Final Four interview: Ibrahim Kutluay

May 05, 2012 by Javier Gancedo, Print
Final Four interview: Ibrahim Kutluay
Ibrahim Kutluay - Panathinaikos - Final Four Bologna 2002It has been 10 years since Panathinaikos won the Euroleague by rallying to upset Kinder 83-89 in Bologna, Italy, the only title won on the home floor of the other finalist and one of the greatest comebacks in finals history. Shooting star Ibrahim Kutluay was the leading scorer for Panathinaikos that night, with 22 points, scoring his last 7 in the final 45 seconds to put the victory on ice. That alone would have been enough to put him in the pantheon of Final Four greats, but Kutluay's legacy is much bigger. The year before winning the title, Kutluay became the first Turk in any sport to join a Greek team. As a human bridge between countries that had experienced political strife, Kutluay's move to Greece required unprecedented levels of class and professionalism on and off the court. He had both in abundance. Indeed, after one season with AEK of Athens, he transferred with the city to Panathinaikos, the most successful modern team in Europe. And on May 5, 2002, Kutluay's remarkable humanistic achievement was crowned with a sporting one as he became the only Turkish champion of the Euroleague ever. Previously, in 2000, he had taken part in the Final Four with the only Turkish team ever to reach the Euroleague semifinals, Efes Pilsen. Now back home in Turkey and working as an expert analyst with Final Four host broadcaster NTV, Kutluay talked to about his title-winning anniversary and the excitement in store this week at the Final Four. "Istanbul is a very unique city; it is more European than Asia and more Asian than Europe," Kutluay said. "Everybody should see Istanbul. Sometimes you go to a city to see the Final Four, but in a place like Istanbul, there are a lot of things to see. I believe everyone will enjoy it. As for the Final Four, the hospitality will be good; people will feel like at home." One of the Greens' superstars that year has gone on to become much more than just a stellar basketball player. Ibrahim Kutluay’s legacy goes beyond his shooting skills, leadership and incredible talent.

Hello Ibrahim. It has been 10 years since you won the Euroleague title. How special was for you to lift the trophy in Bologna?

"It was one of the best memories of my life. Winning the Euroleague with Panathinaikos in Bologna was my biggest victory. I was really happy because we were a great team with a great coach. I still believe that winning the Euroleague title was like a dream come true."

You were also the first – and so far only – Turkish player to win the Euroleague. How much of a privilege is that and what does it mean to you?

"Well, when I left my country to play in Greece, my goal was to play for the best team in Europe and to challenge for the Euroleague title. Once we won the title, I was really happy because I managed to achieve my goal. Yes, I became the first Turkish player to win the Euroleague, but I am sure other players from my country will win it in the coming years. I hope that a Turkish team will finally win the Euroleague title, but it was not a good season for us."

Dejan Bodiroga and Ibrahim Kutluay  - Panathinaikos - FF Bologna 2002You reached Euroleague glory playing for Panathinaikos, a Greek team. That combination became a symbol of peace between both countries. How proud are you that your success brought Greece and Turkey closer?

"I signed for AEK in 2001. It was a very big decision for me. Of course, I had some question marks in my mind because I had no example to follow, no Turkish player had played in Greece before, I was the first. I was a big responsibility for me, too. I felt a lot of pressure. When I went to Greece, I saw that everything was the same; culture, food, everything. After a few months, I felt like I was a Turk living in Greece, but the only differences between the countries were language and religion. Once I started to play well and be successful, people loved me and I felt very comfortable all the time. I felt that I was the same as them. Also, I knew that if I made any mistake, it would be bad for me and my country. I lived in Greece for five years, felt really well and met a lot of great people there who I remain friends with. I love the people there and the people love me back. There is great connection between us. I really think I helped to bring both countries closer."

Before winning the Euroleague title, you reached the Final Four with Efes Pilsen in 2000 - the first appearance for a Turkish team. Where does that accomplishment stand in your career?

"It was a great success for Efes Pilsen. Before that, Efes had made it to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, but was unable to reach the Final Four, losing against Asvel, Benetton and Zalgiris. We had a very good team that season with me, Turkoglu, Besok, Mulaomerovic and Drobnjak... We qualified for the Final Four and it was the first time for all of us. We had a tough opponent in front of us, Panathinaikos, the home team, with big names, a great coach and playing in Greece. We lost, but I believe that if we had played against Maccabi or Barcelona in the semifinal, I really believe we would have made it to the final."

Let's go back to Bologna 2002. You had to beat Maccabi to get to the final. What do you remember about that game?

