Today is Memorial day. A solemn day for those who observe, far from the pageantry of a 'victory day' celebration. It is also smaller in scope compared to Veteran's day, which commemorates the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation in the Greatest of World Wars. Today is just a day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice during their service to our Nation. They answered the call of duty, and paid for it with their own blood.
Wars, battles, and sacrifices are sometimes alluded to in professional sports, but to do so mostly trivializes the actual horror of people fighting to kill one other for a specific cause, ideal, concept, or flag.
That said, every player who makes the NBA has to make countless personal sacrifices in order to get to this level. And many of the players who succeed have to overcome many obstacles. In today's day and age where free agency is rampant and players make ridiculous money, the game has changed. And the game has chanced as a consequence of the changing attitudes within the league.
Thankfully there are a number of old school cats still around who value things like honor, and loyalty. The missing piece in this crop of NBA players seems to be duty. Players used to owe it to their team to achieve greatness, instead now we have players feeling like the teams owe them something just for showing up.
One Utah Jazz player we all should remember on Memorial day is Mehmet Okur. Memo was the first real center in Jazz franchise history who made it so the team was playing 5 on 5 on offense, instead of languishing there with Mark Eaton, Felton Spencer, Jarron Collins, or Greg Ostertag up front. He made clutch shots; spaced the floor; had that adorable up-fake and drive that was super slow and awkward, but effective; and played defense.
Somehow last on this list is that he played hurt. In his first three seasons with the Jazz he played in 244 or a possible 246 games. On a team of Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko this type of reliability was greatly appreciated. Age caught up with him and in the next three seasons he would play 72, 72, and 73 games. If you are keeping score at home that means in his first six seasons with the team the bigman played in 461 / 492 games, or 93.7% of every Jazz regular season game during that span.
The bad news is that Memo left it all on the floor, and would routinely be injured during the time the playoffs came around. (Perhaps if other bigs weren't always injured during the regular season he wouldn't have to over-exert himself to carry the team to the playoffs in the first place?)
During that time frame where he would play in 93.7% of the Jazz regular season games (2004-05 till 2009-10) he played in only 32 Jazz playoff games. The team would play in 44 though. It cannot be stated just how much those Jazz teams needed Okur to function. But the simple idea could be to point out that after being able to rely on him 93.7% of the time, when he was only available 72.7% of the time things quickly fell apart.
The team just didn't have the replacements to pick up the slack. This isn't to disparage the talents and abilities of Jarron Collins, Kyrylo Fesenko, Kosta Koufos, and Rafael Araujo -- it's just to point out that the Jazz were better equipped to handle the loss of a starter somewhere else other than center.
Furthermore, it wasn't as if Memo was healthy to play in 72.7% of every Jazz playoff series either. Against the Los Angeles Lakers he wasn't there (or Andrei), and I suspect that if it was two teams at full strength then the games would not have been so lopsided.
So what happened to Memo?
Okur's story should become legend in time, but the facts remain legendary enough on their own.
The end of the 2009-2010 regular season was approaching. The Western Conference was as close as ever, and single games still meant something. The Jazz had another 50+ win season, but playoff seeding was still at stake. Sure, Utah had won 13 of their last 20 games, and were rolling at home with a 10 game win streak. There were two games left on the schedule, @ GSW, and then the next night vs PHX. Everything was leading up to that game against the Phoenix Suns, who were also on a tear, having won 15 of their last 20 leading up into these last two nights of the season.
Phoenix and Utah were heading to a flashpoint that would determine each others' fates. To end the season they played three times. On March 4th Utah beat Phoenix in Phoenix 116-108. Then on March 19th Phoenix beat Utah in Phoenix 110-100. While the Jazz won the first game of this series months ago, it would be the last game that matters the most. It was a Jazz home game on April 14th. It would do more than just determine who won the season series but also have huge implications in Western Conference playoff order.
Mainly, it was the right to see which team avoids being placed in the same part of the bracket as the Los Angeles Lakers. This was very important to the Jazz because those very same Kobe Bryant / Pau Gasol / Andrew Bynum / Lamar Odom / Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) Lakers bounced us from the playoffs in the last two years in a row.
The team needed these last two games of the season to keep pace with the Suns, and then beat the Suns.
On the 13th the Suns beat the Nuggets in Phoenix. Ho-hum. The Jazz beat the Warriors in their gym, crazy good. By this time both teams had clinched being in the playoffs, but this last game was super important. Jerry Sloan wanted this one, but could have very well decided to sit players and rest them for the playoffs. Two candidates for resting were Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. Both played the night before against the Warriors. Memo finished with 23 points, 7 rebounds, and shot .600 / .333 / 1.000 in that game. He was playing hurt. Booz finished with 5 points, 4 rebounds, and didn't look good.
