International Basketball Fan For A Day

Originally published on June 28, 2012.

I went to Turkey in November, you should go too. It’s beautiful and has the most incredible food and people and I’m not going to say anything more because you should just go. Anyway, we happened to go during the NBA lockout, so I immediately started navigating the Internet to figure out what basketball game we should go to (shoutout to Google Translate!). I may or may not have done this before booking a hotel, go figure. Unfortunately there weren’t as many lockout-driven NBA players headed overseas as I thought, but we did have the option of seeing…(drumroll please)…Sasha Vujacic! For $10! Sold.

Destination: Galatasaray at home vs. Anadolu Efes, somewhere in the outskirts of Istanbul

We started our journey on Istanbul’s version of the New Jersey Transit. The general lack of hair gel and spray tans left us with a relatively calm ride, except for the whole we-have-no-idea-where-we’re-going-and-can’t-speak-Turkish situation. But fear not, we eventually made it to the arena by following our survival instincts. And by that I mean we found fans! Lots of them!

My first purchase was a home team (Galatasaray) scarf. But before you berate me for jumping on the bandwagon, a practice I consistently denounce, take a look at the riot police. Must blend in.

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Walking into the Galatasaray arena was like walking into the Garden for a Knicks game in the 90s…times ten. If the riot police were any indication, Turkish basketball fans are absolutely maniacal, and this game was especially insane for two reasons:

  1. Both Galatasaray and Anadolu Efes play in Istanbul and have a relationship reminiscent of the Jets and Giants. (Another reason I bought the Galatasaray scarf!) Anadolu Efes is the top dog of the Turkish Basketball League. They were in first place at the time, and have won the championship 13 times. They play in a gorgeous new dome built only two years ago, and are sponsored by Efes, Turkey’s version of Bud Light. Galatasaray was very much the underdog and their fans had that hunger you only see in people who have never experienced sporting bliss. It’s a dangerous thing, just ask Cubs fans. Or me.
  2. The Turkish Basketball League is genius. It gets me every time I think about how US sports fans have failed to fully latch on to soccer or any other fringe sport. Soccer is HUGE in Turkey. Just like any other European country, soccer is to Turkey as the NFL is to America. Turks live and breathe with their soccer team. So instead of creating brand new franchises and trying to build a fan base from scratch, almost all the Turkish basketball teams are affiliated with a soccer team. Same name, same colors, same chants…same fans. Genius! All the diehard Galatasaray soccer fans are suddenly diehard Galatasaray basketball fans, and when they bring that same level of passion to an indoor arena it’s awesome. Thought I haven’t seen the effects firsthand, I know other European leagues do the same, including FC Barcelona, and I’m sure it’s done wonders there as well.

Back to the fans. Nothing, literally NOTHING, even close to this exists in the US, and we are seriously missing out. I can’t remember the last time I was this pumped for a game, and I had zero vested interest in either teams (except for my scarf!). Our seats were across from the extreme insanity fan section, but you could hear the chanting everywhere that started during pregame warmups. Yes, pregame warmups. That time when every American fan is still in traffic, tailgating outside, or in line for beer. Not these fans…

The first half of the game was pretty awful basketball all around, as expected, but nevertheless entertaining. It was a joy to see Sasha’s glorious locks slowly jogging up and down the court, though sadly there was no Maria in sight. Sasha and Zaza Pachulia were the two recognizable guys from the NBA, and were the best players on the court by a long shot. The lack of skill was pretty brutal, Sasha was the only consistent shooter and Zaza the only rebounder. There were some pretty amusing points of disorganization, when players would frantically look over at the coach mid-play, or when Galatasaray was down ten with four minutes to go and started throwing up airball threes. But the frantic style of play on the court only enhanced the mania in the stands. The lack of effort and controlled skill in the NBA would do nothing for these emotionally-driven fans. They wanted to scream in agony at every missed jumper, charge forward in rage at every bad call, and scare the crap out of an easily spooked opposing team. In an admirable display of devotion, they created a human vuvuzela effect, whistling during EVERY Anadolu possession. The entire game.

At halftime we decided to sneak into the extreme fan section, where I became the lone woman in a mass of sweaty bodies standing on the highest piece of structure (or person) they could find. Railings, slabs of concrete, shoulders of strangers — anything that offered prime access for their taunts to reach the court. We jumped up and down with them for the entire second half, screaming gibberish along with their chants. Oh it was fun.

My favorite fans were the 3–4 guys assigned to different parts of the section, charged with leading the crowd. They spent the entire game facing the crowd, conducting the chants and shaking their fists to threaten anyone who wasn’t simultaneously jumping and singing. Intimidating but also awesome.

With two minutes left in the game and Galatasaray down by less then ten, one of the refs made a blatantly wrong out of bounds call. Shit hit the fan. Half the crowd charged forward while the other half threw everything they could find onto the court and the opposing team’s bench. The refs were forced to stop the game and players from both sides started pleading with the crowd to calm down. We thought we were in for a serious brawl until the riot police took over and formed a border around the entire court. And stayed there for the rest of the game.

Final Score: 69–61 Anadolu Efes

It was a disappointing loss but the singing continued as the crowd slowly pushed out of the arena. If you ever find yourself in Turkey or another European country, make time for a basketball game. You’ll come home slightly depressed that you can’t express yourself at an NFL game with the same level of mania, but you’ll get some great chants to scream at your TV!

Written by

Head of Product @theSkimm, prev @ESPN, forever engineer and API nerd, tragic Jets and US Soccer fan, dancer, traveler, often backpacker.

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