Mirsad Turkcan: The King of rebounds

To start this entry, please let me explain the story of how I met Mirsad Turkcan. In December of 1994 (I admit it, I had to check on the archives to get that date right) I went by the Calderon Hotel in Barcelona, to write the preview for the newspaper I was working in at the time, “Mundo Deportivo”, for the game between FC Barcelona and Efes Pilsen in the Euroleague of the time. I got there with the newspaper in my hands. While I was in reception, I was talking to Efes coach Aydin Ors, and a young player of the Turkish team asked me, in English, if he could take a look at the paper. Right away, I heard a comment in pure Serbian.

He was Mirsad Turkcan, a young talent of Efes Pilsen, who was already known in the basketball spheres due to his 16.6 points in the junior EuroBasket played that same summer of 1994 in Tel Aviv. Until then I never had the chance to meet him because in 1992, his getaway from Novi Pazar, the city where he was born on June 7 of 1976, to Istanbul almost happened at the same time as mine to Barcelona. Mirsad was born under the name Jahovic in a rather well-known family of doctors in Novi Pazar, the main city in the region of Sandzak, with a majority Muslim population. One of his sisters follows the family tradition and is a doctor in Belgrade, while the other, Emina, is a well-known singer both in Serbia and Turkey, where she lives with her husband, the famous Turkish singer Mustafa Sandal.

Mirsad’s thing was neither medicine nor music. His destiny was in sports, specifically, basketball. As a young talent he was a candidate to play for all the big teams in Yugoslavia. The fastest one was Bosna and young Mirsad ended up in Sarajevo. However, in the spring of 1992, with the Bosnia and Herzegovina war in sight, the Efes Pilsen scouts took advantage of the situation and convinced his family to let him relocate to Istanbul, so Mirsad Jahovic, who would soon have a Turkish passport and the name Turkcan, started his great adventure on the Bosphorus. More than two decades later, he is still there, now as Fenerbahce Ulker’s sports director, the same team with which, 19 years later, he put an end to his great career. Between 1992 and 2012, the year when he retired, however, many things happened.

Triumph in the Korac Cup

Mirsad Turkcan’s career didn’t develop at lightning speed. It went step by step, improving season after season. From the very start of his career his main weapon was rebounds. Standing at 2.06 meters, his height didn’t precisely stand out for a basketball player, but his jumping capabilities together with great timing gave him, I’d say, 10 centimeters more. He usually won rebounding duels with players much bigger than him. In the 1994-95 seasson, his first on the senior team, his numbers in 12 Euroleague games were discreet, 2.2 points and 1.7 rebounds in 5.7 minutes on the floor.

In the summer of 1995, he made his debut in the Turkish national team at the EuroBasket in Athens. With 8.3 points and 7.5 rebounds he was one of the young prospects that stood out the most.

In the 1995-96 seasson he was already a staple on the competitive Efes Pilsen team, which played the Korac Cup that season. Petar Naumoski, Ufuk Sarica, Conrad McRae, Volkan Aydin, Tamer Oyguc, Murat Evliyaoglu, Turkcan and the rest built a great team that, on its way to the title game, had got rid of several strong opponents like Maccabi Rishon, Varese, Panionios, Fenerbahce and Fortitudo Bologna. The opponent in the final would be Olimpia Milano, which really was Stefanel Trieste relocated to Milan, a team with Dejan Bodiroga, Nando Gentile, Rolando Blackman and Gregor Fucka with Bogdan Tanjevic, a future coach of Turkcan in the Turkish national team and Fenerbahce, on the bench. The Italian team was favorite but the first duel played in Istanbul on March 6, 1996, ended with an Efes win by 76-68. The hero of the game was guard Namoski, who scored 31 points. Mirsad contributed 6 points and 6 boards. The eight-point difference gave hopes to both teams, but the Italians ended up losing their third straight final in this competition. After PAOK and ALBA, the executioner this time was Efes Pilsen. In Milan, Olimpia’s win was not enough, 77-70. Naumoski was the top scorer again with 26 points, and Turkcan added 7 points and 13 rebounds. To this day, it remains the only European trophy ever lifted by a Turkish team!

