Thursday, February 02, 2012
Euroleague.net's editorial director, Frank Lawlor, has spent most of his career as a basketball journalist in Europe and his native United States, writing about and interviewing the top players in the world on both continents for more than two decades. In terms of practical basketball experience, he was a head coach in the Spanish second division for one fortuitous season in the late 1990s. Frank's blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
Whatever else might happen during the rest of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague season, let's take our hats off right now to the three teams from Istanbul that are trying to reach the Final Four in their city next May.
I have said before that anyone lucky enough to be at the 2010 World Championships in Istanbul saw a city given over to basketball unlike anywhere I have visited in 30 years covering this sport all over the globe. Everywhere you looked, there was basketball on TV, on the roadsides, in the media, on the buildings, in the hands of kids, and so on. One day in an electronics shop I saw another customer buy a mobile phone that was packaged for her in a cardboard basketball box.
Last year and this, Istanbul and its Euroleague clubs just continue to boost our sport.
It started when Fenerbahce Ulker and Efes Pilsen moved most of their Euroleague games last season to the World Championships venue, Sinan Erdem Arena. Within weeks, we saw enormous crowds, including regular-season sellouts, at the 14,868-seat venue. In the Top 16, the team with the best average attendance was FB Ulker, with 13,807 fans, while Efes ranked fourth at more than 10,000 per game.
Although neither FB Ulker nor Efes made last season's playoffs, the buzz carried over into this season with the news that the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four would be held at Sinan Erdem from May 11 to 13, 2012.
Then, on October 2, an inspired Galatasaray Medical Park rose up to win its Turkish Airlines Euroleague Qualifying Round with three victories over three days in Vilnius, including the clincher over that city's powerful host team, Lietuvos Rytas, and its famous crowd. Galatasaray thereby joined the other two Istanbul teams in the Euroleague regular season. It was a magic moment for Galatasaray, which had introduced basketball to Turkey in 1911, but had never played in Europe's top competition before.
On the same day of October 2, back in Istanbul, Efes and FB Ulker were playing in the inaugural edition of another special event, Two Nations Cup Basketball 2011, a goodwill preseason tournament between Euroleague teams from Turkey and Greece and their respective youth teams. Both Turkish teams played both Greek teams, Panathinaikos Athens and Olympiacos Piraeus, in true friendly games that will be repeated every year, alternating between Istanbul and Athens. Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos summed up the tournament's mission: "Sport can bring two countries together."
The Istanbul basketball boost continued into 2012 when FB Ulker used its first Top 16 home game last week as the grand opening of its new arena on the city's Asian side. Meanwhile, Galatasaray Medical Park was not only surging into the Top 16 itself, but repeatedly selling out yet another arena, the venerable old Abdi Ipekci Sports Hall, with a capacity of 11,300 fans.
While having three teams from one city in the Top 16 is not unprecedented – in fact, the Athens trio of Panathinaikos, Olympiacos and Maroussi did it two seasons ago – I feel safe guessing that three different Top 16 teams have never sold out three different arenas, average capacity 13,700, in the same city before.
Now, coincidence has pitted all the Turkish teams in the Top 16 against the two Greek teams who went to Istanbul on a goodwill mission in October. In the middle of the Top 16, when back-to-back home-and-away games between the same two teams often decide fates, Fenerbahce plays this week and next against Panathinaikos, starting with a 19:30 CET tipoff tonight, while Efes lost the first game to Olympiacos last night and hosts the rematch next week. Galatasaray, in the same group with Efes and Olympiacos, beat the Reds in overtime last week and will face them in Piraeus.
No one needs to be reminded that both Greek teams have enjoyed great success in the Euroleague, each winning trophies. Of course, Panathinaikos has lifted more than any team in the Final Four era that began in 1988. It was also the team on which, the only Turkish player ever to win the Euroleague title, Ibrahim Kutluay, starred at the 2002 Final Four.
Turkish teams have had the opposite fortune: the country's only Final Four appearances, both by Efes, in the 2000 Euroleague and the 2001 SuproLeague, are a decade old. During that time there has been lots of promise ending in lots of frustration. Once, in 2004, Efes was poised to celebrate another Final Four qualification until a miracle shot by Gianluca Basile of Fortitudo Bologna fell through the net, once again changing fate. Five players from that Efes team eight seasons ago - Omer Onan, Ender Arslan, Kerem Tunceri, Kaya Peker and Ermal Kuqo - are now dispersed among Istanbul's three Top 16 teams. Peker made his Final Four dream a reality with Tau Ceramica of Spain in 2007, but the others are still waiting on theirs.
Maybe this will be their season and maybe it won't. But I return to where I started, thanking all three Istanbul teams and wishing them luck the rest of the way. From the qualification round and those pre-season friendlies until this ultra-competitive Top 16, the professionalism of all three clubs, the character of their teams and the devotion of their crowds have made Istanbul, now as never before, a true world basketball capital.
Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.net