Fenerbahce Istanbul center Ekpe Udoh has all the reasons to be one of the happiest men on a basketball court these days. His team became the first Turkish squad to win the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague title, thus adding his name to the country's basketball history in golden letters. Udoh was chosen as the Final Four MVP after an unstoppable pair of games: he had 18 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 blocks in the semifinal against Real Madrid, and posted 10 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 blocks against Olympiacos in the championship game. He led all Final Four players in performance index rating (65 PIR), rebounds (21) and blocks (7) and ranked second in assists (12) and fouls drawn (10). It is difficult to name a more dominant player in recent Final Four history. It capped a brilliant second EuroLeague campaign for the big guy, who was chosen to the All-EuroLeague First Team this season after leading the league in rebounds (7.8 rpg.) and blocks (2.1 bpg.), while averaging 12.1 points in 31 games. When he started to talk, you could tell Udoh was a happy man. "Gooood morniiiing," he saluted Javier Gancedo of EuroLeague.net, before talking at length about to start their conversation. "I will never forget those moments. It took forever in the locker room, because we were all over the place with the trophy, just rolling around that arena." Udoh said. "Our fans are still in the arena chanting, I had my family there as well... it was a special weekend for me and the team."
Hello, Ekpe, and congratulations on winning the title. Now that you have experienced it, how special does it feel to know that you are a EuroLeague champion?
"I don't even feel it yet because we started the Turkish League playoffs immediately! I think it is something that I am going to feel when the season is done and I am on my flight home and I’m recapping it. Right now, it is huge for the country and our fans, because they have waiting on this moment for so long, as you saw in the parade and last night at the [Turkish League playoff] game when they raised the banner. They are having a good time, I can assure, but for me, we had to go right back to the Turkish League. We won it last year, now we are the defending champs and we have to be ready."
Fenerbahce brought out its best basketball at the right moment, when it mattered most. Winning the EuroLeague was surely the goal, but did all the injuries the team had create any doubt along the way?
"The only doubt that came along was the way we were playing basketball. 'Can we play better basketball even when though we are hurt?', and as you saw we struggled to, without one of our main ball-handlers (Kostas Sloukas) and Bogdan [Bogdanovic]. But there was no doubt because I know that, at some point, we would get healthy. And once we got healthy, we were practically the same team from last year that made to the Championship Game and lost. I knew we had our chance."
Were those two playoffs road wins against Panathinaikos Athens the turning point of the season, when Fenerbahce became unstoppable?
"Yes, I wouldn't say we were unstoppable, but it showed people that we were still that same team, and probably better because of the pace we were playing. You know, a lot of people doubted us and going to the Pana stadium, that was a tough crowd, I just think it opened people's eyes, like 'okay, they have arrived and we must get ready for this'."
You were close to getting a triple-double against Real Madrid in the semifinals. How were you able to register such huge numbers in such a pressure game?
"You know... I don't even know how this could come from me. I know they were leaving Kalinic open and he was hitting open shots, I was able to give the ball to Jan [Vesely]. I also played a lot of minutes and in was able to get those little hand-off type of assists, but if I had known I had 8 assists, I definitely would have tried to get 2 more easy ones! I am grateful, it just shows the type of team we have, anybody can step up and have one of those games."
Once in the championship game, everyone contributed against Olympiacos. Was that team spirit – especially after most of you lost the title by a rebound last season – a driving force for Fenerbahce?
"I think we were past that going into the final two and knew what to do. We had the home-court as well and our fans were on Olympiacos the whole game, but I think we did well. Our ability to switch really hindered them and Spanoulis didn't have a good game, and we were hitting threes. Once we started hitting threes, that lead can get up there."
You finished the Final Four with seven blocks in two games. In your EuroLeague career, you have 129 blocks and only 13 of your own shots rejected. How do you do it?
"I have great timing. I have had good timing since I was a kid. When I was playing in my neighborhood, I was one of the younger guys and I had to figure out the way to stay on the court and defensively, I became really good. And I just carried that throughout my career. And me not getting my shots blocked... I don't know. It has to do with my teammates, who find me in the right spots. Sometimes I just have to make some dribble or make a fake. But defensively, I have always been that guy."
You have been very successful with Coach Zeljko Obradovic and a true all-around player, proving it in the Final Four. How has he helped you bring out your best basketball?
"Confidence. He just trusted in me and allowed me to play. Pretty much, I had to follow the rules of the game, his strategics and the plays that we had, but he let me go out there and play, man! He believed in me. Any human being, no matter if it is sports or regular season, if you have someone in your corner believing in you, pushing you long, giving you little tips, you are going to be best person you can be. He is above everybody when it comes to coaching. It is very interesting how he can switch it off. We can have a hard practice and he kills us, as soon as practice is over, he is a different person. It is very interesting - not a lot of people can do that. He knows what he has put us through, and to have the opportunity to celebrate, he is going to be all up for it.”
How was the celebration, both in the locker room and the days after, with thousands of Fenerbahce fans all over the place?
"It was great. It was amazing, it was priceless. I will never forget those moments. It took forever in the locker room, because we were all over the place with the trophy, just rolling around that arena. Our fans are still in the arena chanting, I had my family there as well... it was a special weekend for me and the team. I think that the next Final Four is going to be in Belgrade, Serbia... if Red Star is able to make it to the Final Four, it will probably get something similar but we definitely had a good time."
How do the expectations you had about the EuroLeague when you arrived two years ago compare to what you have found playing in this competition?
"I really didn't know too much about it. Growing in the States, I only knew about the NBA. That is the goal for everybody. You hear about guys going to the EuroLeague to compete and play, but now, I know it is hard level of competition. It is a battle, it’s a different style of basketball out here compared to the States, and you have to be prepared and it’s definitely a grind. I think that the EuroLeague has done a good job of making it very competitive."
In two years, you have gone from a EuroLeague newcomer to Final Four MVP. How important has this experience been for you, on and off the court?
"It has been special. I would not trade it for anything, it is what I needed in my life and my career – to get out of my space, see something different and learn about different cultures, be able to travel the world and on the court find myself, fFinding that confidence to play the game and learn more about the game under Coach Obradovic. Just finding ways, man, finding ways to stand out. At the end of the day, it’s not always all about scoring and I was unable to do that defensive side of the game here, I think, unlike anybody. Coach has been great and I am still chasing my Kirilenko. He was a great defender, but I am bringing a new flavor to it, I guess, with the blocks, and the ability to switch on guards and being able to steal the ball for them. I have to keep that momentum going and, at the end of my career, be able to look back and see that I gave my all and did the best I could."