When I asked Hedo Turkoglu about the FIBA World Championship back at his introductory press conference in late July, a big smile came over his face as he welled up with pride over being the captain of the home country team.
“It’s going to be great, man, it’s going to be fun,” Turkoglu said on July 21. “It’s going to be my last World Championship with my national team, and being that in Turkey and I’m the captain, hopefully I get to cover one of the trophies, I don’t care what color it is, gold, silver, bronze all that. Hopefully as the captain I get to carry one of those and end my career like that.”
Turkoglu will get to carry out one of those trophies, but at this point the only color that matters is gold. Turkoglu could not have scripted a better ending to his international career than leading his country into a battle royale against mighty Team USA with over 15,000 screaming Turks propelling his every move. Tip off is set for 11:30 a.m. MST; ESPN will provide the coverage.
It is no exaggeration to call this the biggest game in Turkish basketball history by far, a game that might not be approached in another century of Turkish basketball.
We’re talking about a country that had never even qualified for this event until 2002 and has never finished better than sixth. Saturday’s thrilling semifinal win over Serbia currently ranks as the biggest win in Turkish basketball history, but it won’t hold that distinction for more than 24 hours if Turkey can upset the Americans.
It’s difficult to ponder the kind of energy that will be running through that building. I honestly can’t think of many basketball environments that could be nearly as electric as this one will be. It’s the kind of game that any true basketball fan would hope to be at.
“It will be an unbelievable atmosphere,” Team USA forward Kevin Love told FanHouse. “Absolutely, it’s going to be the most hostile, hectic crowd anybody (on the American team) ever has played in front of. You can’t replicate that, whether it’s a playoff game, Game 7 of the NBA Finals. You really just can’t replicate that.”
Speaking to FanHouse, Turkoglu compared this to playing in the NBA Finals, as he did in 2009 for the Orlando Magic against the Los Angeles Lakers. Then he reconsidered.
“It’s different,” he said. “It’s more feelings (for one’s country). It’s different. Your whole team is playing for your country. This is different emotionally and a different feeling. We’ll try to do our best. It’s going to be a tough game. We know that.”
Turkoglu has thus far averaged 11.9 points, 3.9 boards and 3.8 assists per game, but this is a deep cohesive Turkey team that has blown out most every opponent in its wake this tournament.
The Turks also feature Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova (14.3, 7.1), Chicago Bulls 7-foot center Omer Asik (9.4, 7.2), more quality size in Boston Celtics 6-foor-11 center Semih Erden (9.1, 4.9) and Serbia fourth quarter star Kerem Tunceri as well as quality guards in Omer Onan, Sinan Guler and Ender Arslan. Turkey has gotten big contributions from a multitude of players all tournament long.
They also represent a cohesive unit with four of the Turks playing together for Efes Pilsen in the Turkish Basketball League and four more belonging to NBA squads.
But make no mistake, this is Turkoglu’s team. He is Turkey’s second-leading scorer (to Ilyasova), its chief facilitator and most importantly it’s heartbeat. He has played in high-level games like this against NBA players and come out of it with the reputation as a clutch assassin. Turkey will look to Turkoglu to lead the way to victory on Sunday.
On the other side is a team that readers of this site know very well. It may be a “B team,” but it’s a B team of NBA studs nonetheless. It’s led by one of the best players in the world in Kevin Durant, who just broke the US record for points in a World Championship game with 38 in America’s 89-74 semifinal win over Lithuania.
The Americans have their problems, sure, with a dearth of size and Durant scoring twice as many points as the next highest American in this tournament (he has averaged 22 per game, though). Still, this is a collection of young NBA studs, and talent-wise no team in the field can match them.
Aside from a close call against Brazil, Team USA has run through its schedule with little resistance. America is the class of basketball in the world, and nothing that has happened in this tournament has contradicted that, even with a B team comprised of no 2008 Olympians (although it would not be fair to call Durantula a “B” player).
“The Americans are first in the world,” Turkey coach Bogdan Tanjevic said. “If we lose the game, we are the small champions of the world because American basketball is outside our possibility. We play (Sunday) with a little less pressure.”
Turkey has certainly already earned that honor, and according to Wayne Winston’s numbers Turkey has been neck and neck with Team USA in terms of dominance all tournament long. The Americans have been +23.51 points better than average and Turkey +21.35, with America being the best offensive team by far (+19.34) and Turkey the best defensively by a wide margin (-15.24).
Amazingly, America has not won this tournament since 1994 so there will certainly be motivation on Team USA’s side, but it can’t compare to how important this game is to Turkey.
Many of my American friends, even some hardcore basketball junkies, have laughed at me for how much I have cared about this tournament. Semifinal games are on ESPN Classic (although that was fitting for Turkey-Serbia) and most people in this country are more jacked about the NFL season kicking off Sunday afternoon than this gold medal game.
Meanwhile, ESPN’s broadcasters said the semifinals were watched in Turkey at a level comparable to the Super Bowl in America. This is their Super Bowl, while most Americans care much more about the NFL’s Week 1 on this particular Sunday.
In terms of a historical sense, the stakes couldn’t be more different for these two nations. Sure, some of the young guns could use a victory like this to help propel their legacies, but America has been here before and will be here in the future (although Marc Stein pointed out the importance of winning this to earn an automatic berth to the 2012 Olympics due to the potential NBA lockout next summer).
On the other hand, this is literally a once in a generation game for Turkey, if not once every four generations. This is a game fans will tell their grandkids about one day. It means everything for national pride.
The world is watching and Turkey has a chance to topple the goliath of basketball to win its first ever World Championship.
For Hedo Turkoglu and certainly his Turkish teammates, this will be far and away the most important game of their careers based on what it means to their nation. That’s not the case for Team USA, so in Sunday’s showdown we will find out if that extreme intangibles edge can lead the underdog Turks to an upset of the powerhouse Americans.