If one person lived through the 2011 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four with as much excitement as any champion, it was Jörg Gottschlich of Germany, winner of the TAE Golden Ticket promotion earlier in the spring. Thanks to Jörg's expert knowledge of both Euroleague trivia and Turkish Airlines destinations, the TAE Golden Ticket allowed him and a friend, Renata De Sousa, to enjoy the trip of a lifetime, as Jörg himself recounts below.
This is how the story of a dream come true begins. One moment, we're sitting at work; the next, we're at the check-in counter exchanging our luggage against two first-class tickets with Turkish Airlines to the Euroleague Final Four! During the busy working hours of the last days before the departure, that simple thought of what was about to happen brought the biggest of smiles to our faces.
And now the moment is here and we board. As first-time first-classers, we don't know exactly what to expect, even though we've seen awesome pictures of the cabin interiors - and the food! The space of our "seats", which might better be call "suite", is so enormous that even Rakovic or Reyes would have no problem stretching out here:-). A large flat screen and the generous food service means that neither our minds nor our stomachs lack any entertainment.
As we enjoy a layover in Istanbul, the countdown timer reads 1 day, 8 hours until tipoff of he Final Four. We can't wait to board that plane again and fly over to our final destination - BARCELONA!!! Fortunately, Turkish Airlines does everything to make the stopover as enjoyable as possible. We got a cart ride from the plane to the colorful 60's-style lounge at Ataturk Airport, where we're having wonderful Turkish coffee while discussing the possible game outcomes. Will Montepaschi Siena topple the favorites Panathinaikos tomorrow and possibly go head-to-head with Real Madrid? Given that we're each rooting for these underdogs, tomorrow might make for a very thrilling final on Sunday! For now we can only speculate, but soon we will be there when the decision happens- LIVE and REAL!
Though we arrived on Thursday, our adventure did not truly begin until Friday, the day of the semifinals. Since the games were scheduled to begin at night, we spent the day exploring the city after picking up our tickets. Barcelona is a city that's somewhere between a metropolis and a fairy tale. We walked down Las Ramblas to the port during the day, getting delicious fresh juice in "La Boquería" market before relaxing in the sun at the lovely harbour. As we walked through the streets of the city, there was no way to escape the fans of the Euroleague Final Four teams and the excitement in the air.
With so much to take in, it was hard to keep an eye on time, so we suddenly found ourselves running late for the games. Fortunately, our seats were easy to find as they were clearly marked in red and the best seats in the whole stadium: courtside and center! Soon, Montepaschi was ahead of Panathinaikos by 6 points. This we did not expect – but it certainly increased the level of the game's excitement! It did not last, however, as Panathinaikos came back strong and claimed victory over Montepaschi. Nonetheless, the thrill of the game left us longing for more.
The face-off between Maccabi and Real Madrid came an hour later. Madrid's early lead left us hopeful as we cheered them on. However, they began to fall further and further behind as the game went on and by the fourth quarter it was clear they would need some kind of miracle to come back. Even though we were disappointed by the outcome of the game, we looked forward to coming back for their third-place match.
Tired from all the cheering and excitement, we take a shuttle back to our hotel, the Rey Juan Carlos I, where all the players are staying as well. So we're living practically door-to-door with them!
Saturday, the day in between the semifinals and finals, started off a bit cloudy but that didn't dampen our excitement. Since there were no games scheduled, we explored the beautiful host city of the Final Four a bit more. At night, we attended the Euroleague for Africa benefit concert for Unicef after hiking our way up to Palau Sant Jordi. The location next to the arena was a perfect open-air location for this concert and the groups playing put on quite a show, especially El Pescao. Our fellow concert-goers knew how to party and danced the night away with us. Turkish Airlines really did a great job here – we didn't see anyone who wasn't having an awesome time!
After the concert, we made our way back down to the beautiful fountain area of the Palau Reial. It's hard to describe properly with words the breathtaking scenery – even pictures don't capture the real spirit of being there. We highly recommend going there whenever you should get the chance, as it definitely was an "espectáculo" of light, water and music that capped our evening wonderfully.
Sunday, the day of the finals, finally arrived. After having a strong breakfast to help us cheer on our teams with the maximum amount of energy, we took the shuttle back to Palau Sant Jordi. In the third-place match between Montepaschi and Real Madrid, Renata and I cheered for opposite teams: she was for Madrid, while I rooted for Montepaschi. Renata claimed that Madrid was not only the stronger of the two teams, but clearly the more attractive as well, and therefore they had her full support. I replied that if the game were about attractiveness, then the Efes Dance Squad would beat everyone by far :-) In the end, she was proved wrong, since Montepaschi held a constant lead over Madrid throughout the game and clinched the third-place victory.
The seats quickly filled up now as the big final showdown between Maccabi and Panathinaikos approached. Renata and I were united again as we both cheered on Panathinaikos. Maccabi was well supported by a noticeably larger fan crowd that formed a huge sea of yellow. But the Panathinaikos fans more than made up for their smaller numbers with their strong and lively support with green-and-white balloons!
Sitting courtside, we could almost touch the players. Being so close to the most important game in the Euroleague is indescribable; you're on one level with all the players, you see the game like they themselves see it, and you're right behind them as they make a pass to their teammates from the sidelines.
It was an immensely thrilling game, indeed, as the teams started off going head to head, but slowly Panathinaikos built up a solid lead and Maccabi could not catch up to, although they did get a bit closer with a final sprint at the very end. But, as you all know, Panathinaikos was the one crowned the 2011 Turkish Airlines Euroleague champion in the end.
After the game was over, the trophies were positioned only a few meters away from us and after all the players got theirs, we indulged with all of them as confetti burst into the air. Queen's "We are the Champions" – the obligatory soundtrack for this scene – turns this moment of celebration into a memory that will last a lifetime.
We slowly head towards the exit, exhausted but happy about this amazing weekend at the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four. We can't thank Turkish Airlines and those of the Euroleague team enough for making it all happen and for flying us there first class like a trip to wonderland. See you in Istanbul in 2012!!