After covering the 2017 Euroleague Final Four wall to wall, it’s only after the event ends that we can really take stock of what went down. Emmet Ryan, now back in Dublin, looks back on the journey and take you behind the scenes of the biggest weekend in European basketball
It’s 2am in Istanbul and my AirBnB hosts can’t find one of their cats. Barely two hours prior Fenerbahce had been crowned champions of Europe but that’s not on the agenda. The cat is nowhere to be seen and it’s never been outside before. Much frantic searching is going on, including my room (it wasn’t there) and their stress level is rising.
On Wednesday I was the one flustered and that was just the usual post-flight stress. Getting on site is always, with really few to no exceptions, the most stressful part of any tournament trip. The room is just a place to die after a long day on the job and enjoying what the city has to offer in the hours afterwards. It was tough for Istanbul to be inviting on this occasion but through no fault of the people. The Sinan Erdem Dome is out, way out, and not close to its many beating hearts.
The storm before the storm
This arena was a place of business from the off, suffering in terms of location in much the way the forum does in Milan and the O2 in London. Compared to a Palacio de Deportes in Madrid, beside a thriving cafe bar district, or Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena, just a short walk across the river from the wonderful Kreuzberg district, this was an island. Most Fenerbahce fans had longer journeys than I to the arena, much longer, despite being the effective home team.
With five live shows to put together over the weekend’s action, work began mere hours after landing at the team hotel. The mood was relaxed, with players and coaches popping in and around the bar area to do live sessions with Euroleague’s social media channels. It was the closest to peace they were going to get for the next 48 hours and, most hoped, longer.
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Thursday’s media session was more orderly than usual. The scrums we’ve come to expect, with reporters looking to get nuggets from players on the eve of the biggest weekend in European basketball, were there but the relaxed mood from the hotel seemed to have carried over. It was still intense but the vibe was a touch calmer than usual for a Final Four.
Aaron Jackson, who dropped an amazing interview after winning it all last year, was in a camo undershirt as he joked with reporters. Jackson has long been one of the most reliable options for the media at this session. His coaches know he won’t say anything that will bite him or the team in the ass but he’ll still be entertaining and give something that fans will want to see. Patric Young was the real surprise of the session. The Olympiacos big man has a future in commentary. The combination of an honest, and accurate, assessment of how he’s needed to adjust his game to his role with the Reds coupled with his insight into what CSKA brought was not your usual ‘we need to stay together and play good defence’ pre-game interview.
The man garnering the most attention was, obviously, the youngest person to see the floor during the weekend. Luka Doncic is the most discussed player in Europe right now and it was all out war in the scrum to get a moment with the young Real Madrid man. Did he want to go to the NBA this summer? Was he nervous? and everything else you’d expect was thrown at him. The kid was relaxed, he didn’t fob off but he did shut down with poise when a question seemed too obvious.
Back at the AirBnB the hosts had some friends over, their English was limited but that was still light years ahead of my Turkish which consisted of two words but we enjoyed a couple of drinks before calling it a night. It now consists of three, şerefe is how they say cheers.
Once Thursday ends at the Final Four, it’s almost a relief for reporters because finally, you get to focus fully on the games. Friday began, as every other morning would, with me finding a new bug bite. Saturday would be truly special, I’d find two new ones, and I stumbled into the arena in the mid afternoon. Once an interview with IMG about what it’s like to cover a Final Four and the Sweet 16 pre-game show were in the books, everything was set.
Rocking into the arena for the first semi-final is always a great buzz, even bigger than for the final itself. The season’s work has come to this and press row was hyped. As for the game itself? Too many shades of 2015.
You know what happened. CSKA started well, Olympiacos never let them get too far ahead, and then Spanoulis got hot late to seal it. Opening semi-finals have a tendency to be flat but this one was a near carbon copy of the same match-up two years prior. There was tension but also an awful sense of inevitability once the Reds made their comeback. Milos having a shot to win it was a bit of a wrinkle but, in all honesty, everything just felt too inevitable. Young was once again the smartest guy in the post-game, going into extensive detail about his own performance along with how his team won despite the naturally exhaustion that comes from such a physically and emotionally draining game.
Ekpe Udoh Superstar
For all his composure prior to the Final Four, this wasn’t Doncic’s weekend. He’d end up going 0 for 9 from the field across the two games but it was here that it mattered. Nobody cares about the third place game and the sooner it is abandoned the better. Fenerbahce managed to get to him mentally far more than physically, unlike Sergio Llull who kept on fighting despite taking a pounding, and it was tough to watch the youngster on the floor at times. We have seen enough of Doncic by now to know he’ll bounce back aggressively. He’s simply too good, both mentally and as a baller, not to.
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This night however belonged to Ekpe Udoh. A ridiculous stat line of 18 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 blocks made the night in a game that was never as competitive as the final scoreline of 84-75 made it look.
Post-game, Udoh looked exhausted. He was on the floor for 38 minutes and 32 seconds of the 40, just 2 seconds less than team-mate Nikola Kalinic. On another Final Four weekend, the Serbian might have had a shot at MVP with his performances over the two nights but there was no denying Udoh his moment. He was just that good over the two games. On Friday night, as the clock neared midnight, Ekpe just looked like a man who badly needed his bed. The Turkish journalists weren’t too worried, apparently Ekpe usually looks like this after a game and would be ready to go full throttle less than 48 hours later.
