The President, the King, and Mehmet Okur
I made small talk with the school janitor each day as she cleaned out my classroom. On one particular Friday, she asked my weekend plans. When I mentioned that I might try to make it to the Clinton Library in Little Rock, she stopped sweeping and leaned against the end of her dust mop before saying: “Ooh wee, Mr. K, if that Bill Clinton walked in my house, he could take me right there on the kitchen table. My husband could watch, I wouldn’t even pay him no mind.”
I am not aware of any particular social conventions for responding to an elderly woman who just graphically professed a desire to cheat on her husband with the former president. Consequently, I sat silently at my desk, struggling and failing not to visualize Slick Willy and our balding, pumpkin-shaped janitor engaging in coital relations as her husband watched aghast.
While I hoped for some time that I would find a way to repress that memory, it has proven indelibly burned in my mind. But disturbing as it was, it speaks of the magnitude of Bill Clinton’s physical appeal. Yet for all of its intensity, it did not seem to have any clearly apparent source; he was too chubby and creepy for it to be purely aesthetic. I’ve heard repeatedly that women are attracted to power, but I've never heard any woman openly pine for a mustache ride from Joseph Stalin. Yet the Clinton appeal would make itself clear to me in the most unexpected of places.
I’ve been to Graceland five times; that’s not as weird as it sounds if it’s a few hours away and you live in a town of 800. Before you tour the mansion, you can watch a montage of Elvis’ performances, with the first half focusing on his early days. The room is always crowded and filled with the noise of idle conversation, even through the beginning of movie. Yet as each person momentarily looks to the screen, their gazes are captured and an awestruck silence sweeps over the room.
Suddenly, you “get” the whole Elvis phenomenon. He was the most captivating figure the world had every seen and, above all else, the personification of pure human sexuality. Elvis had the power to transform groups of meek fourteen year-old girls into screaming mobs that turned riot police pale with fright. No figure in history brought out in people the magnitude of emotion that Elvis did, and when you watch him closely, you begin to understand why.
On my fourth tour, among the numerous decorative handguns and the rotating circular fur bed with a mirrored ceiling, I noticed to my amazement that Bill Clinton looked distinctly like a young Elvis. Granted, they wouldn’t pass as twins, but notice the chubby similarity of their facial features; they walk with the same quiet confidence; they speak with the same soft southern drawl. (You are obviously free to disagree with my various contentions of physical resemblance, but I definitely stand by them.)
To this day, I am convinced that one reason for Clinton’s ability to bring out the basest emotions in people is due in part to the subconscious connection that people make between him and Elvis. They were both similarly captivating. The same kind of repressed women who yearned for Elvis for being a southern rouge that daddy wouldn’t approve of would have found Clinton desirable as well; the same kind of uptight white men who have an aneurysm at the very mentioning of Clinton would have regarded Elvis as the harbinger of impending moral degradation, where man and beast lay together free of social consequence. (Shoals alerted me to a book by Greil Marcus comparing the two, which can be found here).
As we all know, time was not particularly kind to Elvis. As his sideburns grew, so did his belly and his ego. In embodying the American dream, he came to embody all of America’s wretched excesses as well. As he found sequins, capes, and the lyrics to Neil Diamond songs, he lost his moves, his mojo, and his artistic credibility. But like rubberneckers at a train wreck, America couldn’t avert her eyes, packing concert halls and stadiums to hear a fallen angel forget the words to “Sweet Caroline.”
When I saw Mehmet Okur play for the first time all I could think was, “Holy crap! He looks like fat Elvis!” Okur simply does not fit with the aesthetic of the league. How many other players sport ridiculous sideburns, chest hair, and a clock-stopping double chin? Scott Pollard takes great pains to look different, but he comes across as wannabe hipster with too much time on his hands; every time Memo steps on the court, he looks like he could have just slept with one of LBJ’s daughters.
Okur also plays exactly how I would have imagined that the older fat Elvis would have played. Mehmet plods around the court with all of the grace of a drunk dinosaur. As he lurches towards the basket, he clears defenders out of the way, either by the sheer momentum of his girth or because opposing players just don’t want to touch someone so hairy and sweaty. He plays no defense whatsoever, allowing even the likes of Mark Blount to light him up at will.
Yet Okur is mesmerizing when he shoots the ball. He technique is otherworldly; it’s not just that he doesn’t hold his follow through, his release is fluid but from a strange angle; he looks awkward and natural at the same time, not unlike Bird. But the man can shoot. A few days ago, I saw him knock down three 3-pointers in the first quarter against the Celtics. For the first time, that night I saw a center shoot a technical foul free throw. Yet when his man has the ball, he looks like a bewildered but curious bird, peeking his head to get a look at the action and then darting it away the moment something moved. Okur looked confused and diffident constantly, but in the act of shooting, he had the confidence of another man.
Fat Elvis would have been a gunner too. He'd trudge out to the arc, lauch a three off the glass (he calls it, of course) and then make some stupid "return to sender" joke. In his later years, he was a walking disaster area, but still managed to release a few shockingly good songs (sorry FreeDarko, I love Edan as much as the next guy, but deep down I’m country to the core). Beneath the cartoonish clothing and piccolo accompaniments, there were times when fat Elvis still shined. In the same way, you can spend thirty minutes watching Memo shy away from driving opponents and throw passes into the stands while wondering if he even knows what team he’s on. But when he shoots you forget all of his gaffes and spend the rest of the game screaming at Deron Williams to run more pick and rolls.
America couldn’t avert her eyes from fat Elvis because of the spectacle he offered. I need to watch Okur for the same reason. He’s a walking antithesis to Wade, LeBron, Iverson, anyone really. How one man can move so goofily but shoot so sublimely seems to defy any logical conception of how human beings ought to play basketball. He looks like Elvis, he plays like Elvis, and I can’t look away.
Were I a more spiritual person, or maybe if I just did more drugs, I might argue that Elvis’s spirit somehow occupies Okur’s body. Maybe one day, he woke up, looked at himself in the mirror and said, “Well, I’m seven-feet tall and Turkey’s got no rock and roll, so I guess I better learn myself a jumper.”
The basketball snob in me says that I waste my time with Okur when there’s so much good basketball to be seen, as if indulging in Okur is the basketball equivalent of Lot’s wife turning back to look at Sodom and Gomorrah. But until I turn into a pillar of salt or unless he dies on the toilet, I’ll tune in whenever I can.