It is the rare athlete in any sport who gets to win a title as big as the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague's while playing the final game of the season in his hometown. That unique moment came to center Tibor Pleiss of Anadolu Efes Istanbul on Sunday night in Cologne, Germany, the city where he took his first steps in the sport.
"When I grew up and started playing basketball here, I was just focused on getting to be a pro, and now being here and having just won the biggest title in Europe is an incredible feeling," Pleiss said moments after Efes outlasted FC Barcelona 81-86 in the championship game. "Having it happen here in my hometown just makes it more special."
Pleiss was born in nearby Bergisch Gladbach but his family moved to Cologne within a matter of days, and it's there that he grew into a 2.20-meter player whose EuroLeague career has now spanned a decade and taken him to Spain and Turkey. Pleiss seemed to draw energy from his hometown, visiting the Rhine River several times during the week.
"The last time I was able to come home during the basketball season is 11 years ago," he said. "Just being here during the season in my hometown is something special."
Pleiss did not get off the Efes bench in the team's tight semifinal win over CSKA Moscow on Friday. He finally entered the Final Four action at the start of the second quarter on Sunday, and by the time he missed his first 2 shots, Efes was behind 25-15 to FC Barcelona. But that would be as bad as it got as Pleiss helped spark Efes with 5 points and 3 rebounds in the next 8 minutes, by which time his team led 29-34.
"When I entered the court, I was kind of relaxed and I wasn't expecting that from myself because I remember when we played a Final Four in Vitoria-Gasteiz, I was more nervous," Pleiss said. "Today, I stepped on the court and wanted to have fun and give my best, and that's what I did and I think I helped my team win the game today."
Being a spark of the game's key 4-19 turnaround run would have to suffice, though, because Pleiss was injured late in the same second quarter and went to the locker room even before halftime with his left calf wrapped in ice. He did not return to the game because of the injury, but when his team won, the pain was a distant memory already.
"When we were celebrating, I forgot about my calf," he said. "Right now, there is just so much adrenaline and emotions, the leg is not important. Right now, it is important to celebrate and enjoy the moment."