Homeland hero

Bucks' Ilyasova revisits Turkey's historic run

By Truman Reed
01/10/11

Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova, who averaged team highs of 13.4 points and 7.6 rebounds during Turkey's historic run, is excited about his team's potential to build upon its achievements of 2010.

"Twelve Giant Men."

Sounds like a movie title, doesn't it?

Maybe someday in Ersan Ilyasova's homeland of Turkey, it will be.

And if such a production ever takes place, one of the central character's adventures will be based on those experienced by the 23-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward during the summer of 2010.

"Twelve Giant Men" became the nickname of the Turkish National Basketball Team following its dramatic emergence as the runner-up in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, played last August 28 through September 12 in the Turkish provinces of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Kayseri.

With Ilyasova starting at one of the forward positions, Turkey rattled off eight consecutive victories before falling to the United States 81-64 in the championship game.

Turkey's title-game defeat came less than 24 hours after it outlasted Serbia 83-82 in its semifinal to reach the pinnacle of a historic climb.

"When we started, before training camp and the exhibitions, nobody expected us to go as far as we did," Ilyasova said. "But we made it to the final game without losing one game.

"When we stepped out on that floor in my hometown, everybody started to play more than 100 percent. The crowd really pumped us up and it seemed like nobody could beat us."

Ilyasova's teammates included fellow NBA players Hedo Turkoglu of the Orlando Magic, Omer Asik of the Chicago Bulls and Semih Erden of the Boston Celtics, yet Turkey was not even ranked in the top five of several noted polls entering the World Championship.

Under the direction of veteran coach Bogdan Tanjevic, though, the Turks relied on the chemistry they had developed dating back to their years in junior competition and overtook all but one of the higher-ranked opponents.

"It was nice having the same guys around me," Ilyasova said. "We've known each other for almost 10 years. We played through high school together and we're friends.

"When we get on the floor, everyone's moving in the same direction. It's easy to play basketball like that when everyone knows each other's moves."

Ilyasova came up with 17 points and eight rebounds as Turkey trounced Ivory Coast 86-47 in its first game, then logged a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds in a 65-56 triumph over Russia.

Turkey next cleared one of the most formidable hurdles in its path with a 76-65 victory over Greece as Ilyasova delivered a tournament-high 26 points, going 6 for 6 from 3-point range along the way.

"We beat teams like Greece that had been beating us for 35 years," Ilyasova said. "We beat them by 15 points. That was the first time we'd done anything like that. That was one of the biggest games."

After surviving a scare with a 79-77 win over Puerto Rico - with Ilyasova totaling 13 points and 13 boards - Turkey gobbled up China (87-40), France (95-77) and Slovenia (95-68). Ilyasova's best game of that series was a 19-point, five-rebound outing against Slovenia.

"Once we started rolling, we got to the semifinals and the final and people were coming out and supporting us more and more," Ilyasova said. "It was a big achievement for Turkish basketball."

Ilyasova ran into foul trouble in the semifinal and managed just six rebounds and five points, but Turkey edged Serbia 83-82 in the final seconds to earn its way into the championship game.

Ilyasova said he and his teammates were treated like rock stars by the partisan crowd and a throng of fans that had gathered outside the arena.

"In the semifinal game when we beat Serbia by one point with eight seconds to go ... that was an incredible game," Ilyasova said. "Usually from the arena it would take us about 15 minutes to get to our hotel. After that game, it took us like 4 hours.

"People were stopping on the road and jumping out of cars and shaking our bus. It was a great experience to be there."

Ilyasova is grateful that he was able to share that experience with his family.

"My family was there for the whole tournament, and it was exciting for them to be there and seize the atmosphere," he said. "My parents and my wife and her parents were all there.

"You play the World Championship once every four years. It's great just to play there once and have everyone be there."

Ilyasova scored seven points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the title game against Team USA the following night, but Kevin Durant scored a game-high 28 points in leading the Americans to an 81-64 victory, which earned them their first FIBA World Championship since 1994.

"I think we had a chance to beat Team USA in the finals, but we had a really tough game in the semifinals and we were exhausted," Ilyasova said. "Otherwise I think we would have played better against them in the finals.

"It was a valuable experience for us, especially playing in the final against the United States. It was a great experience just to be on the floor in my hometown and playing in front of the seven million people who were watching us on TV.

"The whole tournament was just a great experience for us. The atmosphere was unbelievable."

Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski came away impressed with both the Turkish team and its legions of followers.

"I want to congratulate the Turkish team for a truly perfect tournament," Krzyzewski was quoted as saying afterward. "They epitomized what a team should be and we had to be at our very best to beat them.

"It was a terrific tournament and a truly wonderful city. I've never seen a country celebrate a team better than Turkey. It created a great atmosphere for the tournament."

Ilyasova, who averaged team highs of 13.4 points and 7.6 rebounds during Turkey's historic run, is excited about his team's potential to build upon its achievements of 2010.

"A lot of our younger guys played together as a junior team and now the chemistry is working so well," he said. "As we go forward, we could really be a dangerous team.

"Before the World Championship, we played the European Championship and we didn't lose until we played Greece and lost in overtime in the semifinals. Our average age is 25 or 26, which could mean more medals for us. We can still play a lot of big games." Yes, that is a strong possibility for "Twelve Giant Men."