The next night only one of these two guys played. This was the most important game of the season to this point. The guy who played (playing hurt mind you) was Memo. He had been taking shots to numb the feedback his own body was giving him in order to tell him "hey, buddy, you're hurt. stop hurting yourself!". The problem with this is that people take this to prevent feeling pain from injuries that have already happened, but they also block out the sensory information that new injuries are happening.
Memo finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds, shot 64.3 fg%, and hit three threes against the Suns. The team lost at home by 14 points. It wasn't a loss because of his efforts. He was playing hurt, but he was a warrior. He could have sat it out like Boozer, that seemed to be Boozer's "go-to move" in a Jazz jersey.
So the Jazz lost, and would be placed in the difficult part of the playoffs.Well, let's be real, this is the Western Conference. Phoenix won and won the right to play the Portland Trail Blazers then the San Antonio Spurs on the way to the Western Conference Finals. The Jazz lost and got to play the Denver Nuggets, then the Lakers. All roads led to LA.
The playoffs started for the Jazz on the road, in Denver. And the Nuggets were looking to make quick work of our injured roster (Kirilenko was already out and the team had to guard Carmelo Anthony with C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews -- a rookie). Memo wasn't having any of that, though.
Memo was putting on a tour de force performance in Denver. In the first half Memo was unstoppable.
- Q1 (12:00) -- Okur wins the tip, Jazz ball
- Q1 (11:22) -- Okur gets defensive board, that leads to Jazz score 6 seconds later
- Q1 (6:45) -- Okur hits a three, his first shot of the game, Jazz lead 19-13
- Memo sits and the Nuggets go on a run, and finish the first quarter up 30-28
- Q2 (10:24) -- Kyle Korver misses a shot, Okur gets the rebound, and put back, Jazz now only down by 1
- Q2 (9:16) -- Memo draws a shooting foul on CHris Andersen, and drains both free throws, Jazz hanging in there despite all the Melo / Ty Lawson mismatches
- Q2 (8:19) -- Memo draws an offensive foul on J.R. Smith, Jazz ball, down by only 1. He's on fire on offense and defense, and hasn't missed a shot
- Q2 (8:04) -- Memo is injured and misses the rest of the playoffs
In the 11 minutes that Okur was in the game the Jazz were +1, and he had a line of 7 points (2/2 FG, 1/1 3PT, 2/2 FT), 2 rebounds, and one drawn charge. He was the riddle they couldn't solve and kept the team within striking distance. Memo was playing hurt, and on his way to his third 20 point game in a row., in his third game back from injury. But it was not to be. And without him the team lost the game 126-113.
The Jazz would win this series in six games, motivated to win this for Memo, who had fallen for this team. Memo, it would later be revealed, truly did put the Jazz ahead of himself, shortening his career for the sake of fighting for this team. Does Mehmet not get hurt in the playoffs by sitting more regular season games? There's no way to tell. Does Memo get more accurate feedback from his body if he's not on the drugs he was on to play through the pain? Probably. Would he have decided not to play in those games then? Probably not.
Memo, the former Jazz Ironman, most likely made the decision to do whatever it took to play in these games. This is a guy who already won a Championship ring talking. He was a member of the Detroit Pistons squad who beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals in 2004. And he was a rotation player on that team and saw firsthand the sacrifices the older guys on that team made to win the title. Being the most experienced guy on the team he felt it was his duty to lead by example on the floor.
And he really did.
And he left it all on the floor, on a perfect shooting night in Denver on a night he would tear his Achilles tendon, three games after returning from injury.
Do the Jazz go into such a tailspin if Memo doesn't get hurt? Is Deron Williams happier with him on the floor? How big was the window of opportunity for this team? These are questions we cannot answer. One thing we do know is that since that Denver series where Memo went down the Jazz have not won a single playoff game. No really, Friday, April 30th, 2010 was the last time the Jazz won a playoff game. Since then they've been 0-8.
One of the biggest things in my life is sports. I don't ascribe to the American Civil religion (Hi Freemasons!), so I guess my most practical one is following the Jazz. So for me Memorial day will always be partly about MEMO-rial day. And how Memo played probably one of his best games ever, only to suffer what used to be a career ending injury in it. And all because he wanted to win so badly.
All because duty called, and he felt like it was up to him to play hard and help his team win games. As an aside, this is partly why Memo is the best Jazz center of all time in my books. He never said the series was already over after a Game 1 loss. That was some other guy. He never said quit, Memo came back in the previous playoff year to play injured also. He just made threes, hated the Lakers, and shortened his playing career in an attempt to help the franchise.
Happy MEMOrial day everyone. And remember those who gave it all when duty called.