Why We Watch | International Edition: Turkey, Twelve Giant Men

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The NBA isn't the only basketball league beginning its season, and for many fans in Turkey, the TBL and Turkish basketball in general is filled with reasons why we watch.

Basketball is a growing thing in Turkey. And given that basketball is often used as a trope to bring underprivileged minority communities together in America,. it should be no surprise that it can do the same elsewhere. Energetic lanky kids need something to do indoors the world over, and it only takes a clever person and a bouncy orange ball to do that.

Soccer is still king, of course, no matter how many hopes the mustachioed Volkan Demirel must kill (as a brief aside, the goalkeeper’s last name translates as “iron hand”. He is merely living out a prophecy and destroying us all). But while basketball has been a niche sport for decades, Hidayet Türkoğlu’s dominance in the 2009 NBA playoffs raised the game to national consciousness; as Turkey is a country that especially loves those nationals who crush international competition, as anyone who remembers Pocket Hercules can tell you.

Hedo’s postseason performance led right into the 2010 FIBA World Championships, a tournament played -- conveniently enough -- in Turkey’s capital of Istanbul. They still lost to the US in the final, but Turkey fell in love with its “Twelve Giant Men.” And sorry about the nickname, Turks are the least ironic people on Earth.

There is irony, however, in where many of the Twelve Giants came from, as the first great batch of Turkish ballers were from the crumbling Yugoslavia. The memory of Drazen Petrovic inspired many Muslim Yugoslavs who were forced to flee Sloba’s militias; and Mirsad Türkcan - the first Turk in the NBA - is from Novi Pazar. The former Yugoslavia has been a hotbed of basketball talent who have found them dispersed throughout the region. Others Turks came from even farther afield: rising Milwaukee Bucks star Ersan İlyasova comes from a Crimean Tatar family that was deported to the Uzbek SSR and later fled to Turkey (in short: whereas Soviet Jews fled to New York, Soviet Muslims fled to Istanbul). The team may be Duke-ian, but they do represent the ethnic rainbow of the Turkish state.

Except, so far, for Kurds. The situation of Kurds in Turkey is so complicated and fraught with politics that it’s hard to discuss in any context without inflaming the passions of both sides. That’s why Dorian Jones’ report on Gökhan Yıldırım and his boys is so incredible. Gökhan Bey is providing the sort of guidance, leadership, and responsibility to a group of obscenely underprivileged youth that we make maudlin television shows about and indeed, Gökhan Bey credits “The White Shadow” for his inspiration. The coach is doing this for the municipality, not an AAU-esque entity. And he’s doing it on top of his regular teaching gig, impressive in its own right and especially with super-centralized Turkish pedagogy expecting its teachers to treat Dıyarbakır as a chore and to hunker down in the öğetmenevi rather than show kids YouTube clips of Anthony Davis’ footwork. The enthusiasm is commendable enough, the success even moreso. Ramazan Özkan won a scholarship to an American prep school, and unlike Enes Kanter, he has kept on the good side of the NCAA’s perhapscrocy. There are Mountain Hoosiers tearing up youth basketball, and people in the Dıyarbakır slums are using words like “faith” and “hope” unironically. I told you Turks don’t do irony, and the same goes for Kurds.

Unfortunately for their chances at greater exposure, they’re still Turks. One might imagine that Grantland would be tripping over themselves at any story that references “The White Shadow,” but they have a jabbering fear of the swarthier climes. The last time anyone wrote about Turkish basketball stateside was when Rick Reilly took a break from being a Rick Reilly impersonator to write a ghoulishly racist and Christian Supremacist tirade about how boy howdy those muzz-lims sure do things differently in that muzz-lim land now don’t they.

It doesn’t matter that the Turkish team plays a gully style of Eurobasket or that these are more likely to be people with childhood crushes and favorite bands and Facebook accounts than broadly terrifying Others. Basketball - whether 1v1, a game of 21, or in front of 20,000 - is the sort of universal language to allow us to express our gawk at when people do things so universally unheard of (whether athletically or philanthropically) that we can only smile. So let’s do that as we get excited for whatever lesser happiness this NBA season could give.

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