The first breakthrough came in 2015. Another in 2016. Now, in their home city, Fenerbahce only have one goal left. Emmet Ryan on the journey for Fenerbahce that brought its fans on an emotional rollercoaster before finally taking them home for potentially the greatest moment in the club’s history
It was natural for Fenerbahce fans to be down after Berlin. An extraordinary comeback forced overtime after CSKA Moscow and the crowd was with them. This wasn’t Berlin it was West Istanbul, the same way the Mediolanum Forum had been West Tel Aviv when Maccabi pulled off their overtime triumph over Real Madrid two years prior. This time however the vociferous support wasn’t enough. Fener had climbed high but the ultimate peak still wasn’t theirs.
It wasn’t always the biggest job in European basketball but, for quite a while, it looked like the toughest. Fenerbahce yearned to be a power and plenty of coaches swung and missed at the chance. Simone Piangiani looked to have assembled a crack squad for the task in the autumn of 2012. The pieces just looked to be there. Bo McCalebb had come in from Siena, Mike Batiste looked lively, some clever imports and a blend of impactful Turkish talent looked to have turned into a great blend and on that season opening night with a lively 92-80 win over Khimki, these guys just looked ready. By the midway point of the regular season the ceiling however was clear and Piangiani was gone. For the fifth of what would be six straight years, Fener missed the post-season.
The arrival of Zeljko Obradovic, after his year off from coaching, adjusted the attitude sharply. If anyone was going to be able to get this satiate this expectant beast it would be the man who knows more about winning Euroleague than anyone. Even he had to deal with adversity in his first season at the helm. After an 8-2 regular season, Zoc missed the playoffs on his first go round with a 6-8 Top 16. The changes came fast and hard as Fenerbahce refreshed for a fresh crack a year later.
Having swept Maccabi, the defending champions, in the playoffs Fenerbahce made the final four for the first time ever. No Turkish team had graced the last weekend of action since Efes finished third in back-to-back seasons in 2000 and 2001. Ogus Savas, in his last season in a Fener shirt, was conscious of this on the eve of the semi-final. Speaking to a gaggle of reporters, he said it wouldn’t mean a heap if they didn’t get back there a year later. That consistency was vital to the Fener project. He might have only been speaking about Fener at the time but it reflected the journey all of Turkish basketball has been on, as was documented by Ermal Kuqo and Javier Gancedo in their documentary for Euroleague.
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A year later, while toiling on the Darussafaka bench, Savas got his answer as Fenerbahce romped through the regular season and Top 16 stages to return to the playoffs. Another sweep followed, once more of the defending champs, as Real Madrid were beaten up swiftly. Baskonia gave them all they could handle in the semi-final but it was only a curse-breaking CSKA that eventually stopped them.
That success, which was followed by a Turkish superleague crown in the summer, set the expectations even higher than ever heading into the current campaign. This site picked Fenerbahce to finish top of the regular season standings, most others had them no lower than second. The Istanbul club, despite having no European crown to its name, was seen as the best shot at stopping at back-to-back run by CSKA.
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By now we all know that things didn’t go to plan. Fenerbahce had injury issues and took a long time to look themselves. When Bogdan Bogdanovic was out, they looked mediocre. This wasn’t the type of side built to ruin teams we had seen a year earlier. Tweaks came, like the introduction of Ahmet Duverioglu and former number 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. Neither carried much risk and the benefit, in truth, was negligible. What Obradovic realised however was that he had time. So long as Fener finished where they needed to, they would still be well-set. Fifth wasn’t ideal, it meant no home court advantage, but with his side having found itself it was enough.
The comeback in that Athens opener followed by the outboxing in Game 2 and Game 3 saw Obradovic move his playoffs record with Fenerbahce to 9-0. He’s 10-3 through three post-seasons now with the Istanbul club. Topping out at the Top 16 seems like a different century. It certainly was a different Fener.
To get to the end of the journey, or at least this part of the quest, Fenerbahce must run a brutal gauntlet. First up is a heavyweight clash with Real Madrid and, should they succeed, it’s either a re-match of last year’s decider with CSKA or a battle with an Olympiacos side that fears no-one. The Final Four is rarely easy and it ought not to be. Victory will taste all that bit sweeter if Fener have to do it the hard way.