Ergin Ataman Anadolu Efes
Photo: EuroLeague Basketball

A coach whose career has matched the arc of Turkish basketball’s rise to continental prominence, Ergin Ataman of Anadolu Efes Istanbul, is the latest guest on The Crossover with Joe Arlauckas. Ataman, 54, has headed the bench at five different Turkish Airlines EuroLeague clubs split between two countries this century.

His current team, Anadolu Efes Istanbul, was chasing the competition record for victories before play was suspended recently due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Ataman had been a junior team captain at Eczacıbasi of Istanbul, winner of eight Turkish League titles between 1975 and 1989, when the club president and general manager sat him down to say they thought he would be a better coach someday than a player.

Thus was born the most successful Turkish bench-master ever, although Ataman’s father had hoped that his son would go into the family business.

(7:22) “Of course, more than money, basketball is a life that you like,” Ataman explains in the podcast. “It’s more than a job. It’s different. So then, I started to work 100 percent in basketball.”

His next stop was as first assistant to the legendary Aydin Ors at Efes when that club won Turkey’s first major international trophy, the Korac Cup in 1996. There would be many firsts after that for Ataman, who led Efes to Turkey’s first Final Four berth in 2000.

After lifting the Saporta Cup in 2002 with Montepaschi Siena as Turkey’s first trophy-winning export coach, he brought the Italian team to the Final Four in 2003. Ataman’s education at an Italian high school in Istanbul may have helped him work abroad, but he seized the opportunity to raise the profile of Turkish coaches.

(44:21) “Our coaches didn’t have a chance to win something important with their local teams, and if you don’t win anything in Europe with your own teams, nobody would call you to be a coach in other countries,” he said.

Ataman soon returned to Turkey, however, as basketball there rose to match his ambitions. All told, he has been head coach of six Turkish clubs, four of them in Istanbul. He won the FIBA EuroChallenge in 2012 with Besiktas and Turkey’s first 7DAYS EuroCup title in 2016 with Galatasaray.

But, his heart has always returned to Efes, where he has engineered a meteoric turnaround since taking the bench there for a third time after the team started the 2017-18 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season with a 3-9 record.

(47:20) “It was a big problem, but OK, I must take this job because, also for me, it was maybe a re-start of my career,” Ataman says. “One month after I took the team, we won the Turkish Cup, which nobody expected because the team was in the eighth position.”

And what a re-start it has been for Ataman! A season after the team finished last in the EuroLeague standings, Ataman brought Efes to the 2019 Final Four and, after defeating archrival Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul in the semis, the club’s first championship game.

An exciting challenge to CSKA Moscow fell short in that Final, but Efes took its runner-up momentum into the current season, holding first place by three victories when play was suspended.

In the podcast, Ataman addresses his outspokenness – as when he predicted a victory in last season’s EuroLeague Championship Game, or when he criticized a player publicly this season – but there is no doubting that his is one of the great minds in the game of basketball, and he believes in saying what you feel.

(01:02:31) “I believe this is not only my basketball philosophy, but also my life philosophy,” he said. “Maybe sometimes I have some problems about this, but I can’t change. This is Ergin Ataman.”