It was do-or-die time in Volkswagen Arena but no-one could tell an hour before the game. Michael Eric of Darussafaka Dogus was bouncing two basketballs with great energy but none of his teammates were around. On the court, Jonas Maciulis, who signed with Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar but was ineligible in the 7DAYS EuroCup, spoke to Darussafaka assistant coach Kestutis Kemzura for a big while. Both are Lithuanian and born in Kaunas, and both of them won together a bronze medal as player and head coach at the 2010 FIBA World Cup. They talked forever, and I had already started to wonder if it was a trick to distract Coach Kemzura for his duties. Two of the tallest former EuroLeague champions of all-time, Jiri Zidek and Aleksey Savrasenko, said hello to each other by the court. It was a big silent, and Volkswagen Arena's sound system is close to perfection - it used to be a concert hall and still hosts gigs from time to time, including tomorrow. With that sound, it makes you want to see a good gig in there.
Everything changed when the doors opened and fans from both sides entered the arena. A lot of Lokomotiv fans, over 100, arrived ready to make some noise in a very respectful way, giving Coach Blatt and Coach Kemzura a warm ovation at Darussafaka's team presentation. Some Darussafaka fans also sang "Loko! Loko!" before the game, but once the ball was thrown in the air, both groups of fans were into serious business. Two of the most active players in Lokomotiv's warm-up were Frank Elegar and Brian Qvale. Elegar was very nice to me and I took advantage to ask him about his shoes, with very bright colors. "They are ripped, this is their last game," he told me - and after what happened, I definitely believed it. The biggest hit in this year's 7DAYS EuroCup Finals has been a scarf that Lokomotiv produced, but that a lot of Darussafaka fans wore, too. It was 50% with Lokomotiv's colors and logo, and 50% Darussafaka. Lokomotiv once again proved it is ahead most clubs in terms of merchandising.
You saw the same, I guess. If you watched on EuroLeague TV, I was doing my regular website job, and also making halftime and post-game interviews. Scottie Wilbekin hit every possible shot in the first half, finishing it with 19 points. A couple of three-pointers over his defender's hands and an acrobatic basket at the end of the first quarter were highlight. Darussafaka hit 8-of-13 three-point shots and this is what I asked Coach Obradovic at the break. I told him the question beforehand and he said "yes, of course" before I actually asked it live. "Some of them were hard shots and we have to do a much better job on Wilbekin. We agreed that this guy should not shoot but somehow, he finds the way. We definitely have to do a better job on Wilbekin," he said.
It worked, as Wilbekin was limited to just nine points after the break. He just happened to score them when it mattered most. Wilbekin hit 6-of-6 free throws late in the third quarter to stop a 0-7 Lokomotiv run - all of them by Joe Ragland - and get Darussafaka a double-digit lead, 55-45, going into the fourth quarter. When Lokomotiv got within 58-54 and Darussafaka was struggling to score, Wilbekin downed a three-pointer that sealed the outcome in the next-to-last minute. "Scottie is a prime-time player. I haven't seen that in a long time and I don't think I'll ever see that kind of player again," Darussafaka center Micheal Eric, the second Nigerian to win the EuroCup after Tunji Awojobi did it in 2004, said.
Of course, Coach Blatt deserves a lot of credit. He won the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague with Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv, the 7DAYS EuroCup with Darussafaka Istanbul and the EuroBasket with Russia, always as the underdog. Only one other coach won all three titles and Coach Blatt was overwhelmed to be compared to him. "First of all, even to be mentioned in same sentence as Dusan Ivkovic is very, very honorable for me. But today, honestly, it's about the players. We didn't have a single guy who won a European competition or even won a local title except for perhaps one. So they've now created their own legacy. Dacka in their history had never won a European championship and I'm just proud for them and happy to be a part of it."
They all can now be called 7DAYS EuroCup champions and just as important, they won the first elite title for Darussafaka since 1962. For those who support Darussafaka and were alive when their team last won that Turkish League title 56 years ago, this must be the happiest day of their lives as a fan. The best is yet to come, as Darussafaka earned the right to play in the 2018-19 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and the best teams in Europe will visit Volkswagen Arena - and its perfect sound system - very soon!