Turkey Unites Over Basketball, If Not a Constitution

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Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty

Turkish fans react as they watch the World Championship basketball final match Turkey vs USA, in Taksim Square on September 12, 2010 in Istanbul.

The atmosphere in Istanbul was already turbo-charged after weeks of argument over the country's political future, and that was all before Turkey's beloved "12 Giant Men" played a massive final game against Team USA Sunday night in the World Championship of international basketball. In the underdog role versus the Amercan hoops juggernaut, the Turkish team managed to bring their country together even as a vote to overhaul the county's old constitution — drafted in an era dominated by the military — threatened to tear them apart. In the end, the giant men lost, the revised referendum won. But along the way Turkey shifted gears, at least for a moment, from political polemics to tearful national pride.

On Monday morning the magnitude of Sunday's twin events was played out in Turkish newspapers and websites. The merits of the referendum, which won with some 58% of the vote, were reported through the prism of partisan media. The Zaman news agency, which is supportive of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his revision of the constitution, wrote that the passage "opened the door for a more free and democratic era," while the pro-military Cumhuriyet newspaper claimed the vote "paved the way for a judiciary dependant on the ruling party." Others followed suit.

But most media ran the second story almost as big and in no uncertain terms. The Turkiye newspaper opined under a headline that said simply "Thank you" that the "12 Giant Men have become the pride of the Turkish people." The Radikal claimed that the home team's string of seven wins was "Turkey's biggest success in the history of basketball." Not to be outdone, the Sabah newspaper called it the "greatest success in Turkish sports history."

Hyperbole aside, few can deny that the remarkable run of the Turkish team — complete with global star power, stinging upsets and last-second comebacks — supplied a dose of social unity at a critical time. Turkey spent more than $120 million promoting the tournament, which was played for the first time ever in Turkey. Festooned across Istanbul, where the final took place, were billboards and banners of the "12 Giant Men," and the tournament's mascot — the Van cat — a fuzzy, water-loving feline with multicolored eyes, the cross-pollinated product of a Pokemon figure and a skateboard punk. Indeed, Turkey became the center for much of the sports world between Aug. 28 and Sept. 12. According to FIBA, the basketball counterpart to soccer's international governing body FIFA, more than one billion people in 183 countries tuned in to the 2010 FIBA World Championships played in multiple arenas around Turkey. Indeed, the global hoops championship is followed with almost World Cup-like intensity everywhere except the U.S. "We are now the other global sport. When you start from nowhere like we have, this kind of exponential growth is really exciting," FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann told TIME.

Thousands of hard-partying and face-painted fans from five continents also provided a carnivalesque distraction for a country consumed with weighty political debate. Indeed, days prior to the vote, there had been repeated reports of fighting between the "yes" and "no" camps. "Now you can see how Turkey is after the vote. About half the country is in favor and about half is against the referendum," says Firat Salman, 22, a hotel manager in the old city district of Sultanhamet near the stone battlements of Topkapi palace. "But with the basketball team it is different; that is 100% support. Everybody loves the Turkish team. It's one thing we can agree on."

Not that there wasn't basketball related violence — just not in Turkey. After "the 12 Giant Men" pulled off a stunning last-second win over Serbia on Saturday to get into the finals, fighting broke out between ethnic Serbs, mostly Orthodox Christian, and Albanians, predominantly Muslim, who were chanting for Turkey in northern Kosovo. (Ironically, the Turks are coached by an ethnic Serb, Bogdan Tanjevic.)

The timing of the final couldn't have been more dramatic — apart from the fact that the constitutional referendum was taking place. Sunday was the 30th anniversary of Turkey military coup that was at the root of the outdated constitution. The tournament finals also came during high tourist season and overlapping with the annual Eid celebration, signaling the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. For the Americans, the game came the day after the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which some players remembered with messages and badges on their uniforms. The heavily favored U.S. taking on the hometown team in a Muslim country came amid allegations of a rise in so-called Islamophobia in America pinned to the Ground Zero mosque controversy and the threats of a Florida pastor to burn the Koran. All this in the context of a Pew research center study published last week that found only 17% of Turks have a good opinion of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Team USA has a decades-old reputation for looking down on the global game, preferring to establish basketball dominance at home or in the Olympics. "We as a country are trying to show great respect for the World Championships, I'm not sure we did that a decade ago," said USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski at the post-game press conference.

And so, for the finals, a rowdy sea of more than 15,000 red-shirted Turkey supporters, many of whom had just voted in the referendum, descended on Istanbul's Sinan Erdan Dome to cheer their team. First the partisan crowd was reverential as it sang an emotional national anthem with the players. Moments later, it went up to deafening decibels as they banged drums, blared sirens and belted out patriotic songs to induce an upset. "I've never seen a country celebrate a team more than this one. I've never seen it to this extent anywhere," said Krzyzewski.

For the American fan, the international game can be as strange an animal as the Van cat. As Team USA head Jerry Colangelo put it, the differences — the shorter three-point line, the trapezoid key (or shaded area) and a looser interpretation of traveling to name a few — are still at odds with the high-octane American basketball aesthetic. Still, Colangelo said the two brands of basketball, as well as the caliber of coaching and athletes themselves are becoming closer all the time. "The gap has closed," says Coalngelo, who was tapped to rebuild Team USA after disappointing finishes in the 2002 World Championships and the 2004 Olympics.

In the end, enthusiasm, nationalism and atmosphere could not carry the day for Turkey. Its team played hard, but was ultimately outmatched. Team USA followed the sweet-shooting, silky smooth play of 21-year-old Kevin Durant and his 28 points to an 81-64 victory and a certain amount of vindication. "Back in the U.S., a lot of people were saying it was going to be hard for us to win. We proved everybody wrong and it feels really good," said tournament MVP Durant in reference to the lack of the NBA's biggest names or a single returning member from the Olympic champion team. Some sports pundits had called this young squad The "B" Team, as opposed to its predecessors' nicknames the Dream Team and the Redeem Team.

But even after their team's defeat, the Turkish fans offered a promise of something more profound. After chanting "Turkey is proud of you" to the team, they gave a lengthy standing ovation and cheered the 12 giants well through the lavish medal ceremony. What came through was not a country divided, but a glimpse at a rapidly growing nation together in a common cause. If Turkey's national character can be conveyed in sport, it showed up on Sunday and fought until the end. "Congratulations to my team, to the fans and the city of Istanbul. It was a fantastic atmosphere," said the 12's emotional coach Bogdan Tanjevic after the game. "I am so proud of my team."