If ever a player grew up with one foot firmly set in each of two well-distanced basketball cultures, it may well be Ismet Akpinar of Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul.
A 26-year-old point guard, Akpinar was born in Hamburg a full 12 years after his only sibling, Mutlu, had been born in Turkey. Their parents emigrated in between the births of their sons, but both were raised in Germany.
When Ismet was still an infant, the family was visiting Turkey on vacation one summer when a basketball youth scout picked Mutlu out of a crowd because of his precocious height, 1.93 meters at age 13, and invited him to try the sport. Mutlu had never played basketball before, in part because he had not been offered the opportunity in Germany.
"We only saw each other in summertime, when he had a couple of weeks or a couple of months off."
"He had only done taekwondo before that, but he was always interested in basketball, just playing at school, throwing the ball at the hoop," Ismet says. "During that vacation, he want to the practices, and because of his martial arts, he was very mobile and could move well for his size, which is not normal for a kid at that age. They said, 'OK, he cannot play basketball yet, but he's got the potential, the upside, and he can move well, so we can teach him basketball.' He stayed in Turkey and made all the steps from there."
Although Ismet was too young yet to know his brother well, that chance encounter influenced their future relationship in fascinating ways.
"He had the usual pro basketball life, where he always had the season and practices, back then also school, so we only saw each other in summertime, when he had a couple of weeks or a couple of months off," Ismet said. "I've got an older brother, but I grew up like [an only] child. It wasn't always easy; I always missed him."
By the time Mutlu turned pro in 2000, however, Ismet was five years old and could join his parents in following his brother's Turkish League games on TV from Hamburg. As Mutlu played the next decade with Turk Telekom Ankara, including four seasons in the EuroCup, Ismet became more and more convinced that he wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps.
"He was always my big role model, the reason I started to play basketball. I always wanted to be like him," he says now. "To see your older brother on TV, like as a teenager, as a 12-year-old, I was like, 'Man, this is unbelievable. I also want to be there. I want to be on TV. I want to be a professional basketball player.' And this is how he influenced me."
Ismet was in a hurry to follow his big brother, too. When Mutlu had begun his second decade as a pro, Ismet moved from his original club in Wedel, outside Hamburg, to ALBA Berlin. There, he debuted in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament at age 16, the 7DAYS EuroCup at age 18, and the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague at age 19.
Along the way, Germany offered to make Ismet not only a member, but the captain of a youth national team, but he was also tugged toward Turkey and his brother.
"It wasn't always easy growing up in Germany with a Turkish background," he says. "It was always a question of: 'Where I am really from?' When you are 15 years old, you can't really answer that question for yourself. So when I was selected the first time for the German national team, I said, 'OK, I want to also give a chance to the Turkish national team.' We reached out, with my brother, but back then, nobody knew me. I had never played in Turkey. They only had statistics and numbers on me, but no face and no real video back then. There was no interest from them, so I said, 'OK, if it's like that, I've got my German national team. Everybody knows me, I'm the captain.' And since then I have played for the German national team. No regrets."
"I said to my father when I was a young kid, 'One day I want to play for Fenerbahce.'"
After playing six seasons for ALBA and Ulm in Germany, including averaging 11.1 points and 3.1 assists for Ulm in the last of those, Turkey was interested. First, Ismet played for Besiktas and last season he put up 10.8 points in the EuroCup for Bahcesehir Koleji Istanbul. He attracted the attention of Fenerbahce, who brought him back to the EuroLeague this summer, seven seasons after he made his debut in the competition.
Signing with Fenerbahce was a dream come true that tied directly back to those winter nights in Hamburg that young Ismet spent watching his brother play in far-away Turkey.
"Fenerbahce means a lot for me," Ismet says. "Like I said, I was watching my brother play, watched every Turkish League game I could. And I said to my father when I was a young kid, 'One day I want to play for Fenerbahce. I want to play on the big stage. I want to win championships. I want to win cups.' And to be able to sit here, where this uniform, play in front of their fans, this is, for me, something really, really special. I worked hard for that, and I am so happy that I'm here, and I want to give my best to stay here."
Of course, he also has a huge fan nearby in his big brother. Mutlu is 38 years old now and still playing professionally, but he moved to the Turkish second division the year before Ismet moved to Turkey. Mutlu's current team is a couple of hours away from Istanbul, in Duzce, but for Ismet that is no problem. After all, it's the shortest distance he has ever lived from his big brother and basketball inspiration.