Having reached the Final Four for a fourth time and the second consecutively, following on its Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Championship Game appearance in 2019, Anadolu Efes Istanbul is looking for its first European trophy in 25 years. Back in 1996, Efes became the first Turkish club in any sport to win a pan-European competition, the Korac Cup. In all those successful seasons, head coach Ergin Ataman was involved in one way or another.
Enjoying his third stint with Efes, Ataman is arguably the most successful coach in Turkish basketball history. He worked for Aydin Ors as an assistant coach when Efes won the Korac Cup in 1996. After he took over as head coach, Efes made it to the Final Four for the first time in 2000. In 2019, Ataman led Efes to bigger heights, playing in its first EuroLeague Championship Game and lifting the Turkish League trophy after a decade.
"It is a completely different psychology for us, Final Four 2019 and Final Four 2021."
Now, Efes has the opportunity to crown a stellar three-year period during which it rose from the ashes of a 7-23 last-place finish in 2017-18 to win 72 of its last 103 EuroLeague games. Ataman is as ambitious as ever going into the Final Four, but believes that his team's success – win or lose in Cologne, Germany on the last weekend of May – is self-evident.
"I don't think that any Final Four result for Efes will determine a successful or a not successful year. Efes was the most successful team in the last three years in the EuroLeague," Ataman said. "There was a big challenge on the court, with the teams, so it was very competitive. And I believe also that this season's playoffs were very competitive. Three series were determined in the last game. The Final Four will be very competitive but we want to win. It will be competitive, but we will win this Final Four."
Going to Cologne, Efes still has 11 players from the 2018-19 runner-up season, and Ataman believes that they are stronger and more determined than ever now.
"Now, we are more experienced. In 2019, when we played the Final Four, everybody thought we were the surprising team because a year earlier we finished the league in the last position," Ataman said. "This year, everything is different for us. We have a lot of experience. We believe in each other and will go to the Final Four to win the title. It is a completely different psychology for us, Final Four 2019 and Final Four 2021."
For Ataman, it is not just about winning, but doing it in style, which had led Efes to often play what he considers "perfect basketball".
The next step is to try to play perfect basketball at the Final Four, starting in Efes's semifinals showdown with CSKA Moscow, a rematch of their 2019 championship game.
"In the last games of the regular season and in the playoffs, I saw that CSKA found the balance," Ataman said. "Some players who, during the season, they didn't have too big an effect – like Will Clyburn, [Tornike] Shengelia, [Daniel] Hackett – now, they are very effective, and they play much better defense."
Their home blowout wins against each other during the regular season – CSKA beat Efes 100-65 in Moscow and Efes returned the favor with a 100-70 victory in Istanbul – make this game truly unpredictable, as Ataman pointed out.
"We believe that we will win the title, but with all respect to CSKA," he says. "We know it will be a very difficult game, a very tough game. They have big experience in this Final Four."
"Basketball is not just a job for me; it is a lifestyle."
At the end of what is arguably the most difficult season for anyone involved in the EuroLeague, Efes is no exception. Ataman feels fortunate to be able to do the work he loves and to see his team bring joy to the fans, but he also misses many aspects of pre-pandemic basketball life.
"Basketball is not just a job for me; it is a lifestyle," he says. "But this year, I don't have a chance to live this lifestyle. When I go to some cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, everywhere, I like to go visit the city, to stop and talk with the people, to have a coffee outside, to visit some museums. So everything was very difficult for us but we learned that it was a big experience in life, not only in basketball. We learned to survive in these conditions. I hope that next year everything will be better, the coronavirus will be under control in the world, and we will start enjoying, all together again, basketball in the arenas."
Ataman won the Saporta Cup with Montepaschi Siena in 2002, the EuroChallenge with Besiktas in 2012, and the 7DAYS EuroCup with Galatasaray in 2015. Only two coaches won four different European competitions before: Dusan Ivkovic (EuroLeague, EuroCup, Saporta, Korac) and Aito Garcia Reneses (EuroCup, Saporta, Korac, EuroChallenge). Coach Ataman can become just the third coach to win a European competition with four different teams, joining Ivkovic, Zeljko Obradovic and Bozidar Maljkovic. Of course, lifting the EuroLeague trophy with Efes would be Ataman's biggest highlight.
"I think that this club deserves to take a title now," he says. "It is title time. I hope I will have a chance to give them this title this year," he said. "It would be, for me, the best moment in my basketball life."