On the eve of the 2016 Euroleague Final Four, Emmet Ryan went for a walk around Berlin
I, I can remember, standing, by the Wall. Too many times at this stage but Tuesday was the first since Bowie passed. His time in Berlin came while the city was still divided by the Mauer. Since it fell, Berlin has been culturally fighting itself to understand the new world it lives in almost 30 years later. As you cross the Spree from Kreuzberg into Friedrichschain the graffiti is clear “Media Fuck Off”.
How apt that a city united but still rife with its own internal divisions is home to the Final Four at the height of a civil war in European basketball. How pitiful it is that a mere sport can take its fight for power and control so seriously in a city full of life yet still trying to find itself after decades of suffering.
Even the teams in town tell a story. Fenerbahce, the ascendant giant that after years of being a maybe team is favourite or second favourite to win it all depending on who you ask and has been all season. Baskonia, a team that is once more a power on a mission to prove the duopoly in Spain can be overcome. Lokomotiv Kuban, a Russian team that never even tasted playoff ball before this spring. Lastly, of course, CSKA Moscow. No-one likes them and they don’t care. They are the old power, the only one that kept it together this year and the one hoping to finally not CSKA in the final.
Ioannis Bouroussis is here to cap off a season where, having won it as an irrelevant piece last year, he has been rejuvenated. For Baskonia he is the man. On the other side of the draw stands Malcolm Delaney, the en vogue guard whose stock only rose as Loko meekly exited the VTB playoffs without him. For CSKA the back-court of Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic have their own stories, both looking for different kinds of redemption, while Fenerbahce is a dream roster. Bobby Dixon, who is enjoying the greatest 12 months of his basketball life, Bogdan ‘The Next Big Thing’ Bogdanovic, the bearded thunder of Gigi Datome, and three bigs in Pero Antic, Ekpe Udoh, and Jan Vesely at radically different points of their careers.
Yet for all these stories, all these game-changing factors who will thrill or fall flat, the city sleeps around them. The Mercedes-Benz Arena will essentially be west Istanbul but other than a few billboards you wouldn’t know the crown of champions of Europe will be decided here this weekend. For the locals, the biggest basketball game of the week has already happened. On Wednesday the Max Schmeling-Halle hosted Game 2 of the Bundesliga Playoffs first round between home side Alba and Frankfurt Skyliners. It was an ugly game of basketball. The crowd was hot, as is the norm for German crowds but it couldn’t disguise the bad rugby game on the floor. Alba lost and they will likely be swept this weekend, just a season on from the extraordinary side that had Reggie Redding, Alex Renfroe, and Jamel McLean.
The competition hoops faces in this town was visible at the front of the arena. It’s normally the home of Fuechse Berlin, the local handball side. Alongside handball there are big volleyball, futsal, ice hockey, and football teams to fight with for the attention of locals. Yet for all that, Alba’s fans seem happy with their lot and the alternative barn was a joy.
Still, this level of competition doesn’t mean hoops can’t win more than it does. The civil war across the continent simply wouldn’t be happening if Euroleague was where it could be. While this corner naturally sees FIBA’s plans as backwards and overly aggressive, the international body wouldn’t have a hope of an in if Euroleague was on fire.
Across the Spree in Kreuzberg, the pace is gentle. There’s no shortage of bars and Koffaein offers a relaxing environment to kick back and watch the world go by slowly. The industrial mass that has developed around the arena on the other side of the river could be on another continent. What this city has is peace, the tension is different to what it once was. Now it’s about rents rising, landlords being questionable with AirBnB, and the fight over how to keep the artistic core of Berlin protected from the increased presence of wildly over-achieving businesses.
It’s about fighting off melancholy. A feeling Bowie was fighting back in 1977, guards looking in to the studio as he recorded. The quotation marks around “Heroes” sum up the conflict of the present almost more than the one he saw. Around the otherwise triumphal lyrics, there’s that pensive feeling that it can’t last but a determination not to surrender to it. As I walked the wall in 2010 it was too hot a day for anyone to handle. Still, for those few minutes, it didn’t matter. I was with someone who I knew I was saying goodbye to but for those 20 minutes or so all I felt was happiness. That moment of joy is what’s important far more than the future we can’t control, knowing that if we can find it then we can find it some other way years from now.
It took me a long time and a whole lot of life to understand that but whereas Berlin was once a city I associated with an ending, it’s now a place that screams of new beginnings every time I visit. You walk into Bourbon Dogs, it’s hipster as hell but the staff are full of life. Heiden Peters, one of 25 breweries and beer collectives in this town, is working to get its niche and all weekend it’s going to fight the macro beer boys head on at a festival in Hallesches Tor. Theatre to tech, tourist traps, curry wurst stands, to some of the nastiest kebabs on earth or even here in Koffaien. Everything for you, as one person, can be what you want it to be in this city. It’s not forever but if it was life would be dull.
That’s something I only learned after I left here following Germany’s exit from EuroBasket. The lack of mass interest is something to find back against, not what we surrender to. We enjoy our moments, what we love. This weekend, whether you are watching the games at home or here in Berlin you are sharing the experience with people who love what you love. That’s a pretty great place to be in life and I’m not worrying about when it’s over.
A step inside any arena and the lack of interest in hoops outside doesn’t matter. There and then, that moment is where we can live with what we enjoy. Bouroussis, is a resurrected god. Nando, oh boy. Malcolm, the headband will terrify. And Pero? Well you can mess with him if you like.
So what if they are only “Heroes”, it’s a chance at being that for more than one day. For a weekend, what they do here can make them live in the hearts of the people that love them right now for ever. That’s immortality. You’re damn right I feel devotion hashtag or no and so do you.