• Basketball Capitals

Cities in Focus - Istanbul

Ian Whittell

WITH one foot in Europe, and another in Asia, Istanbul is a unique capital city, bridging two great continents.

It is also a city divided by sporting allegiances, as surely as it is split in two by the mighty Bosphorus river. Growing up in Istanbul means pledging allegiance to a sporting powerhouse like Galatasary or Efes; Fenerbahce or Besiktas.

But there is one thing that unites every Istanbul native, every son or daughter of Turkey come to that - the sport of basketball.

Current Toronto Raptors assistant coach Scott Roth played for Anadolu Efes Istanbul, one of three clubs from the city that made up the 24-team Euroleague field this season and went on to become an assistant coach with the Turkish national team. His experience is typical of so many outsiders who experience their own taste of Turkish delight.

"My first two years there were some of my best basketball and life experiences ever," says Roth. "My mother cried when I decided to go so far away to play in 1985 after (being released from the San Antonio Spurs), but it was an awesome experience and a very exciting city to live in and play in. Great club with super fans … and some of my closest friends to this day are my teammates from Efes.

"I was also lucky enough to return to Istanbul more than 20 years later as a coach with the national team when Turkey was the host country for the 2010 World Championships. I look back on those two weeks of the tournament as the two greatest weeks of my basketball life. You could feel the entire country rallying around the team when we beat Serbia to go the finals. And I'll never forget going to the championship game with a police escort and streets full of people for miles and miles cheering as the bus passed by on our way to the arena. People who went to that tournament still talk about that team and those two weeks in Istanbul."

Those 2010 World Championships, in which a Turkey team inspired by NBA superstar Hedo Turkoglu made it all the way to the final in Istanbul before succumbing to Kevin Durant and the USA 81-64, signaled that the hosts had become a definite power on the world stage.

Hedo Turkoglu © ESPN.co.uk

But surprising as that performance may have been to some outsiders, Turkey's success was inevitable in the eyes of those, like Roth, who had experienced first-hand the growing passion for the sport in the country, and in Istanbul especially.

"Istanbul does not have a lot of green fields," explains Naci Cansun, Senior Director of NBA Turkey. "So basketball is very popular because it is easy to play, especially in schools. I don't know of any school - whether primary, secondary of high school - that has a football (soccer) field, but every school has a hoop. Every school kid in Istanbul has the chance to play basketball and it's the favourite pastime during breaks. You don't have to be super-fast or fit to try basketball in a school yard. It's just about throwing a ball.

"If you look at the numbers, Istanbul has about 140,000 licensed athletes, 40,000 of those are for soccer and 35,000 for basketball so the difference is not that huge."

At the heart of Istanbul basketball lies the mighty professional clubs - Anadolu Efes Istanbul, Besiktas JK Istanbul and Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul, the three teams in this year's Euroleague, plus current league leaders Galatasary Medical Park Istanbul (note how European teams incorporate the names of sponsors into their official titles).

As with teams in Spain, many Turkish basketball clubs are part of bigger "sporting clubs," who field teams in football, handball and volleyball, among other sports. "What that means," explains Cansun, "Is that people who are fans of a club, but not necessarily a sport, diversify their interest. That happens in terms of participation as well. If someone is a Fenerbahce supporter, they may get their sons and daughters involved in basketball education."

In turn, the clubs have responded and reached out to the hundreds of thousands of potential new players around the vast city. "There are so many basketball schools," explains Engin Ozerhun, general manager of Efes. "We are teaching basketball to children without any charge, a social responsibility project called 'First Step with Anadolu Efes,' which we started in 2004 and which reaches over 20,000 children in 40 centres. We also have centres in Northern Cyprus and Sarajevo and organise education programmes, not only for children but for technical staff and coaches."

When a story hit the Turkish media recently about a high school game in a far-flung, impoverished corner of south-east Turkey, near the border with Iran and Iraq, in which a team beat a rival from a remote village 299-0, Efes quickly sent out a shipment of basketballs and equipment to the losing school.

Meanwhile, at the top level of the sport, modest ticket prices - Efes, for example, charge an average 7.70 Turkish lira, or $4.30 for a ticket to a top Euroleague game - mean that most games are played to sell-out, fanatical crowds.

And that fanaticism makes Turkish basketball among the most exciting and passionate in the entire basketball world. The rivalry between clubs like Fenerbahce and Besiktas has lasted a century or more and covers not only basketball but other team sports, most notably football. And, while that passion sometimes looks close to exploding and becoming something more sinister, those close to it claims this is not the case.

"Turkish people are affected by the Mediterranean Culture," explains Ozerhun. "And this effect is reflected on the court. But this passion is always gentle!"

Although the city's most famous basketball export, Orlando Magic forward Turkoglu, has not played club basketball in his homeland since leaving Efes for the Sacramento Kings in 2000, he has noted the growth of the sport with the pride of an Istanbul native.

Orlando Magic's Hedo Turkoglu © ESPN.co.uk

"Istanbul is a spirited basketball city," he says. "There is a lot of passion for the game. The game continues to grow as they continue to build new facilities. You can see kids bouncing basketballs everywhere."

Of course, living in a city of 13.9 million people - by some estimates, second only to Shanghai on the list of the world's most populous cities - is not without its challenges. "I lived in Moscow and I know LA and people say they have the worst traffic in the world," says NBA journeyman Pops Mensah-Bonsu who played for Besiktas last season. "Wrong! You haven't seen real traffic until you have been to Istanbul. There are 20 million people there and they seem to all drive at once, completely insane.

"Istanbul was great though - the people nice, the coast is nice, the architecture, scenery, it was a really nice place to be after I took time to get to know it."

Basketball Capitals is a new ESPN documentary series profiling the passion for basketball within the world's most iconic cities. The four-part series will premiere in May across ESPN in Europe, Middle East, and Africa.



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