ISTANBUL — Ask any Turkish citizen over the age of 35 what led to the stunning growth of basketball in this soccer-crazed country during the 1980s, and they’ll credit Coolidge, Salami, Gomez, and Coach Reeves.
Several years before NBA games were televised live to nations in Europe, back when households in many European countries had just one television channel, thousands of Turkish kids were glued to episodes of “The White Shadow,” the CBS series from the late 1970s and early ’80s that chronicled the mostly African-American Carver High School basketball team in Los Angeles and its white coach, played by Ken Howard.
The show, wildly popular among American kids in the 1980s, showed children in Istanbul and Ankara that wealth was not needed to play the game. Basketball programs in Turkish cities experienced a boon; kids were not only playing, but tagging each other with names of the show’s characters.
“There are some effects that change children’s and people’s lives,” said Turkish television journalist Kaan Kural, who is from the capital of Ankara. “For example, ‘The White Shadow,’ it was a moment for Turkish basketball. Many high schools built basketball courts after ‘The White Shadow.’ Everybody was calling each other Salami, Coolidge, and everything. Everybody was watching it on Sundays. It was the only show we could watch.”
Basketball has expanded exponentially in this massive country over the past two decades, so much so that the host Turkish team reached the finals of the 2010 World Championships.
The Ulker Sports Arena, where the Celtics were beaten by Fenerbahce Ulker Friday, is a state-of-the-art sports palace with an adjoining practice facility for the Turkish League team — an example of the sport’s stunning growth since those “White Shadow” days.
“Basketball is becoming very popular in Turkey, step by step,” said Naci Cansun, a Turkish native and senior director of NBA Turkey. “In the performance of the national team, in the number of Turks playing in the NBA, and probably more importantly, the types of events that Turkey’s hosting around basketball.”
In addition to the 2010 World Championships, the country will host 2014 Women’s World Championships and it also hosted the Euro League Final Four last May.
According to current FIBA rankings, the Turkish men are seventh in the world, having slipped when they failed to qualify for the London Olympics. The Turkish women shot up eight spots to 13th after reaching the Olympic quarterfinals, losing to Russia by 3.
Without being prompted, Cansun agreed with Kural’s assessment that “The White Shadow” was integral in sparking basketball interest in Turkey.
“Turkey has always had very good fundamentals for basketball,” Cansun said. “Turkey has a culture of sports clubs, and Turkey clubs not only had a football [soccer] team but a basketball team. There was always no lack of spectators. It wasn’t considered an elite sport until 25 years ago.”
Cansun said he and his friends would trade months-old Betamax tapes of NBA games just to watch the action because the league had not yet become global. That carried into the early 1990s, when the US Olympic men’s team in Barcelona — The Dream Team — popularized basketball all over Europe.
Although more children in Turkey were shooting baskets in schoolyards, the sport became an international factor primarily because of the coaching of Aydin Ors, considered the father of modern Turkish basketball. Ors helped channel the talent and energy generated from “The White Shadow,” the Michael Jordan era, and the Dream Team into a team that became a consistent contender around Europe.
Before the 1990s, Turkey was an afterthought among its European foes while Russia, Lithuania, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Italy competed for supremacy. Ors sought to change that.
“Turkish standards are now high in European basketball, so I am not surprised,” he said. “I started with the senior team [Efes Pilsen] 20 years ago, we won the Korac Cup [a European tournament] in 1996, and for any team — football, basketball — that was the first champion for Turkey.”
Having coached many of those senior players as juniors, Ors led the club to four Turkish League titles, the first coming in 1993, and that same team also lost in the Finals of the European Cup to rival Greece. Slowly, Turkey was becoming a European basketball factor.
“They started to believe we can do [great things],” Ors said. “We can play in Europe for every [trophy]. And by this time, the national team is growing.”
A pinnacle came when the Turkish team reached the final of the European Cup in 2001, losing to Yugoslavia/Serbia, 78-69. A member of Ors’s 2000 European Cup semifinalist with Efes Pilsen, Hedo Turkoglu, became the first Turkish-born player to play in the NBA in 2000.
“We began to build a generation of basketball players,” Cansun said. “All we needed was to appeal to the masses and that came through pop culture, pushing kids to play basketball, making it look cool.”
There are now five Turkish players in the NBA after former Celtic Semih Erden left to sign with Anadolo Efes of the Turkish League. Three more Turks were selected in the final 10 picks of last June’s NBA Draft.
The Turkish League is transforming into one of Europe’s more competitive leagues, and Fenerbahce Ulker has an opportunity to crack the Euro League Final Four. No Turkish team has ever won a Euro League title or even been runner-up.
“I think the Dream Team taught players in Europe that basketball can be played at a different level,” Kural said. “And the Turkish have begun to pick up that you win with defense, because you can’t score 200 points. The Turkish League is second only to Spanish League and it’s getting better.”
Cansun’s job at the NBA office in Turkey is to promote the game locally and develop marketing opportunities. Turkey’s economy was not affected by the European downturn; a testament to that are the many new and under-construction buildings in Istanbul.
“I think there are enough great players in Turkey,” said Cansun. “Our main responsibility is on the commercial side. We have to try to create a fan base to interact with on an ongoing basis, find companies who are able to fund this relationship with the fans.
“It’s the model that you would see in the US, and we hope that the Turkish basketball community starts to [increase] its practices when they see the NBA coming to town. That’s why we are organizing these basketball tournaments.
“The hope is that the local market is going to start imitating those, and out of those events will come the Michael Jordan of Turkey.”