Turkey's '12 Giant Men' Taking Giant Steps in 2010 FIBA World Championship
There are only a dozen such men in Turkey. And one is Ender Arslan, who stands a modest 6-foot-3.
The popular name of the Turkish national basketball team is Oniki Dev Adam, which means The 12 Giant Men. And they take the motto quite seriously here.
Before the Turks routed France 95-77 Sunday at the Sinan Erdem Dome to reach the quarterfinals of the World Championship, the home fans stood and sang the theme song for their heroes, simply called "Oniki Dev Adam.''
Translated it goes, "We will win. We will be the champions. We are 12 Giant Men. We are 12 Giant Men. You will not be alone.''
Several times during the game, fans sang the song. When they broke out in unison late in the third quarter with their team up 64-41, that pretty much offered an assurance this game was won.
"I like it. It is from the 2001 European Championship,'' said Arslan, the shortest Giant Man, of the team's name. "It is like a symbol, and we like it even though I am not that giant.''
The name came about during Turkey's surprising run to a silver medal nine years ago in the European event in Istanbul, a time when basketball in the nation really began to take off. But if Turkey can win the gold medal, or even any medal in these Worlds, those on the team figure to become The 12 Incredibly Giant Men.
The Turks, who won their sixth straight game after going 5-0 to win Group C, certainly have a good shot at advancing deep into this tournament. Before a raucous sellout crowd of 15,000, they led by as much as 80-52 over a French team that just eight days earlier had shocked defending champion Spain 72-66 to open the event.
If Turkey beats Slovenia in a quarterfinal Wednesday, it would mean a berth in the semifinals and assure the nation of its highest Worlds finish ever. The team finished sixth in 2006.
"(The tournament performance so far is showing) how Turkey is doing, and with this game we sent a message to everybody,'' said Turkey and Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova, who scored only nine points Sunday but still leads the team with a scoring average of 15 points per game. "Our goal is to be the champions and put a medal on our chest.''
Sunday's leading scorer for the Turks was Phoenix Suns forward Hedo Turkoglu, who had 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting after having averaged just 9.8 points on 31.9 percent shooting the first five games. It is Turkoglu who gets much credit for the growth of basketball in Turkey.
Joining the Sacramento Kings in 2000, he was the NBA's first Turkish-born player, and played a key role for the 2001 European silver medalists. It's not surprising that huge pictures of Turkoglu have been plastered throughout Istanbul during the Worlds, including on the sides of buses.
"It has become the second sport in the country after (soccer),'' said fan Gokay Sakirogullari, 50, a mechanical engineer from Turkey's capital of Ankara, who saw all five of the team's group games there before traveling to Istanbul to watch its first knockout game. "It was not that popular before but then we have the European (Championship). And the results have been encouraging (ever since).''
Now, Turkish coach Bogdan Tanjevic only can imagine what the World Championship being here might do for the future of basketball in the country. Tanjevic is from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, then part of Yugoslavia.
"It is another step in the growing of basketball,'' said Tanjevic, coaching a Turkish team that had never even qualified for the Worlds until 2002. "In the smaller cities, small children, they will decide today or yesterday to start to play basketball. It's fantastic. Also, we will open great gyms. In Ankara, we have a fantastic gym with 11,000 people (the just-opened Ankara Arena).
"I remember my country, Yugoslavia. In 1970, we were champions of the world and after that we jumped three steps ahead.''
That was the first of a record five Worlds titles won by Yugoslavia. The country broke apart, but three nations that had been part of it -- Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia -- made the final 16 of this tournament.
While Tanjevic envisions more youngsters starting to play basketball, more are also becoming fans. Five girls, ranging in age from 11 to 21, were quite noticeable Sunday at the Sinan Erdem Dome, wearing homemade hats to honor their favorite players.
The paper hats bore a resemblance to the gold crowns they hand out at Burger King. Only these were red with the emblem of Turkey on them along with names and photos of various players.
"We went to the store and had them made,'' said Duru Ulakoglu, 14, who was at the game with relatives and friends. "They cost one Turkish Lira (about 67 cents) apiece.''
Ulakoglu (pictured, second from left) had 16 made, saying the others were being worn by friends and family in different areas in the stands. As for why she and her friends like basketball better than soccer, Ulakoglu explained.
"It's becoming more popular, and we love basketball,'' she said. "(The Turkish team is) good. Our (soccer) team is not good enough.''
The entire national soccer team actually watched Sunday's game from courtside seats. But nobody was paying much attention to those guys on a night basketball ruled in Turkey.
Fans stood and cheered much of the game. They waved flags and chanted, "Turkiye, Turkiye.''
"It's real exciting for us to play in front of this crowd,'' Ilyasova said. "They are like the sixth man on the floor. They give us good motivation. It just shows us that (the World Championship) is really important for Turkish basketball.''
Now, Turkey on Wednesday heads into one of its biggest basketball games ever. A triumph would put the team two wins away from the gold medal and also in a position in which at least one win in two games would assure Turkey of a Worlds medal for the first time.
Is there pressure on the team?
"The pressure is every time when you come and play these games,'' Tanjevic said. "They're so important. (Losing in the knockout round means) you leave. But somehow we do this.''
Arslan, who gave teammate Baris Ermis a bit of a piggyback ride off the court following the final buzzer, might be the smallest Giant. But he isn't sweating.
"Not at all pressure,'' said the guard. "We feel very good. I think our opponents feel pressure.''
After all, running into 12 Giant Men has already brought six foes down to size.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson