Iverson in Istanbul

Posted: November 21, 2010

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 here in Istanbul for a number of reasons, none of which is to become an ambassador for Turkey's solid, but often overlooked, professional 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 plays crosstown rival Fenerbahce Ulker, whose point guard is former Temple University star Lynn Greer.

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

Sometimes, soccer and basketball teams compete under the same club banner.

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.

"It's not a problem, it's not a problem - money," Iverson said at an Oct. 29 news conference in New York. "Obviously if it was about money, I would jump out there and say, 'You want me to come off the bench? How much money are you paying?' It wouldn't be a big deal. It's not about money or anything like that."

A member of one NBA front office, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the subject matter, said that prior to last season, a member of Iverson's family called to inquire about a contract for Iverson, explaining that Iverson owed that person money and would be unable to pay without a contract.

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

Over his NBA career, including his lucrative deal with Reebok, Iverson made more than $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. Sometimes, Besiktas practices twice a day, other times only once, but in each of them Iverson is smiling, high-fiving, singing, jumping on a teammate's back, and screaming after a missed jumper.

"Our team president, he talked to me, 'Do you want me to bring you Allen Iverson?' " said Besiktas coach Burak Biyiktay. "Of course! Who doesn't want him? At first I think he's kidding, he's joking with me. He ask me to find his agent and I find and I give all contacts."

Biyiktay said he was "very happy" so far with Iverson.

"We have rules," Biyiktay said. "I'm not a hard guy, I'm an easy guy, I negotiate with guys. I want him to be in the practice, do your practice, and every time I will be behind him for playing good basketball."

At first, Iverson stayed at the Swiss Hotel, which was nearly 30 minutes from the practice arena. A few days after his arrival, he moved closer to the arena. Iverson's family is not yet in Istanbul - a friend has accompanied him in and out of the arena - but his family is expected to join him, and many associated with Besiktas feel this will solidify Iverson's contentment in this new country.

"When he comes first practice, he couldn't make even one point the whole practice," Biyiktay explained. "He shoot the ball, bonk, bonk, bonk. And now he's starting to create something, make the shots. I think one month later, he will be . . . better."

He may not be the Iverson of 10 years ago, Biyiktay added, "but he's a very good player," and the coach expects he will be "a very high-level player in Europe."

Senol said that on Iverson's first day in Istanbul, he attended a morning practice despite his jet lag. It was a practice the club did not expect him to attend.

"He was great with his attitude, more than we expected we can say," Senol said. "The thing is, we're not a tall country and a 6-footer doing those things on the court, it inspires many."

On Sunday afternoon, in a game that NBA TV will telecast, Greer will play against Iverson. The Temple kid who made it one year with the Milwaukee Bucks against the Philly superstar who owned the city for a decade.

"I didn't believe it at first," Greer said. "When they first said he was coming, I was like, 'He's not coming here.' But then it got closer and closer. . . . I'm just happy that he can play somewhere."

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.

"It's an honor," Greer said of Sunday's matchup. "He's a great. Everybody wants to talk bad about him, but he's a legend in my eyes."

The folks working for Besiktas believe Iverson is happy, which makes them happy. They don't want to hear about the past, about poor performances and injuries and distractions and eventual implosion.

Even if you try to tell them, they just shrug, believing that this time is different, that Iverson is changing if not changed.

Iverson's Turkish journey is only a few weeks old, and those paying close attention, a slim percentage of this wonderful city, are charmed by all of Iverson's charming ways.

Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or kfagan@phillynews.com.

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