"The game against Maccabi was tough and they really tired hard to make it to the final, but Dejan [Bodiroga] had an excellent game and we played together. It was a close game all the way and it was hard to beat them, because Maccabi had a great team that season. Nobody expected us to reach the final. When we beat Maccabi, we all believed we could beat Kinder. We had a good, talented team and we believed in ourselves and that allowed us to win a very difficult game. After that game, we were sure that we could beat Kinder."

Ibrahim Kutluay and Zeljko Obradovic - Panathinaikos - FF Bologna 2002At one point, Kinder Bologna led by 14 in the title game, in front of its fans. What allowed you to return to that game before it was too late?

"Like you said, we were down by 14 early in the second quarter and called timeout. We said that we needed to erase that deficit a bit before halftime. We managed to erase half and reached halftime trailing by 7. We talked to each other in the locker room and agreed that we hadn't played poorly, but we needed to go out there and play better and stop them from doing what they wanted to do. If the game was close by the end of the third quarter, the pressure would be on them. We played an excellent third quarter and Kinder was out of rhythm in the final minutes. Bodiroga, Papadopoulos, Middleton, Alvertis... everybody played well! We played like a team and even though Ginobili, Becirovic and Smodis did their best to change things, we stayed together and won the game."

You led Panathinaikos in scoring with 22 points and scored the last 7, including a game-deciding three-pointer. What was the feeling when that shot went in - and how did it feel to take such great responsibility?

"I felt really good in that game and believed in myself. Obradovic told me before the game 'it is your first Euroleague final, but I believe it won't be your last. You will be the game hero, so go out there and show it.' He believed in me and I played a lot in that game, around 37 minutes. As for that shot, I remember Bodiroga had the ball, went inside and saw that I was open. He kicked the ball out to me and when I took the ball, I thought I was open but saw Becirovic running at me. I faked and could have taken another dribble to go inside, but I always made three-pointers after a fake. Once the shot went in, it was a five-point game with 40 seconds to go. We were sure we would win and thought we could celebrate, but I missed two free throws after that!"

It was Coach Zeljko Obradovic's fifth Euroleague title. Of course, he has won three more since 2002. What was it like to play for Coach Obradovic and what makes him such a big winner?

"I like to say that Panathinaikos is like a university, its players are students and Obradovic is the teacher. I knew basketball before playing for Obradovic, but learned many things from him. After playing with him, my basketball philosophy changed. I respect Obradovic – and everybody respected him – because of what he tells us during the games and practices. After the game, you see everything that happened and he is always right. I always respected him and liked him as a coach. He helped me a lot – those three years I worked for him were great."

Of course, the 2012 Final Four is in Istanbul. How can the event help make the competition even more interesting for Turkish basketball fans?

"Well, the best teams in Europe are coming to fight for the Euroleague title in the city. It is a great chance to see great players and great teams at their very best. The Euroleague gets bigger and bigger, it is a better challenge every year. I believe that the playing level is better than the NBA – not the players, but it is better to watch Euroleague than NBA, in my opinion."

Ibrahim Kutluay and Willie Solomon - Fenerbahce Ulker The 2011-12 Euroleague season had three Turkish teams in the Euroleague, great crowds and an amazing atmosphere. How does the future look like for Turkish basketball?

"Like you said, three Turkish teams were in the Euroleague – Fenerbahce Ulker and Anadolu Efes were joined by Galatasaray Medical Park, which survived the Qualifying Round. I believe Fenerbahce and Efes's rosters were not good enough to make it to the Final Four. Galatasaray beat the expectations, a lot of people did not believe that they could be competitive at this level, but it played excellent basketball, especially in front of its great home crowd. I believe they should be in the Euroleague next season, too. Fenerbahce and Efes should analyze what went wrong this year and put together better teams. That way, they may have good chances to go to the Final Four next season."

Finally, for those fans that have never been to Turkey, knowing the country's great hospitality, what can people expect from Turkey at this year's Final Four?

"Turkey is a historical country that has improved a lot. Istanbul is a very unique city; it is more European than Asia and more Asian than Europe. Everybody should see Istanbul. Sometimes you go to a city to see the Final Four, but in a place like Istanbul, there are a lot of things to see. I believe everyone will enjoy it. As for the Final Four, the hospitality will be good; people will feel like at home. Turkey has experience in these kinds of events; Istanbul hosted the final stage of the 2010 World Championships. Everybody said that the organization was good and I am sure everyone will say the same about the Final Four. When fans and teams go back to their countries, they will keep talking about the Final Four, I am sure."