Ekpe Udoh’s departure from his former Turkish team has an ironic similarity to a situation Utah Jazz fans are all too familiar with.
Whenever a player leaves a team, especially if that player is important to the team and beloved by the fans, it’s always hard for the spurned fan base to move on. For prove of this, look no further than to fans of the Utah Jazz, who just had this situation happen. Fans of the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder would likely equally concur.
However, as painful as it is for the team and fan base on the losing end of the deal, rarely does the winning side feel even a tinge of guilt. After all, it is a business, and with winning a championship as the ultimate goal, nabbing a coveted player is considered a moment for celebration, not regret.
Given that the signing of Ekpe Udoh was very much an under-the-radar and unforeseen move by the Utah Jazz, it’s obvious that Jazz fans aren’t celebrating his acquisition to nearly the extent that Boston Celtics fans are celebrating the addition of Gordon Hayward. Udoh’s relative obscurity in comparison to several big names in the NBA make it fair to say that most Jazz fans don’t even realize how beloved of a player they were able to snag and how painful it was for Fenerbahce (Udoh’s former Turkish team) fans to see him go.
Ironically enough, in some ways it resembles the situation that Jazz fans just had to go through in losing their All-Star Gordon Hayward.
Udoh joined Fenerbahce in 2015 and quickly worked his way into the hearts of fans both on and off the court. In a recent New York Times piece by Patrick Kingsley in which he did an in-depth profile on the Turkish League star, he referred to Udoh as the most popular American playing with the Turkish clubs. Kingsley also included several quotes that certainly backed up that sentiment.
A pair of fans, 29-year-old Emre Elmas and 17-year-old Zehra Tanguzer, had the following to say, respectively:
"“He’s not just a player. He researches the Turkish culture. He understands the Turkish people.”“He’s not just Ekpe Udoh the basketball player. He’s like a big brother.”"
Members of the Turkish media echoed a similar sentiment. Caner Eler, the editor of Turkey’s leading sports magazine said the following:
"“There have been many American basketball players in Turkey since the 1980s, and they were also talented, but Ekpe is different because of his relationship with the fans. He has a beautiful awareness of the other sides of life, outside sports.”"
Finally, beIN Sports commentator Ugur Ozan Sulak had this to say about Udoh:
"“Now he’s a versatile player, and he’s probably the most wanted player in Europe currently.”"
As is easy to see, Udoh was certainly a fan favorite in multiple ways and for good reason. Not only was he beloved off the court, but the six-foot-ten Baylor product evolved his game while playing in Fenerbahce and brought his team a Turkish Cup, two Turkish League championships and most impressive of all, a coveted Euroleague championship.
In Udoh’s short two-year stint with the team, he had captivated Fenerbahce fans and brought about unbelievable success as well as optimism for a bright future. But almost as quickly as he had arrived, Udoh was gone as on July 13, he agreed to an NBA deal with the Utah Jazz.
Udoh’s second contract with Fenerbahce was a 1+1 deal, leading some to believe that he would indeed stay for the second year of the agreement, but instead Udoh seized the opportunity to chase his dream and play once again in the most competitive basketball league in the world.
In a recently published piece on EuroAngle, Udoh took the time to thank his Turkish fans in a letter simply titled, “Thank You” (anybody else seeing the parallel here?). I’ve included the full letter below:
"To My Fenerbahce Fans and my Turkish FansThis is going to be a tough one. I have so much love for you all and have grown so much the last two years being a part of the Fenerbahce family. However, the time has come for me to move forward and continue my career in the NBA. This decision has been weighing on me for the past couple years if I was given the chance to play in the NBA again…. Please understand that I want this opportunity more than anything in life right now. I will strive to be better than I was in my first stint in the NBA. I want to be able to say that I can play and compete in the best league in the world.This decision is solely about competing at the highest level at a game that I love. But the reality is that Fenerbahce and Turkey rekindled my love for basketball. You all helped me become “me” again. For that I am forever grateful.For my youngins, please be the best person that you can be and strive for greatness. Don’t let anybody tell you that you cannot do something. No matter if you have to take the long route, it will will be worth at the end.After every season, I plan on coming back to Turkey to see y’all. Soccer matches, basketball camps, and dinners because without y’all, I wouldn’t be here!!!"
The note was extremely well written and heartfelt from an outsider’s perspective, but just as many Jazz fans took issue with Hayward’s letter and handling of the situation, some Fenerbahce fans have felt the same. And quite frankly, it’s entirely understandable – as I said to initiate the piece, losing out on a star player is never easy.
