Welcome to Turkey: An American’s first taste of European Basketball
American Evin Demirel attends the Efes Pilsen-Minnesota Timberwolves game at NBA Europe Live 2007 in Istanbul
Growing up in the US, since early adolescence I have followed the NBA with unflagging enthusiasm. While I have seen many live NBA games, my exposure to European basketball was limited to the first couple Dream Teams’ domination tours, old, blurry footage of legends like Petrovic, Kukoc, and Sabonis, and, more recently, and watching with jaw dropped as the once mighty Americans fell to foreign powers in the last three major international competitions.
However I had yet to experience the real thing, live, with those famously fanatical European basketball fans et al…. And so when I heard that an NBA team would be playing a Turkish team in Turkey for the first time this fall, I realized that this was an opportunity I could not pass up. I bought a ticket for my father (who is Turkish) and I and we arrived at Abdi Ipekçi, the home arena of Efes Pilsen, ready for my first taste of live Turkish (and European) basketball.
The first thing that hit me as I walked into the arena was a sense of controlled chaos that permeated everything – from the cars parked on sidewalks, the never-ending honking of the other cars on the street, sausage and water sellers yelling for your attention at the entrance of the building (truly a “bizaar” experience), cigarette smoke hanging in the lobby of the Abdi Ipekçi arena, Efes Pilsen fanatics wearing dark-blue and white jester hats, a man behind our seats blowing on what may be the most annoying instrument known to man – a plastic düdük (a gutted-out flashlight) which has a sound resembling that of a cantankerous duck….. through it all the passion of the fans swelling…. the fans were very involved and very enthusiastic from opening-tip to the last shot. Turks really know how to support their teams!
The yabancÄ± takÄ±m (foreign team) consisted of my former favorite NBA team – the Timberwolves. However, that was because of Kevin Garnett, whose passion for the game I adore. With last summer’s blockbuster trade with Boston, the Garnett era ended, and a new one – one featuring Timberwolf cubs – has begun. Minnesota has eight players in their rotation who are 24 years or younger. This may be the youngest team in NBA history. Even the coach, Randy Wittman, is entering his first full year as the team’s head coach. The on-court leader at this early stage seems to be the second-year guard, Randy Foye, but the team’s best player is Al Jefferson, a beast of a low-post player. He is a true back-to-the-basket operator and physically resembles a slightly larger Elton Brand. He has great hands, and I can foresee him becoming an even a better rebounder, something along the lines of Moses Malone. After the all-star game last season, he played opponents to the tune of 20 and 10 a night, to go along with 55% from the field – “Big Al” is legit. Randy Foye and rookie Corey Brewer should become solid contributers over the course of the season, but I am not a big fan of the games of Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, and Ricky Davis. While they are spectacular athletes, I don’t feel that their games are mature enough to help the Timberwolves form a cohesive, winning unit this season. I forecast Minnesota finishes with the worst record in the league.
The home team, Efes Pilsen, is the most storied basketball franchise in Turkey. Ä°t has won the Turkish Basketball League first division title 12 times, is the only Turkish team to capture a European tourney championship (Korac Cup 2006), and has produced four of the five Turkish players that have played in the NBA (Mehmet Okur, Hedo Turkoglu, Ibrahim Kutluay, Mirsad TÃ¼rkÃ§an). After failing to win the the Turkish title the last two years (and not advancing past the “Sweet Sixteen” of Euroleague), the team underwent a deep revision this past summer. Nine players were waived, six (five Americans) were added, and a new head coach – David Blatt – was named. David Blatt is currently to international basketball what Shakira is to international pop music – simply the hottest thing around. This past summer, in the European Championships, he only took a team nobody thought had much of a chance – Russia – and went onto the home court of the most feared team in Europe – Spain – and (gasp) dared to win the whole thing. And so the Efes faithful have good reason to anticipate a highly successful season – anything less than a Euroleague Final Four appearance will be considered a disappointment.
The Match -
As the game got underway, I could not help but notice a few differences as well as some surprising similarities between American and European basketball. Something that struck me as very “European” occurred with 8 minutes to go in the second quarter. The Efes guard, Serkan Erdogan, received a breakaway outlet pass and bolted towards the basket for what seemed to be a score, or at least an attempt. As three Timberwolves bore down on him from behind, he decided to not shot it but pass it out to an open Drew Nicholas behind the arc instead. You would never see this in America. Maybe if you are watching Nash conduct his orchestra in Phoenix, but elsewhere this kind of pass is a cardinal sin for basketball coaches. “Always, always take it to the rack! Make them foul you!” they preach from the time you are a child in basketball camp. But in Europe, where there is a closer three-point line and more prolific outside shooters, it sometimes pays off to “kick it out” instead. Nicholas missed the shot though. Something that struck me as ironic was that a majority of the time the Turkish host team did not look Turkish so much as American. A few times in the second half, when the game was tight, I saw four Americans and one Turk out there playing for Efes Pilsen. None of fans seemed to mind, however, as long as their team was doing well….
Surreal Moment of the Night
This was too weird to not write about. Additionally, too weird to not have its own section called “Surreal Moment of the Night.” It happened with 10:17 to go in the fourth quarter. Minnesota had just extended its lead from 60-59 to 68-59 in the preceding few minutes. There was a commercial break and, as is the case at all NBA games these days, there was immediate panem et circenses to appease the crowd. But this wasn’t your normal everyday flying dunking lizard man or your run-of-the-mill half-court shooting contest – no this was an entirely different species altogether. It was a Yatak Yap YarÄ±ÅŸmasÄ±, or Bed-Making Contest. I could not believe my eyes. Two women ran out with light-weight beds and put them at center court. Breathless, I watched as they ran back to the sidelines for linens. They scurried back to their beds and hastily applied them. Then they returned for pillows and blankets. Repeat. One of the them won. The crowd went semi-crazy. Again, it was weird. Either a) this was a way of showing appreciation for the Turkish ev hanimi (domestic housewife), who works so hard to help her family thrive, or b) a way of symbolizing that the game was getting out of hand, was getting a little boring, and maybe it was time for a nap. Or, as is probably the case, I am over-thinking the whole thing.
Even though the youthful Timberwolves emerged victorious 84-81, Efes (and their fans) has plenty for which to be proud. After all, they mounted a strong comeback in the last few minutes of the game and even had a shot to win at the end, which clanked off the back of the rim. For sure, they performed better than last year in the US, where they were trounced by both the Nuggets, 118-102, and Warriors, 120-66. The team is confident because they know that they have one of the best coaches around. I now can see why – Blatt is relentless in his cajoling and applauding of his team from the sidelines. His intense authoritarinism is reminds me of a young Pat Riley or Rick Pitino. On the opposite side, I did not see Minnesota’s “A team” for much of the night because Wittman was more interested in experimenting with different lineups and seeing how his young players performed together than he was in coaching to dominate. However, Jefferson (11 points, 17 rebounds) impressed me with his baby hook shot. This seems to be his “go-to” shot now, and for good reason — with the extension he gets with his long arms and the space he creates with his wide hips, it is nearly impossible to block. He should have an All-Star level season, even if he is not elected because his team will be horrible. Corey Brewer also impressed me with his court awareness – he seems to always be in the right position at the right time. This means that he has a high basketball IQ, and along with his length, athletic ability, and versatile skill set, do not be surprised if he begins to emerge as an Iguodala-type stat-stuffer over the next few years. -Evin Demirel