How this Baylor Bear became Turkey’s most popular American hoops star
In 2015, after five years in the NBA, former Baylor men’s basketball star Ekpe Udoh found himself in an unusual place: Turkey.
“Hoo, that was brutal,” Udoh told The New York Times in a must-read feature. “I probably didn’t accept it until January, February that I was overseas.”
As you can imagine, it wasn’t the easiest transition for Udoh, who grew up in Oklahoma. It’s a jarring experience to suddenly be thousands of miles from friends and family, submerged in a brand new culture, and learning a completely foreign language. Yet here he was, playing center for Turkey’s leading club, Fenerbahce.
For many Americans playing overseas, the experience is really just another job. But after coming to grips with his situation, Udoh chose instead to fully embrace the opportunity. For the past two years, he’s immersed himself in Turkish culture. He started a photo blog of his favorite Istanbul restaurants. Last November, he sent his virtual book club the Turkish classic, “Madonna in a Fur Coat.” He’s sent local high school seniors a good-luck message for their exams. And after seeing the image of the country’s first president almost everywhere he looked, he began his own personal “Ataturk project” to learn all about the man his fans hold so dear.
At the same time, Udoh was excelling on the court. Over the last two years, he helped lead his team to two Turkish national titles and the 2016-17 Euroleague championship (the world’s most competitive league outside the United States), winning Euroleague Final Four MVP honors in the process.
But though he’s had great success on the court, it’s how Udoh has shown love to his fans that’s made him Turkey’s most popular American player. “He’s not just a player,” one Turkish fan told the Times. “He researches the Turkish culture. He understands the Turkish people.”
While his Turkish fans may be sad to see him go, Baylor fans will be excited to learn that it sounds like Udoh is headed back to the States. Though nothing has been officially announced yet, reports surfaced this week that Udoh has signed a two-year deal with the NBA’s Utah Jazz. (The Jazz, coincidentally, are run by general manager Dennis Lindsey — Baylor Class of 1992, and father of current Baylor men’s basketball player Jake Lindsey.)
Sic ’em, Ekpe!
[7/21 update: The Jazz made Udoh’s signing official this week — and also signed another former Baylor standout, Royce O’Neale. Sic ’em, Jazz!]