Fenerbahce, led by Angel McCoughtry, won the Turkish Women's Basketball League (TKBL), in a season with a lot of stories to be told - Diana Taurasi's doping controversy, the growing number of WNBA players in the league, the rivalry between the two big Istanbul teams, the role of European players in each team – Turkey really is a place to go when we’re talking about Women Basketball.
Angel McCoughtry fired a MVP performance in the Finals Game 4, with 34 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, confirming Fenerbahce as the new champion, even if they finished second in the regular season and had to win in Game 1 of the Finals at Galatasaray to claim home court advantage. On the other side, we could see other well-known faces, like Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Tamika Catchings.
Turkey has always been known as a destination for sports stars, in soccer or basketball. This is much due to the great rivalry between Istanbul’s two big teams, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, that fight for dominance in Turkish sports. The same happens in Spain between Real Madrid and Barcelona, or in Greece with Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. But teams are paying big bucks to have the best players of the world in their rosters. And if it is harder to gain them in soccer or men's basketball, in the women's league you sure have the chance to book big stars during the European season.
Çaglar Torun, a Turkish journalist, also told me that there’s one more reason for WNBA players to come to Turkey: Istanbul.
"They love İstanbul so much," he said. "On weekends, they all come to Istanbul. Maybe, this plays an important role in their decision."
And the two big teams are not the only ones that can afford WNBA players. Searching across teams' rosters we find Plenette Pierson and Dominique Canty (Tarsus Belediyesi), Nakia Sanford (Ted Kayseri), Iziane Castro Marques (Besiktas), Megan Frazee (Botas), Kristi Toliver (Samsun), Chanel Mokango and Scholanda Robinson (Mersin), and we can confirm that every playoff team had at least one WNBA player. That's relevant to understanding the level of the league.
The Taurasi problem
We can’t analyze this season without referring to Diana Taurasi's doping controversy. Çaglar Torun, a Turkish journalist, told me this was "the most important moment for TKBL". Fenerbahce lost Taurasi and Penny Taylor in January and learned, one month later, that the suspension was terminated due to a lab’s mistake. For Aziz Yildirim, Fenerbahce’s President, it was a disgraceful moment, that "could have cost the European Championship", as quoted by Hurriet, a Turkish daily newspaper.
A number of voices were raised in defense of Taurasi and the situation remains unclear without an explanation of why the samples tested positive for a banned substance. It also could cost the Turkish Basketball Federation the confidence of the players, who questioned the process from the very beginning (as Penny Taylor's departure showed). But basketball survived and the show went on until the new champion was found, as Fenerbahce recovered from the mid-season crisis signing McCouthry to take them to the top.
A look at the Euro prospects
As teams can only use three foreign players, the importance of Turkish players is also decisive in this league. Nevriye Yilmaz (’80) was born in Bulgaria but had played for the Turkish National team since 2005. She’s one of the best centers in European Basketball and also has 5 national titles in her career. Also on the champion's roster, we have Birsel Vardarli (’80), a point guard with 4 national titles. They were both very important in the run for the title, making Fenerbahce believe they could beat all the odds (and that was what was written in their shirts, when they won the league – "Against all the odds").
But we also should mention Hana Horakova (’79), the Czech player who has been increasingly important for the team, reaching the finals in her best form of the season. Along with McCoughtry, she deserves to be named MVP of this last round. In the Galatasaray battle, the Turkish star was Isil Alben (’86). She had an important role in the regular season champions as their playmaker.
One more year in the learning process
Turkish teams will be even stronger next season, trying to finally have enough to fight for a European title. They’ll try to sign even more WNBA players, offering them contracts most other European teams aren’t unable to afford (e.g. they had Allen Iverson in the men's league!). That will make the TKBL even more competitive.