As a player, former Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion Ibrahim Kutluay was known for having one of the best shots in the game and for bridging basketball borders as the first Turk to join a Greek club, Panathinaikos Athens, with whom he won the continental title. Now, in addition to being an executive with the newest EuroLeague club, Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul, he is still building bridges as he dedicates time as a Euroleague Basketball Ambassador to great causes in Turkey and abroad. He was on hand in Madrid recently as One Team and Stay in the Game, the social responsibility programs of Euroleague Basketball and Dogus Group, respectively, opened the latest in a series of community basketball courts that have been refurbished for the benefit of young people in several countries. "When I was an active player, we did not have such organized and unified social responsibility programs among the clubs in Europe there is now with One Team. Fans were connected by their love of basketball, yes. But now you can see how One Team has connected the whole community in an emotional way like never before."
First, how was the One Team/Stay in the Game experience last week in Madrid, with Dogus Group and Euroleague doing more good things together?
"I enjoyed very much being part of the court opening in Madrid. It was a great event and the children who participated were very excited. I believe that the young people in that neighborhood will get a huge benefit from that kind of court. Stay in the Game, the social responsibility program of Dogus, launched in 2014 with the goal of getting kids away from negative activities by encouraging them to play basketball and other sports. And since 2015, we have been refurbishing courts all around Europe thanks to our collaboration with One Team. Madrid was the newest place and you could see it was very nice for everyone there to have something like this."
Several courts have now been opened in Turkey, Greece, Germany and Spain. Have you seen One Team and Stay in the Game, by working together, have a true international impact?
"Until now, we've had court openings in Athens, Berlin and now Madrid, in addition to Istanbul, so we can see how the project has created something that goes to the whole European basketball community. I think that increases the value of all these social responsibility projects. With the court refurbishments in all these places, I believe that Stay in the Game and One Team are helping kids stay away from the negative influences they can face at an important time in their lives."
Did you have a neighborhood court like these ones being built under the program when you were young? If so, what did having that mean to you?
"When I was a kid, living with my family, there was a basketball court I used to go to after school every day, playing by myself or with my friends. It was an old one, but years later, when it was fixed, we were very happy. When something like that happens, you feel that someone touches you and is protecting your environment and supporting your basketball dreams. And it helps you stay away from other things."
One Team is about basketball being a positive influence on people with problems. Have you seen that goal being reached with these projects?
"After the start of the One Team/Stay in the Game educational program, we saw that the kids liked being given the chance to channel themselves in a different direction. I was not only the happiness on their faces, but we also did a before-and-after evaluation that proved they were getting a lot from it. It makes me proud when I see that they are happy and excited to be there, proud that we did something for the kids. It makes me happy, too."
Compared to your playing days, how much bigger is community outreach now with One Team unifying all the EuroLeague Basketball cities?
"When I was an active player, we did not have such organized and unified social responsibility programs among the clubs in Europe there is now with One Team. Fans were connected by their love of basketball, yes. But now you can see how One Team has connected the whole community in an emotional way like never before."
How important is it for legends like you to be involved in their local communities in this way?
"As an ambassador of Stay in the Game and as a Euroleague legend, I think it's important for us to show society that we care for our communities. I believe that by connecting the social responsibility projects throughout Europe, we can change and make bigger that level of commitment. Honestly, this is what I enjoy the most, being involved in these initiatives."
The Final Four is coming to Istanbul soon and will have various One Team events. How important will the Final Four in Istanbul be to help raise awareness of One Team?
"The Final Four is a huge event, a huge global event. Hundreds of thousands of fans visit the activities around the Final Four and millions and millions watch on TV. At the same time, the Final Four is a platform that will provide opportunities to raise awareness of One Team. I would encourage people to participate in One Team and help us deliver its message even further, and of course, I will be there trying to help."
Speaking of the Final Four, you remain the only Turkish player to win the EuroLeague title. Do you hope that this changes in May?
"Yes, I was the first Turkish player to win this trophy back in 2002. I still fondly remember that day in Bologna, and since then Turkish teams keep competing at the top level in search of the title. The last two seasons, Fenerbahce managed to qualify to the Final Four but missed the top prize. This might finally be the season that the dream comes true. One or more Turkish teams could reach the Final Four in Istanbul, which would be a great opportunity to lift the trophy and see more Turkish players do what I achieved 15 years ago. I think Fenerbahce has a big chance to win the EuroLeague. It's a good team that has played together for at least two years with the same players. And if they reach the Final Four, there will be great atmosphere full of Fenerbahce fans in the gym, so that will be a great chance for a first Turkish champion. I was the first one 15 years ago and now I am still the only one, but I always knew that one day other Turkish player will take the trophy, too. And I will be happy. I may be the only one now, but if some Turkish players become EuroLeague champions, I will still be the first, but I won't be alone. I opened the way and am waiting for someone to find the way, too."