With Turkey the primary hosts of EuroBasket 2017, Nicolò Origgi goes down memory lane to a prep game that didn’t go to plan for the 12 Giant Men in 2009. A bunch of lads suited up in Bormio for a country many of them weren’t familiar with but they banded together to produce one of the more under the radar shocks of the past decade
Upsets are an unpredictable yet welcomed variable in any competition. Without looking into the history of other sports, only since the beginning of the current century we could mention – among others – the first international losses suffered by those All-Star teams better known as Team USA, a rare Spanish meltdown in the 2007 Eurobasket final against a truly cold-blooded Russian team, and the well documented 2012 Euroleague final that saw CSKA succumb to a more than valiant yet way less talented Olympiakos side. However, nobody except those who were directly involved has probably ever heard of the one about to be presented. Even though it took place in a mere friendly game, the extent of such feat should not be undervalued by no means.
Back in summer 2009, a powerful Turkish national team about to reach quarter-finals in the subsequent Eurobasket and, most importantly, a somewhat unexpected final in the following year’s World Championships were attending their traditional training camp in the renowned Italian mountain resort of Bormio. As usual, a few scrimmages against other squads – namely, Canada and perennial Afrobasket winners from Angola – lodged in the village for the same reason had been scheduled. Aside from such bouts, though, Turks would have to play an additional contest against another African side who had just debuted in the continental tournament just two years before. Rwanda – a nation sadly known for the previous decade’s cruel bloodbath on racial basis – had sent their national team to Italy as well in order to prepare for their second Afrobasket ever, thus a quick stop in Bormio to face some of the world’s best definitely looked like a nice idea. So far, so good. Their roster, however, revealed a major controversy as the absence of serious domestic players had induced the national federation to rely massively on Americans who – with the exception of centre Robert Thomson, a larger-than-life white seven-footer from Pennsylvania who had effectively established himself for a while in the tiny equatorial country due to love reasons – had nothing to do with their employers’ heritage. Not even considering the number of fringe African foreigners from neighbouring countries, the number of overseas imports – starting point guard Matt Miller, top scorer Kenneth Gasana, guard Amandin Rutayisire, power forward Carlos Mugabo and backup big man Ellis Kayijuka – more than exceeded the single naturalised spot allowed by the rules.
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In spite of the vast turnover – the almost NBA champion and potential playoffs MVP Hedo Turkoglu as well as Euroleague household names such as Sinan Guler, Kerem Gonlum, Semih Erden and Omer Asik were on the sidelines in street clothes – decided by Turkish coach Bogdan Tanjevic, on August 2nd all odds were obviously against the unknown bunch of mercenaries led by former Croatian player Veceslav Kavedzija. After all, the Turks could count on the likes of Kerem Tunceri, Ender Arslan, Omer Onan, Ersan Ilyasova and Oguz Savas – a potentially intriguing starting five on any international stage – as well as on solid backups with extended domestic league experience under their belt such as Baris Hersek, Bekir Yarangume, Fatih Solak and Umit Turkoglu. A balanced first quarter left the impression that the all-blues from Africa – at least on paper – were taking the game as seriously as their capabilities could allow while the the red-and-whites Eurasians were just being cautious in order to prevent unwelcomed injuries but would eventually pull away with a few minutes at full throttle. The announced blowout, however, never took place as the Afro-Americans were slowly pushed to an abundant as well as astonishing double-digit lead by the spirited Thomson – a true journeyman who never amassed huge scoring figures over a career on the road ended in 2011 as a Romanian champion – through an array of awesome post moves, high work rate under the boards, a couple of intimidating rejections and even three long-range daggers. With their backs against the wall, for a simple matter of pride Tanjevic’s boys finally reacted in the last quarter but could not complete the comeback after erasing the deficit to a single possession in a tense final that saw future NBA standout Ilyasova fouling out. At the final buzzer, the scoreboard was perfectly working while showing 76 for Turkey and 79 for Rwanda amid celebrations by the incredulous underdogs and some concealed embarrassment on the losers’ faces, probably worried about what expected them in the locker room following customary handshakes and even some group photos with their underestimated opponents. To put things in perspective, just think about your random Angolan player asking Dream-Team members for a pic back in ’92 in case of beating them. That’s hyperbole, obviously, but good enough to convey the idea of such unique circumstance.
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No matter how meaningless this game was nor how unfairly Rwandan federation acted to put together their dirty dozen that would finish ninth – their highest placement ever to this day – a few days later in Libya after knocking down some big continental names such as Senegal and Cameroon. That time, the unlikeliest group of basketball expendables were the heroes, just for one night.
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