been healed for a few months, but it has taken a while for him to rebuild muscle in his weakened leg. On Wednesday, he guesstimated that he's at about 80 percent full strength.
With Okur making steady progress — and telling reporters he's getting "better, better" — the Jazz medical staff wanted to see how he would respond to three consecutive days of what O'Connor called "basketball-related stuff," including full five-on-five scrimmages and practice.
By Friday, the Jazz and Okur deemed he was ready to give it a go. Coach Jerry Sloan made the announcement after the team's morning shootaround session — one hinted at by Jazz President Randy Rigby on KSL-TV's SportsBeat Sunday five days prior.
"It's going to be a process to get back into it," O'Connor said. "The game's going to be fast for him right away."
Okur described going against the Hornets as being "a different story" than the scrimmages he's played in.
Sloan even admitted the Jazz's second unit might suffer a bit — "probably some," he said — while Okur works his way back to full strength. But everybody in the organization agrees actual playing time is an essential step in the recovery process.
"That's the only way you get a chance to get better," Sloan said.
Okur's teammates will take what they can get from a likable player they're happy to see return. When he's back to being the Money Man, Okur can provide a reliable outside shot and do damage on the boards inside.
"I think it's great that he's progressed through his rehab the way he has," said Jazz guard Raja Bell, a former teammate of Okur's during his first stint in Utah. "For us, it's always great to have him back because he's so talented.
"But I'm more happy for him," Bell added. "That's a big hurdle to actually get back out there on the court after an injury like that."
Okur's return was one of the only bright spots in the Jazz's most lopsided loss of the season.
"We're definitely happy to have Memo back," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. "It's going to take him some time to get back acclimated to just playing basketball. He's probably not going to play a lot of heavy minutes, but it's definitely good to see him back on the court."
Though his time might be limited to the 10-minute range again, Okur said he plans on playing tonight in Milwaukee.
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