In a recent tweet, Andy Larsen of KSL was quick to notice the overwhelming fan reaction on the EuroAngle piece and it certainly is interesting to see what they had to say about him. More than anything, by perusing the comments one can get a sense of just how beloved Udoh was and for the most part, his fans seemed to be quite supportive of his decision, even though it stung.
Here are a select few comments from the piece that stood out the most to me:
"“It was an honor and a privilege to be able to watch you do your thing, become a better version of yourself, as a player and as a person. Such inspiring athletes like yourself are quite rare these days and you showed us how a public figure can set an example on different aspects of life. Know this: people may say unkind things after the news of you leaving the club but this is all because how valuable you are to them. Time will pass and they will remember you as who you are, a hero.”“Ekpe, You have been the best personality and character I’ve seen on and off the court and will always pray for your success even if this will move you away from Fenerbahce. We’ll be proud with your achievements in the NBA and are sure that you’ll be at the level you deserve this time. Turkey will always be your second home. May the best of luck always be with you”“We’ve been waiting for this message nearly for 48 hours. Lets say better late than never 🙂 I understand that this is your own journey to prove yourself to no other than you. I respect… Hope all the best for you, we’ll follow :)”“Ekpe Ekpe! I’m so sorry. When I learnt your decision, I cried very much. Now, I am still crying. Because, we love you a lot. There is a very special connection between you and us. You are a very good person and a man. We need people like you in this country. Be sure! Not only Fenerbahce fans, everyone loved you very much in Turkey. I hope you are happy. Thanks for everything. Good luck in NBA. Take care.”"
Those truly only scratch the surface as so many fans expressed their love for Udoh despite their dismay at his departure. While most of the comments were of a similar nature – sad but understanding – oddly enough, this lengthy one below (of which I’ve included only a portion) reminded me precisely of the Hayward situation and I felt inclined to include it:
"“No one is mad that you wanted to go to NBA or you wanted to be closer to your family. We respect that. Any negative reaction you might be getting at this point is only because we feel used and deceived by you.You said you would never want to play for another coach again or that you won’t leave unless something extraordinary happens. And you made us believe it was your choice to stay. You made us love you for all the wrong reasons. This isn’t about a change of mind.One day we wake up and find out that the only reason you said you’d stay was because you had never gotten the chance to leave before. And you took the first chance you got. I, for what it’s worth, think it is ugly. It hurts to see one of our favourite players only saw this team as “the long route” back to the NBA.I don’t doubt that you love the fans. It is only common decency to return the love of thousands of people. And I will be forever grateful for everything you did on and off the court. I’m also glad that your efforts are finding its fruition.However, you handled your leaving in such a tasteless manner. So sudden and mysterious. Now, I can’t help but feel like every good thing you did here kind of lost its meaning. All of this could’ve been solved if you were kind enough to post a goodbye letter before we heard the news and before you started liking utahjazz posts.”"
Reading those paragraphs feels like deja vu all over again.
In short, while it’s always easy to see our own side of things, it’s quite clear that although many viewed the Udoh addition as a savvy move by Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey to add depth to the frontcourt and to little by little patch up the hole left by Gordon Hayward, there’s certainly another side to this story – one of a painful departure of the like that Jazz fans are all too familiar with.
However, I must say I do agree with the sentiment portrayed by the Twitter user, Mr. Vlamakis, in the tweet below. Although Udoh’s departure certainly stings, at least he did so after producing some incredible results for his former Fenerbahce squad and that should soften the blow at least somewhat.
All in all, Udoh’s decision to seize the opportunity to follow his dream to play in the NBA is very much an understandable one. No doubt he feels some degree of dissatisfaction for being a former lottery pick who never truly panned out and who now has the opportunity to prove himself anew. And for that, he shouldn’t be blamed, even if his method of letting his former fans know his decision was less than ideal.
Hopefully Jazz fans will learn to embrace and appreciate Udoh in the way that his Turkish fans have and hopefully his renewed confidence and skills that he developed while playing overseas will help him make a major impact on this Jazz team. While the Jazz are looking for redemption after being spurned by their star player, Udoh is looking for redemption in a league that once ran out of room for him, so the two should make for an intriguing pair.
Yet, regardless of the success Udoh has with the Jazz, there’s no doubting that one fan base, albeit one that is far removed from the everyday thoughts of NBA fans, is hurting knowing that he left them for another team. And while Jazz fans should be excited to have Udoh in their mix, they above all ought to have some sense of sympathy for a plight they know all too well.