Besides the Final Four teams, the other protagonists besides the teams in Vitoria-Gasteiz this weekend are, without doubt, the many and varied Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, all of them with his or her own story of basketball love to tell, too. This includes not only the followers of Anadolu Efes Istanbul, CSKA Moscow, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and Real Madrid who traveled from near and far to be here, but also the countless local basketball fans in Vitoria-Gasteiz and the many international fans who travel to the Final Four just to see great basketball. Here are a few of their stories:
Baskonia junior backs Efes
Ander Gonzalez is a faithful KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz fan. He plays in the club's youth categories, goes to every Baskonia game and considers Tornike Shengelia his favorite player. However, this weekend the 14-year-old will be backing Anadolu Efes Istanbul at the 2019 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four.
For Gonzalez, the Final Four experience began on Wednesday when he camped out by the hotel where participating teams are staying in hopes of getting autographs from and pictures with some of the EuroLeague's biggest stars. Gonzalez wore a white No. 31 Efes jersey signed by Thomas Heurtel – the former player of both Baskonia and Efes and current FC Barcelona Lassa playmaker – and patiently waited for almost six hours for all four teams to arrive.
He was especially excited for the arrival of Efes. Gonzalez positioned himself so well that he was able to have his photos taken and get his jersey signed by Adrien Moerman, Vasilije Micic, Brock Motum and former Baskonia players Tibor Pleiss and Rodrigue Beaubois.
"I think a lot of Baskonia fans will be cheering for Efes because of the former Baskonia players who play there," said Gonzalez, who was going to all the games at Fernando Buesa Arena. "I personally believe it will be Efes and Real Madrid in the final and Efes will win! I think either Larkin or Moerman will be the Final Four MVP."
It is surely be a memorable weekend for the Vitoria-Gasteiz native who will witness the Final Four in his hometown for the first time and it got off to a great start as his treasured jersey started to fill with autographs.
CSKA's foreign legion
It would be hard find any more devoted "foreign" fans of a EuroLeague team than the four friends from Germany who could be found eating pintxos together at a bar festooned with Baskonia banners in Vitoria-Gasteiz on Saturday at the Final Four.
Rainer Ott, Vitali Dell, Ramzi Al-Azawri and Edi Rebensdorf met in 2009 while playing in a recreational basketball in the city of Wurzburg, where they all live. Vitaly grew up in Russia, moved to Germany 20 years ago, and continued as a CSKA fan abroad. Edi is of Russian descent, too. Their friends, Rainer and Ramzi, soon followed suit and became CSKA fans, too. Rainer's favorite player over the years is Milos Teodosic; Vitali chooses Victor Khryapa; Edi says Andrey Vorontsevich; and Ramzi's favorite is "Monsieur De Colo".
By 2012, they had decided to follow CSKA to the Final Four in Istanbul, where they witnessed the fateful comeback of Olympiacos Piraeus to steal the trophy on the season's last shot at CSKA's expense. Far from wavering in their support of CSKA after that traumatic experience, however, the quartet has made sure to attend every Final Four since – Vitoria-Gasteiz is their eighth in a row together – in support of their team. And whenever CSKA has played in Germany this decade – whether in Munich, Berlin, Bamberg – the four friends have been there. Indeed, they are eager to note that the best Final Four so far for their team was in their country, as CSKA lifted its only title in the previous seven Final Fours in 2017 in Berlin.
On Sunday in Vitoria-Gasteiz, however, they have the chance to celebrate again – perhaps like no other Germans – if CSKA can prevail over Anadolu Efes Istanbul in the championship game. Of course, they are sure this will happen.
"It's open, but – CSKA wins!" Rainer said with a laugh. "I think that the last game, CSKA-Real, was the true final. But if CSKA doesn't win, we still have Tibor Pleiss from Germany on Efes."
Following Fenerbahce again
Soner Yeleiz is another German fan who makes pilgrimages for a team outside his country. The 33-year-old has followed Fenerbahce as a football fan for 20 years, but became a big basketball fan when Zeljko Obradovic arrived to coach the team. This is his fourth Final Four, and though some of his friends stayed behind this time, he was far from alone, with thousands of Fenerbahce supporters dominating the noise and color at Fernando Buesa Arena during the semifinals.
"My favorite player is usually Jan Vesely but in this tournament, I expect Kostas Sloukas to play very well," Soner said before the semis. "I am sure Vesely will play and expect him to play well in the Final Four. It is a bit of a surprise to have Efes in the Final Four and the Turkish media is talking about it a lot, having two teams in the Final Four."
A Real first-timer
Angel Blanco Alfaro traveled from Pamplona, about halfway between the Spanish capital and Vitoria-Gasteiz, to see Real Madrid for the first time in a Final Four.
"Of course, I have seen them many times on TV," he said. "But Vitoria is very close to Pamplona, so I couldn't miss it this time!"
Even though his team of choice was Real, Angel was going to come to the Final Four no matter what.
"I had bought tickets for the event without waiting for Real to qualify," he said. "Obviously, it is a better event for me with my team in it, but I would have come anyway. I wanted to experience a Final Four. I go to Fernando Buesa Arena a lot and know it well, and I can't wait to see it in Final Four mode."
Angel had expected Real to repeat as champion, which will not happen, but he predicted correctly that Efes would defeat Fenerbahce in their semifinal.
Efes fans living the dream
Fans of Anadolu Efes Istanbul are living through something they never had a chance to experience in the past. For the first time ever, a team they are supporting will be playing in a game for the grandest prize of them all, trying to become a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion on Sunday night.
One such fan is Utku Cetin, a 20-year old from Istanbul who has become a fan of Efes as a little kid when he started practicing basketball with the club. It did not take long for him to become a die-hard fan.
"Efes is like a family for me", he says. Utku owns season tickets for last five years, and rarely misses any games. So, when Efes made the Final Four for the first time since he has been supporting the team, there was little doubt he would be going to Vitoria-Gasteiz. And now, his "family" is playing in the championship game.
"It is like a dream, first time ever in the final game of the EuroLeague", Utku says. "I have to admit, throughout the season I never thought they would be in the final."
He is one of many who can't wait to see Efes play in the championship game, and so is Oyku Gungor, a 27-year old who has been an Efes fan for more than 15 years herself. She has been going to most of the games for the past 10 years, and even though she moved from Istanbul, she still made it to about 10 EuroLeague games this season alone.
Joining two of them in supporting Efes on Sunday night will be Kaan Donmez, a Fenerbahce fan. This is third year in a row he is at the Final Four, and as a Fenerbahce supporter, the first time he will cheer for Efes.
"I will cheer for them because they are a Turkish team," Kaan explained. "But if they win, I will not celebrate as if Fenerbahce has won", he added, laughing.
The three of them have been enjoying Vitoria-Gasteiz like thousands of other this weekend, but for the long-time Efes fans, the team's success has made it an experience of a lifetime.
"This has been a great experience for us that we will remember forever. Even if Efes loses, I don't think I will be sad," Utku said.