First Turk in the NBA

In 1997, at only 21 years old, Mirsad Turkcan was already a future star and a coveted player. At the U22 World Championship he shined with 17.7 points and 10.7 rebounds, and in the EuroBasket of that same year he helped Turkey reach eighth place. In 1998, he finished the season as the best rebounder of the Turkish League and nobody was surprised when the Houston Rockets chose him with 18th pick at that year’s NBA draft. He became the first Turkish player in the NBA. Due to the lockout, he was back to Efes, but when the NBA season finally started he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers and then to the New York Knicks. After 7 games there he was traded yet again to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he played 10 more games. His average was 5.3 minutes, only enough for 1.9 points and rebounds per game. Something strange happened because, with his height, solid shooting and especially, his great rebounding capabilities, Turkcan almost had a perfect profile for the NBA, where physical aspects are important, but the coaches just didn’t trust him. Disappointed, he decided to go back to Europe.

Turkcan started the 2000-01 seasson again in Efes Pilsen, but he ended up in Racing Paris, where his 15.9 points and 8.4 rebounds in 14 games were enough for CSKA Moscow to call him for the start of a big project that had one goal: winning the Euroleague. However, before moving to Moscow he had to take part in another historic event for Turksih basketball. At the 2001 EuroBasket in Turkey, the hosts reached the title game where they lost to Yugoslavia, led by Bodiroga and Predrag Stojakovic. However, the silver for Turkey was its first medal in continental competitions. Together with Ibrahim Kutluay, Hidayet Turkoglu, Mehmed Okur, Harun Erdenay, Kerim Tunceri, Kaya Peker, Husein Besok, Omer Onan, Orhun Ene and Asim Pars, Turkcan made the history books. With 10.7 points he was the fourth best scorer on the team and with 8.3 boards, the second best rebounder.

In its first try, CSKA didn’t manage to reach the Bologna Final Four in 2002. The team finished third in the Top 16 with a 3-3 record, right behind Maccabi Tel Aviv (4-2) and Tau Ceramica (4-2). With 16.2 points and 10.7 rebounds, Turkcan was one of the best players on his team. The following season he played in Montepaschi Siena of Italy. The team did reach the Final Four in Barcelona, but fell to Benetton Treviso in the semis by a close 62-65 score. It was, probably, the worst day in the pro career for Turkcan. In 29 minutes he didn’t score a single point (he averaged 14.8 that season), missed his 4 attempts for two points and his 2 for three. He only grabbed 5 rebounds, way below his season numbers (11.8). In the game for third place, he did his usual double-double again, 16 points and 14 rebounds, but it was already too late. The title game would feature Benetton and FC Barcelona.

In the 2003-04 seasson he was back to CSKA and he was again in the Final Four, this time in Tel Aviv, but again, he missed out on the title game. In semis, Maccabi got the best of CSKA with a 93-85 win with Anthony Parker (27) and Sarunas Jasikevicius (18) as the best players in the game. On the other side, Marcus Brown scored 23, JR Holden contributed 16, Turkcan 10 plus 10 boards. He stayed in Moscow, but switched teams to Dynamo. He was the best rebounder of the Russian League but in 2005 he was back to Istanbul, not to ‘his’ Efes, but to Ulker and later to Fenerbahce in 2006-07 until finally, both clubs merged into what today we know as Fenerbahce Ulker.

Lacking collective titles with his teams, Turkcan received many individual accolades. He was MVP of the 2002 regular season in the Euroleague. He was also MVP of the week six times in 2002-03, the Top 16 MVP in 2003 and also a member of the All-Euroleague teams in 2002, 2003 and 2004. His career highs in the Euroleague are an index ratingperformance of 43 with Montepaschi against Panathinaikos; 27 points and 23 rebounds with CSKA against Buducnost. He had 49 double-doubles in the Euroleague, but that 27+23 performance has a special place in the history of the competition. In 129 Euroleague games, he grabbed 1,287 rebounds (9.95 per game), 142 more than David Andersen, second in the ranking. He is still the all-time rebounds king of the Euroleague.

In February of 2011 he suffered a severe ACL injury and in 2012 he announced he was retiring. On September 16 of that year, Fenerbahce Ulker and CSKA Moscow played a friendly game on the day of his official goodbye. That day there was only one winner: Mirsad Turkcan. He stayed in the club to try to fulfill the dream of many fans: making Fenerbahce Ulker the first Turkish team in a Euroleague Final Four.

(March, 2014)