*Published in June 2015 issue.
I would like to start this interview with that unforgettable last-second shot although the period thus far was also very crucial for you. Before 2010, there is a stage in your career in which you didn’t get selected to the national team. During those days, there were also some rumors of you not being in Tanjevic’s future plans. Let’s start with that first…
Tanjevic didn’t call me up to the national team for almost a couple of years before 2009. He was saying that I was too old and would be even older during the 2010 Championship. In fact, I was just about to turn 31. I didn’t get into those arguments at the time despite all the efforts around. Also, I never made a scene in my whole life for such an incident. I tried to show respect to Tanjevic’s decision. As a matter of fact, I was doing pretty well those days: playing my top games in Real Madrid and was in great shape. With all due respect, I wasn’t able to understand that decision then and I still can’t make sense of it now. I wasn’t being disrespectful or anything to my coach or the basketball federation. I never did anything wrong. But in time, they probably came to their senses and called me up to the national team in 2008. I joined the team for the qualifications of 2009 European Championship and in the end, we had a really good tournament in Poland.
…until that historical game against Greece, right?
Yes, unfortunately… We lost terribly in the quarterfinals. It was another one of those games which was deserved yet lost, due to some simple mistakes. If only Ömer Onan had made that three-pointer when there was 50 seconds left for the final buzzer… Or if Ersan’s knee hadn’t twisted and he had not missed that let alone layup earlier… It could have easily been a five-point difference, but it just didn’t work out that way. I will always look back into that game in regret.
Preparations for the 2010 World Championship began later and it didn’t go very well as far as I remember…
We started that tournament under a great deal of stress. We lost friendly matches back to back and Engin Atsur’s injury devastated us. He was a really important part of the team and his Achilles tendon was ruptured. Such misfortune gathered up with a losing streak in friendlies and eventually, people lost their faith in us right before the tournament began. As for the Turkish basketball community, they were always too pleased to blame us. There is always a clean-cut perception of failure in Turkey, comes with extremely harsh criticism as well. Unfortunately, as a nation, we are extreme about all our feelings, indeed. While they may praise you to the skies on a success, they also rush to line up for your mortification after a failure. Anyways, we started the tournament under this state of mind, but everything changed entirely on our first game and onwards. Like the Greece game, we won matches where no one believed we would, since we hadn’t been able to win against them in tournaments for a long time. Oh, I remember an incident from the ceremony of that game; As you know, we don’t get along that well with Greece politically, but it hadn’t been that much of an issue between the national teams until that game. Indeed, I always think we are almost identical except the languages and religions. Our cultures are quite similar. But that day, our supporters started to protest them during their national anthem out of nowhere. When I heard, I immediately turned around towards the stands and asked them to stop it. Oddly enough, they heard my request and stopped it right away. The Greek journalists came to thank me after the match. Which now also reminds me of another incident from the same game; Last seconds of the match, we are ahead, I am bringing the ball to their court and we are finally about to win against them after 20-plus-something years. Then the buzzer goes, I drop the ball and raise my arms to celebrate… At that very moment, Bourousis came and swore at me, after which he said; “Why are you celebrating as if you won the tournament?” I felt very offended by that and we both jumped down each other’s throats, with sudden adrenaline rush. Referees pulled us apart and the match ended with this unnecessary tension. After that game, we won five times in a row in group matches and returned to Istanbul for the finals. During all those defeats in friendlies we were all thinking “What are we going to do in the World Championship?” But there, we had made a great start and qualified for the finals. First match of the finals was against France. As I said, we weren’t expecting any success but in that first game, we quickly got ahead by 20 points. We were all enjoying our game… After all, you play another level of basketball when you enjoy the game. Yes, physical condition or trainings are all very important as well, but when you are motivated, you can do anything.
So how did that motivation develop?
It developed through victories. We felt very well after. It wasn’t a regular season run, it was a tournament and in tournaments whoever is in form, steps forward. Quality of the squad is also an important factor, but what matters most in those games, is your form. You may remember how Russia defeated the host team, Spain, in the final of the European Championship with Holden’s buzzer beater. That is probably one of the best game endings ever. They could never beat them in any other given time, but then they were in great form. They were on a roll. Just like we were in 2010. Besides, we received amazing support from the fans in Ankara. Supporters during the finals in Istanbul didn’t fall short until the match against U.S.A. But they were a bit silent in that match. It’s probably because they didn’t believe we could defeat them. Apart from that, the atmosphere was splendid allover and we played some great basketball, especially in the defense.
Can you tell us about that historical moment in the Serbian match?
I believe, it was a match that no Turkish citizen could ever forget. Serbia had a great squad of players: combination of experienced stars and talented youngsters. We were behind for almost the whole match till the last 3-4 minutes. But we fought for every loose ball and never gave up. I scored two consecutive three-pointers and two layups towards the end, so we held onto game.
And what was that last minute like?
Well, when you have a player like Hidayet Türkoğlu, who has played the NBA Finals and very well experienced in such last-minute plays, you usually let him use the final ball. I was thinking that he should make that shot under any circumstance. So, during the time-out, I looked at Tanjevic and said: “Let’s give the ball to Hidayet, he should take the shot since he’s more used to it than any of us.” I was thinking that whether he makes it or not, he should be the one to use that ball, regardless of me having “hot-hands” at that moment. Besides, none of us in the team were thinking selfishly, no one was thinking: “I must be the hero!” Just like we wanted Chris Lofton to use all the last-minute balls this season in Beşiktaş. Lofton knows how to use them very well and plays with the highest percentage. Buzzer-beaters are his feature. Anyway, Ender brought the ball into the game and passed it to Hidayet. He dribbled a bit and right at that moment, as if it came alive, the ball got loose. It seemed like the ball was going out bounds but as it happens, it came directly to me. I always believe there is such a thing as being in the right place at the right time… So, I took it and saw the free baseline which Marko Keselj had emptied to defend me. I might have made a ridiculous shot if he had not, since there was very short time left on the clock.
How did you react so quickly within that brief moment?
There were only 4.2 seconds left before Hidayet took the ball and even less when I took it. You have to decide in split seconds, which is very difficult. I just saw that open space as if it was a bright light and started driving. On my way, I was thinking to myself, “Please, don’t let the time run out!” Right then, Semih did a great screening and cleared the low-post. I took a shot and it went in. It is not easy to understand the meaning of that kind of shot right away; You are scoring one of the most important points of the Turkish basketball history and every one of your teammates are chasing you to celebrate. I don’t exactly know why, probably just because I was being chased, but I started to run around the court to avoid them. Everyone around was in shock, asking “Did it count?” We even thought that the match was over after my point but referees checked to see that there were still 0,5 seconds left. I remember that Ivkovic drew up one hell of a sideline play for that remaining time. At that brief moment, I was thinking of my father, whom I look as an example for life, a role model. He is also a former national basketball player. I knew that he would be very proud, that his son scores such a dramatic shot for the national team and brings the game to the edge of an historical victory. He knows this game so well that I talk to him to hear his reviews after every game. But he never tells me anything like: “You should do this and that, etc.” At that time, he had recently started to watch the games on TV rather than on the stands, since he would like to watch the replays. Anyway, after I scored, Serbian team took a time-out and Tanjevic benched me. While I was sitting, I kept talking to myself like:” Please, please don’t let them score. For my father… For him…” It was the only thing that I could think of. Then the time-out ended and as I said; Ivkovic had drawn up an awesome play. We were having a problem in defense; we couldn’t switch well during man-to-man defense. So, a perfect pass was given to Velikovic from the sideline and he superbly caught it in mid-air and shot but Semih was there to block it. At that exact moment, the court was completely filled with a wave of pure joy. It was beyond words.
What happened afterwards?