Saturday is the nearest thing to a rest day at the event. It’s more of a what the hell have I done to myself day. Having grabbed a few drinks back in the team hotel after the games, plus another can of Efes back at the AirBnB, I wasn’t remotely ready for the fatigue that hit. Around 4pm on Saturday I eventually got up, with two new bug bites to add to the list. The gala awards night was on Saturday but going to that was an awful idea, not least because the better sesh with the gang was in town.
Now this is Istanbul
Saturday night was out in Beşiktaş, a full 13 miles (21km) from my place. The home side was playing Kasımpaşa and I met up with a few heads to watch the game outside a bar. We were only a stone’s throw from the Beşiktaş Eagle and when Ricardo Quaresma stepped up for a penalty shortly before half-time, lots of the fans raised their arms like hovering wings. Quaresma, a legend in Championship Manager 01/02 and a god to these fans, converted. He’d set up Ryan Babel for another in the second half as the Turkish league leaders ran out easy winners 4-1.
Upon full-time a flare was set off on the crowded street and a drummer started banging for all his worth as the fans celebrated. A quick unhealthy but effective sandwich later and we decamped to another pub to meet up with journalists from across the continent, arguing well into the night. Well, late enough that I managed a 3am mystery meat sandwich on the way home.
It’s what time?
It’s loosely become a tradition that I sleep in a lot at Final Fours. With the combination of me being one to sleep in early plus the late nights working and ‘working’, I haven’t seen a full ANGT game in person since 2015 and I have never made the Saturday press conference. I managed 30 seconds of the ANGT this year, purely because that was where I collected my credential, and once more missed the Saturday press conference. At this stage I’d almost feel I was jinxing Euroleague as a whole if I attended.
That being said, I really left it late on Sunday and that led to an awful rush before we got out the pre-game show for the final, going to air just in time to finish before the third place game. I only bothered with the last 7 minutes of it, opting to hammer out the final preview that I should have written 24 hours earlier and get some dinner in the interim. Even in that small stint inside the arena proper, I could feel the heat with Fener and Oly fans filling up the house early and in full voice already.
This is awfully familiar
The introductions went as you would expect. Lots of whistles for Olympiacos players, lots of cheers for Fener. Then the game came along and my what a start from Fener. Threes raining in, especially from Kalinic, but are you noticing the way Oly are hanging around on the scoreboard? Oh look, a late shot on the buzzer to make it really close. Feels an awful lot like Friday again.
That lull could be felt across the arena. Fenerbahce may not suffer the same hoodoo CSKA do with Oly but it was looking awfully like going to script. Spanoulis was off to a stinker yet the Olympiacos second unit had come good in the second quarter and made a game of it. Outside, away from press row, it didn’t even need to be said…although plenty of us actually said it. This Oly team can’t be allowed to hang around, right?
Pero and Gigi step up
This site has a long-standing love affair with Pero Antic because he seems both lovely and certifiable at the same time. Him getting minutes when it mattered in this game was not something that could have been expected based on everything anyone had seen through the playoffs and Friday night’s game. As it turned out his introduction plus a well-timed offensive burst by Gigi Datome proved game-breaking.
Udoh, who looked throughout the first half like he was storing something for after the break went berserk on defence. His numbers were never going to compare to what he did against Real yet the big man with a book club still put up 10 points, 9 boards, 4 assists and 5 blocks…so actually they compared pretty favourably to Friday. That mid third quarter burst was enough to seal it. Fener never looked back and the first Euroleague title to go back to Turkey was secured.
The mixed zone afterwards saw a great variety of reactions from the Fener players. Anthony Bennett, who had his human victory cigar moment late in the fourth alongside Melih Mahmutoglu, was cheerful and looked to really be enjoying the moment. Bobby Dixon, who had to scrap the whole way through his career before things really took off for him with that magical two-year stint in Karsiyaka followed by his arrival at Fener where he had now scaled the ultimate height in Europe, was happy to talk about what the journey meant to him. Gigi explained that his haircut was as a result of a bet with Pero, and then Ekpe. What a lovely dude, seriously. He was exhausted, the MVP, and the winner of 1,000,000 air miles from Turkish Airlines (a bizarre but pretty awesome prize). He had already run the gamut of interviews but he remained generous with all. He remembered what it was like back in the NBA and to be here now, the key player on a team that was top of the continent at the most important moment in its history. What a beautiful story.
A quick episode of Sweet 16 to close and it was a race home, with multiple handshakes and hugs along the way.
Of course they found the cat
By the time I was starting my third can, the panic was over. It was nearing 3am when I got to bed…suffice to say I woke up later than planned but still made the plane. This long weekend/short week is the craziest of the year but I’m damn glad I get to do it.
Thanks to Moshe Barda, Aris Barkas, Yuval Barak, Savas Birdal, Mete Budak, Carla Ferrer, Alex Ferrer-K, Diego Fernandez, Austin Green, David Hein, Uygar Karaca, Seb Komianos, Sam Meyerkopf, Alex Proshuta, Timur Rustamov, Rob Scott, Cagri Turhan, Nikos Varlas, Eddy Vidal, and anyone I forgot to mention due to fatigue, for your help near and far across the whole of the Final Four.