ISTANBUL -- Sunday, Sept. 12, is one of the most significant days in the history of modern Turkey, and a young United States basketball team will be playing a major role.
Starting at 9 a.m., the citizenry will be going to the polls to vote on constitutional amendments put forward by Prime Minister Recep TayyipErdogan and his Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) that could turn this dichotomous country further in the direction of fundamental Islam.
At 9:30 in the evening (2:30 p.m. ET), four and a half hours after the polls close, a more secular event will take place at Sinan Erdem Arena: The Turkish national team will play the U.S. for the World Championship of basketball.
The Turkish dailies are full of news about the amendments, seen by some as an attempt by Erdogan, a devout Muslim, to seize more control of the nation's judiciary and military and draw the nation closer to countries like Iran and Syria. A political drumbeat has been sounding for days in the small booths that line Istiklal, one of the city's main commercial thoroughfares, particularly in Galatasaray Square, which has become the counterpart of London's Hyde Park, a place to pick up a megaphone and make yourself heard.
But to a large extent, the situation is exactly like it is in the U.S.: In the coffee shops, bars and restaurants, the conversation is about sports.
"You are journalist from America?" the barista at Gloria Jean's, the country's answer to Starbucks, asked, eyeing the credential around my neck.
I nodded affirmatively.
"Can you tell me, please, does Turkey have a chance in this game?"
I nodded even more affirmatively.
If one of the goals of USA Basketball was to increase the maturity level of this young team, to see how it responds to the type of pressure it will face in the Olympics, then it couldn't have worked out any better. For at Sinan Erdem on Sunday night, it will face a partisan crowd that will rival anything it has ever encountered in the U.S. Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers' Lamar Odom and the Denver Nuggets' Chauncey Billups, the two senior members of this team, have faced comparable pressure in NBA Finals, but the other members of Team USA have not. It will be once again counting heavily on Kevin Durant, the best player in this tournament so far, and, as Durant will find out on Sunday, he ain't in Oklahoma City anymore.
Durant was reliably spectacular on Saturday in the semifinals, scoring an U.S. World Championship team record 38 points in the 89-74 victory over Lithuania, which surprised many observers by getting this far. When he has the ball outside, the long-armed 6-foot-9 talent, only 21 years old, would be like a man against boys except for the fact that he looks so much like a boy. Book this right now: No matter who returns to play for the U.S. Olympic team in 2012, Durant will be a starter. His teammate, Andre Iguodala, has pronounced that "Kevin will absolutely become the NBA's all-time leading scorer," the kind of hyperbolic nonsense that, suddenly, doesn't sound like hyperbolic nonsense.
Turkey, meanwhile, advanced to the championship game with an unlikely 83-82 win over Serbia, a victory that came in the most dramatic of circumstances, on a layup by Kerem Tunceri with a half-second remaining off an inbounds play from halfcourt. That will only increase the octane level for Sunday's final.
The history of the U.S.-Turkey rivalry is literally the null set -- the two sides have never met in international competition. Yet, familiarity abounds. Two of Turkey's starters, the Phoenix Suns' Hedo Turkoglu and the Milwaukee Bucks' Ersan Ilyasova, are legit NBA players. Turkoglu, who was acquired by the Suns from the Toronto Raptors in an offseason deal, is the better known, a 6-10 package of versatility who has always reminded me of a right-handed version of Toni Kukoc. No doubt inspired by the home crowd, Turkoglu has been terrific overall in this tournament (averaging 11.9 points and 3.8 rebounds), in contrast to other international competitions, when, as Spanish assistant coach Juan Antonio Orenga put it, "Hedo was on holiday." But Ilyasova, Turkey's leading scorer and rebounder, has been just as important, and, though lean at 6-10, 235 pounds, he will go fearlessly at the U.S.'s smallish interior.
But, then, fearless is how all the Turks play. They sometimes employ an aggressive 2-3 zone --triggered by demon defender Tunceri, the point guard who often defers to Turkoglu on offense --that they extend toward midcourt, trying to create turnovers and easy baskets. Turkey may pull back on that if U.S. point guard Derrick Rose and his reliable backups, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon, start to thread their way through it. But they will never stop playing with passion.
That has been good and bad. In possibly the most metaphor-strewn passage ever to appear in a press guide, a FIBA p.r. person wrote this of the Turkish team: "Turkey is like a snowball on the top of a mountain. If you push it down, it will stick to all the snow and turn into an avalanche ... or alternatively it can stay there on the mountaintop only to be melted by the morning sun." The national team is known as "12 Giant Men" in the home country, and sometimes they play that way. Other times, such as when their emotions get the best of them, they play like 12 Little Boys.
But, then, this young the U.S. team is unpredictable, too, an up-and-down aggregation that sometimes plays a mature style typified by the steady hands of veterans Billups and Odom, and the preternaturally mature Durant, but sometimes takes its cue from emotional, high-voltage bench players such Westbrook (whom coach Mike Krzyzewski calls "one of the elite athletes in the world"), Gordon and frontcourtman Tyson Chandler, a DNP on Saturday as Krzyzewski shrunk his rotation. The vulnerability remains on the offensive perimeter: Take away Durant's 5-for-12 three-point shooting in the Lithuania game, and the U.S. was 3-of-13, not a recipe for winning a World Championship.
At any rate, it seems fitting that this young and exciting U.S. team ended up in the cauldron of history. It played Saturday's semifinal in a Muslim country on the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11. Several players sketched 9/11 on their sneakers and Durant tweeted about it ("May God bless those who were effected [sic] by the events on Sept 11, 2001 ...") before the game. But, blessedly, that was about it. And the event was certainly not prominent on the streets over here. I can't say with certainty that there weren't Death-to-America parties somewhere in Istanbul, but I can say that I experienced absolutely no hostility toward the West during my two weeks here.
And, now, the U.S. will be playing in the Final on a red-letter day in the home country. "We've already talked a little bit about how the atmosphere is different during games," said U.S. forward/center Kevin Love. "The flags, the songs, all that kind of thing. And now that the time is here, well, it will be us against the world."
That might be stretching it. But certainly in America, more eyes and ears will be attuned to football and ongoing pennant races than on ESPN's broadcast of the Worlds. And there will certainly be no love for the U.S. team in a country hungry for its first World Championship.
"In the morning I will be a voter," said Hakan Dalkiran, sales manager of the Central Palace, the hotel where I'm staying in the Taksim area of the city. "But in the evening it will be all basketball! It is that way with everyone. It will be a moment we will never forget."
Neither will this U.S. team. It remains to be seen, though, whether the Americans will prevail or be a victim of history.