After the showers, we got into the bus to go to our hotel, which, on an ordinary day, is 5 minutes away from the arena in Ataköy. We made it in 1.5 hours. Even the highway was flooded with people. To pass through the supporters, Hidayet, Ömer and I eventually had to go in front, take the microphone and say: “We have the final game tomorrow. Please let us through.” The very-first 20-25 minutes was fine with all the cheering and so, but we were very exhausted because of that great amount of passion and adrenaline rush from the game. So we had to ask them to let us through and go to the hotel and rest, but there were at least a thousand more people waiting to congratulate us in the hotel entrance as well. It took another 45 minutes for us to get to the dining area from the lobby. After the dinner and massage, we thought it would be nice to chat with the team and relax a bit before going to bed. I remember that we were all staying in single rooms and Hidayet was in the room next to mine. I tried to fall asleep, but it was impossible since I was very restless in bed, tossing and turning constantly with a loud and clear palpitation in my chest. I kept telling myself: “I have a game tomorrow. I must sleep at once.” I floundered in bed for some time before checking my watch to see that it was already 05.30 in the morning. So I got up and went to see whether Hidayet was doing better than me or not. After all, he was a player who has played in the NBA finals a year before and lived through numerous thrilling moments completely-filled with adrenaline. But he was also very well awake, standing nervously and walking back and forth in his room. As a result, we were extremely tired the next day. If you ask me, we could have still defeated the U.S.A with our form and motivation, but unfortunately, Kevin Durant had a flawless game.
That last second point made it feel like a final game I suppose…
It wouldn’t be that much of a deal if we had beaten them by 10-15 points I think. Sure, we would still be delighted and it would still be a great success, but we wouldn’t be so thrilled and so emotional as we were afterwards. To tell the truth, beating Serbia like that affected us very negatively in the final. If only that buzzer beater was in the final game instead, it would have been way better… Or maybe if we had a break afterwards, for a couple of days or so… I think we might have had a shot then. It’s just that, none of us were able to sleep that night. We didn’t have time to rest at all before the final.
I’d also like to ask you about another last second point, if I may. What can you tell us about the point that Marcelinho Machado scored in the preliminary round of 2002 World Championship?
When I have a look over my entire career, I can come up with lots of moments where I consider myself successful. But of all my failures, that moment is always the first to come to my mind. Game was ending in 10 seconds and we were ahead by 5 when a jump ball was called. I looked at Mirsad and said “Varejao is on the move, screen him!”, but he didn’t listen. So the ball came directly at Varejao and I was the closest. I poked him before his lay-up. The ball went in and he gained a hoop and harm. We didn’t have any more timeouts so my team brought the ball into play from byline. I took it and they instantly fouled me. This is always the worst case scenario that you can think of. There was only 3 seconds left before the buzzer. It could have gone to overtime if only I had scored one out of those two free throws but unfortunately, I missed them both.
What is it like to take free throws in the last seconds of a game like that?
It’s extremely difficult. Not all the good shooters are good free throwers, it’s a whole other thing. Look at Ömer Onan for example. He is a great shooter, very brave and can score from anywhere in the court but when it comes to free throws; he sweats. Back in that game, I was 22 years old. I took the first and missed. Brazilian players always try distracting you during free throws with mind games and such; reach at you without being noticed or talk to you constantly. So I missed the other one as well. Marcelinho Machado took the ball and shot it from 2-3 steps ahead of the division line. I had run back quickly after I missed the second free throw, so when he took that shot, I was under the basket. I had a very clear vision of the ball. When it was in midair, I knew it would go in. And I knew everybody would hate me because of that. I was already being criticized viciously, so don’t make me remind you of the headlines the day after. Those were very difficult times for me. Losing and being criticized like that…
Is ‘last second player’ a thing in basketball?
Well, to score in those moments; you need self-confidence and fearless instinct for trying. And luck is also a must most of the time, like in my case in 2010. There, ball just fell into my lap. Serbians said that my foot was touching the line. Which isn’t true by the way. When you watch it afterwards, it may seem like my heel is touching the line but it was lifted. The funny part is, next year Dusko Savanovic joined Efes, where I was also playing. He never stopped blaming me for that. He never got tired of saying “You stole my medal; you stole my medal!” every day for two years.
Finally, let me ask you about the unforgettable last seconds you witnessed throughout your career. Both as a player and viewer…
To begin with, there is that shot that Michael Jordan made, after stealing the ball from Karl Malone, driving inside and shaking off Bryon Russell. I’ve watched that in the middle of the night, it was simply spectacular. Jordan was a great player and that shot was just meant to be I think. There is also one of mine, from the season after 2010 World Championship, which I scored against Panathinaikos as an Efes player. That last second lay-up booked our place in Top 16 of the Euroleague. And the last one I can think of is not from a basketball game: The 1999 Champions League Final which Manchester United beating Bayern Munich by scoring two goals in the last minute…
Translated by: Baran Yağmurlu.