“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Mirsad Turkcan – The king of rebounds
I met Mirsad Turkcan in December of 1994 when I went by the Calderon Hotel in Barcelona to write a preview for the newspaper I was working for at the time, Mundo Deportivo, for that week’s EuroLeague game between FC Barcelona and Efes Pilsen. 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 from the Turkish team asked me, in English, if he could have a look at the paper. Right away, I heard a comment from him in pure Serbian.
He was Mirsad Turkcan, a young talent of Efes Pilsen, who was already known in the basketball circles due to his 16.6-point average at the FIBA European Championship for Junior Men, played the previous summer in Tel Aviv. Until then, I never had the chance to meet him because in 1992, his getaway to Istanbul from Novi Pazar, the Serbian city where he was born on June 7, 1976, happened at almost the same time as mine to Barcelona. Turkcan 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 to catch him was Bosna, and young Mirsad ended up in Sarajevo. However, in the spring of 1992, with the coming war in sight, the Efes Pilsen scouts 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. Between 1992 and 2012, the year when he retired, 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 that 1994-95 season, his first on the senior team at Efes, 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 1995 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 season, Turkcan was already a staple on the competitive Efes Pilsen team, which played the Korac Cup. 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 beaten 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. Milano’s coach was Bogdan Tanjevic, who would be a future coach of Turkcan’s with the Turkish national team and Fenerbahce. The Italian team was the favorite, but Efes won their first duel, played in Istanbul on March 6, 1996, by the score of 76-68. The hero of the game was guard Naumoski, who scored 31 points. Mirsad contributed 6 points and 6 boards. The eight-point difference gave hope to both teams, but the Italians ended up losing their third straight final in that competition. After PAOK and ALBA, the executioner this time was Efes. In Milan, Olimpia’s 77-70 win was not enough. Naumoski was the top scorer again with 26 points, and Turkcan added 7 points and 13 rebounds. It was the 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 for Men that year, he shined with 17.7 points and 10.7 rebounds, and at the 1997 EuroBasket, he helped Turkey reach eighth place. In 1998, he finished the season as the best rebounder in the Turkish League and nobody was surprised when the Houston Rockets chose him with the 18th pick in that year’s NBA draft. Turkcan would become the first Turkish player in the NBA. Due to the lockout, he remained at Efes for a while, but when the NBA season finally started, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers and then to the New York Knicks. After seven games in New York, 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 1.9 rebounds per game. 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 season again at Efes Pilsen, but he ended up with 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 Turkish 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, Kerem Tunceri, Kaya Peker, Huseyin 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 at Montepaschi Siena of Italy. The team did reach the Final Four in Barcelona but fell to Benetton Treviso in the semis by a close 65-62 score. It was, probably, the worst day as a pro for Turkcan. In 29 minutes he didn’t score a single point, after having averaged 14.8 that season, and he grabbed just 5 rebounds, way below his season 11.8 per game until then. In the game for third place, he collected 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 season Turkcan 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 the semis, Maccabi got the best of CSKA with a 93-85 win as Anthony Parker (27 points) and Sarunas Jasikevicius (18) led the way to victory. On the other side, Marcus Brown scored 23, J.R. Holden contributed 16 points and Turkcan picked up 10 points plus 10 boards. After the season, he stayed in Moscow but switched teams to Dynamo for one year before returning to Istanbul, first to Ulker and later to Fenerbahce in 2006-07 until, finally, both clubs merged into what today we know as Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul.
Euroleague Basketball Legend
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 round six times in 2002-03, the Top 16 MVP in 2003 and a member of the All-EuroLeague teams in 2002, 2003 and 2004. His career highs in the EuroLeague are a performance index rating of 43, with Montepaschi against Panathinaikos, and 27 points and 23 rebounds with CSKA against Buducnost. He had 49 double-doubles in the EuroLeague – still a record – but that 27+23 performance has a special place in the history of the competition. In 129 EuroLeague games, he grabbed 1,287 rebounds, which still ranks fourth all-time, behind only players with at least double his amount of games in the competition. Still, Turkcan’s 9.95 rebounds per game is the second-highest career average and the highest for anyone with more than 65 EuroLeague games played.
In February 2011, Turkcan suffered a severe ACL injury and in 2012 he announced his retirement. On September 16 of that year, Fenerbahce and CSKA Moscow played a friendly game on the day of his official goodbye. That day there was only one winner, Mirsad Turkcan. Five years later, 2017 brought more recognition for Turkcan as he was named an official Euroleague Basketball Legend during the semifinals at the Final Four in Istanbul. Two nights later, he was among the many who celebrated when Fenerbahce became the first Turkish club ever to with continental title, completing a path that Mirsad Turkcan, the king of rebounds, helped to build.