Big Man, Big Personality

There are few true originals in athletics -- or, truly, society as a whole -- these days.

We live in a world where seemingly everyone of even a moderately high profile is aware and cognizant of their "image." They work to maintain it. Public relations professionals school them on what to say and how to say it to come across favorably in the public eye.

It's no different at West Virginia University. Players receive media training, which far too often results in a group that spits out the same quotes like a bunch of clones. Insert your favorite cliché here -- by now, you've probably heard them all -- and that's the product of all this work on massaging public perception.

But thankfully, some buck the trend.

The Mountaineers' Deniz Kilicli is one of them. He has never been afraid to speak his mind, both when times are good and when they are bad.

And right now, ahead of Kilicli's Senior Day game on Saturday against Iowa State, they are certainly bad. This WVU team would have to win next week's Big 12 Conference Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament -- a destination that was a fixture in each of Bob Huggins' first five seasons as coach and Kilicli's first three years as a player.

Kilicli has been outspoken, frustrated and honest during it all. That's one reason why he's a no-brainer interview for reporters on the beat, whether he is playing well or poorly.

The big man has a personality to match his size. Speak with him for just a few minutes, and it becomes painfully obvious he is an intelligent person. Watch him play guitar in public and you'll quickly see how diverse his talents are.

"Deniz can do a lot of things," Huggins has often said.

And then there is the look, seemingly tailor-made for West Virginia. The jokes became cliché themselves -- yes, Kilicli looks like he would be a shoo-in for the Mountaineer mascot had he decided to give up basketball and take up cheerleading.

Add it all together, and you have the makings of a person who is extraordinarily easy to like.

That's nothing new. From the first time reporters had the chance to talk to Kilicli after he came to Morgantown, it was clear he was a magnetic personality. Speaking in remarkably clear English for someone who learned the language by watching television shows, Kilicli never let language be a barrier to expressing his thoughts.

Back then, it was about his frustration with the NCAA's decision to make him sit out 20 games for what it interpreted as a violation of its standards for amateurism. His crime? Playing on a club team back home with a player who was getting paid.

It's been a long road for Kilicli since then. He burst onto the scene like gangbusters in his first game back from that NCAA-mandated time off, scoring six straight points as soon as he appeared in a Backyard Brawl game against Pitt in Morgantown.

In my seven years covering Mountaineer athletics, I've witnessed some wild moments and many benchmark wins for WVU. I'm not sure I've ever heard the Coliseum louder than it was as he dropped in those buckets and forced Panthers coach Jamie Dixon to call timeout.

Kilicli's humanity has been evident over the years. As time went on and he became a central figure on the WVU roster, Kilicli occasionally struggled on the floor and searched for answers that weren't easy in coming. Fans have sometimes been cruel, as passionate fans can be.

So I asked Huggins on Friday if he thought people truly appreciated Kilicli for his talents on the court.

"I think the most important thing is everybody we play does," Huggins responded succinctly. "Everybody we play kind of sets their defense to deny him. Iowa State will [on Saturday] -- they'll help off of people and double-team him in the post."

But before the game ever begins, it will be an emotional occasion. Kilicli is one who wears his feelings on his sleeves, and Huggins has made it abundantly clear that he has a real respect and admiration for Kilicli.

"He means so much to me," Kilicli said of Huggins. "He's like my dad. That's how I feel about him. I love him to death. He did so much for me. Nobody has done that much for me in my basketball career."

Add in the fact Kilicli's parents are in town from Turkey and will get the chance to watch their son play a college game in person for the first time, and one should expect plenty of tears will be flowing.

"I just want them to see it," he said Friday. "As much as I tell them about it, you've got to experience this kind of stuff. It's all these people, students and everything, how much our fans show their passion and everything about our team, about the Mountaineers ... it's an amazing place here. The Coliseum is an amazing place."

"It's just so hard for me," Kilicli added. "I'm going to leave. I just ... it's really hard for me. I don't know what I'm going to do Saturday. I love the fans. I love this team. And it's going to be so hard for me to leave Huggs. He has been there for me at every high point in my life and every low point in my life. When I needed people the most, when I was 17, 18, whatever ... he was there for me. We have a different kind of relationship than just a player and a coach. It's so hard for me to go somewhere else."

It's obvious Deniz Kilicli will miss West Virginia. And as time goes on, I imagine those who love the Mountaineers will miss Kilicli too -- for his personality, his skills on the court and his passion for this place and this program.

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