November 27, 2010 in Sports

Iverson: Turkish curiosity

Former NBA player new star in Istanbul
Kate Fagan Philadelphia Inquirer
Associated Press photo

Former NBA star Allen Iverson is playing for Besiktas Cola Turka in the Turkish basketball league.
(Full-size photo)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – In Turkey, Allen Iverson has brought basketball to the masses.

He has been welcomed by millions, embraced by a star-starved Istanbul as the star-crossed superstar that he once was – and hopes to one day become again.

Visions of AI billboards (sipping a Turkish soda, perhaps?) dance in one’s imagination.

He is the fresh prince of this ancient city.

This is reality … is it not?

Not really.

That depiction is distorted. On game night inside BJK Akatlar Arena – home court of Iverson’s new team, the Besiktas Cola Turka Black Eagles – the image of Iverson hysteria is pure and true, but the arena seats 3,200 in a city of about 13 million.

Iverson is not a sensation here, but rather an exciting curiosity for small pockets of basketball fans, playing for a club that doesn’t even compete in Euroleague, Europe’s most prestigious.

The 76ers’ former all-everything guard is broke – by all accounts except his own – and playing in Istanbul for a number of reasons, none of which is to become an ambassador for Turkey’s solid, but often overlooked, pro league.

In early November, Iverson signed a two-year, $4 million contract with Besiktas, then missed his original flight to Istanbul, got on a plane two days later, and scored 15 points in his Besiktas debut on Tuesday.

On Sunday, Besiktas lost 74-67 to crosstown rival Fenerbahce Ulker, whose point guard is former Temple star Lynn Greer.

The Blue Mosque, Spice Market, and Grand Bazaar are all about a half-court heave in any direction. The streets are cobblestone, the newspapers filled with soccer, the restaurants packed.

It’s Istanbul’s tourist district, where the waiters know English and the cabbies know every switchback in every road.

No one knows Iverson. Not one.

A waiter, flipping through pictures on his touchscreen phone and singing Usher, tilts his head when asked about Iverson.

“Where’s that?” he finally asks, more curious than confused, as if “Allen Iverson” is a new nightclub he’d like to check out.

Never mind.

“In that area, they may not know,” said Ismail Senol, an announcer for NTV Spor, which broadcasts Turkish Basketball League games. “It’s a financial thing. In rich areas, they know Allen Iverson because NBA TV, they have to pay for it and then are interested in it. In some places they’ll know him, in some places they don’t know him.”

Maybe Greer can explain.

On Saturday, his Fenerbahce team practiced just ahead of Besiktas inside BJK Akatlar Arena. Greer, pausing to say hello to Iverson as he walked onto the court, did just that.

“Soccer is way up here.” Greer raised his hand as if talking about someone quite tall. “And basketball – some people like basketball.

“It’s unbelievable,” Greer said. “Last season, our soccer team used to have 55,000 at their games and then at the basketball games, we’d get like 2,000.”

So using Greer’s example, thousands care that Iverson is here – maybe one in every few thousand.

Iverson has been selective in granting interviews. At first, he talked only to HBO.

After Friday evening’s practice, Iverson neither declined nor confirmed an interview request and merely walked toward the locker room after saying, “I need to shower.” A few minutes later, he left a handful or reporters interview-less, which was not unexpected.

A similar source explained that Iverson is broke, plain and simple.

Over his NBA career, including his lucrative deal with Reebok, Iverson made over $100 million.

“It’s very surprising,” Besiktas teammate Mire Chatman said of Iverson’s signing. “I was a big fan of his. He paved the way for a lot of scoring point guards. Now that he’s here, I just want to help him adjust to the European basketball.”

Whether he’s here for money or for a second chance – and the likelihood is it’s a combination of the two – Iverson appears genuinely happy during practices.

Greer has seen Iverson’s influence on Turkish basketball.

Now, Greer said, instead of the 10-page Turkish sports section filled with 10 pages of soccer, there is often one page reserved for Iverson, which is one more than usual.

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