By Uygar Karaca/ email@example.com
Bosnia and Herzegovina had to deal with a lot of difficulties to even arrive at the Eurobasket games in Cologne. But they also made the headlines with the flashy comeback win against France in the World Cup Qualifiers, and took down Hungary, to make a perfect start to their campaign in the continental challenge.
But besides all, few people knew that their Turkish-Bosnian head coach, Aziz Bekir (or Adis Bećiragić, his Bosnian name) was actually dealing with a devastating loss. His beloved mother passed away very recently.
“I lost my mother 3 days ago. I was in training when they informed me. I flew to Bosna immediately and came back after the funeral, just 1-2 hours before the Hungary game.” the coach revealed.
“Mothers are different. I lost my father 10 years ago, and I feel it was not as hard as this time. It is very difficult for me. But what I realized is that we, humans have this emergency switch during tough times to deal with such tough situations that might occur during our lifetimes. I saw this myself this morning. We can channel our focus to a completely different dimension to do what we have to do. Psychologically, it is challenging. But on the court, I just managed to concentrate on the game. I am a Muslim so I believe that she went back to Allah, it is easier to make this.”
Aziz Bekir was appointed as the Bosnian head coach back in June, to lead them for FIBA World Cup Qualifiers and Eurobasket. He knew the challenge would be extremely hard under the financial constraints and dire circumstances of the Bosnian NT, but Aziz Bekir makes it clear that it was his mother, who played a great role in the final decision.
“Honestly, it was the streets that I grew up which pulled me towards basketball but I can say that my mother played a big role in my decision to take the job of becoming Bosnian NT coach. My mother was fighting cancer and two months ago, I came to Sarajevo, wanting to have some time with her. When the offer first came to me, I hesitated for Bosnia’s head coaching position. In such dire circumstances, it is a tough job and a tough decision for everyone. But later on, my mother insisted on this. She said: “You must take this job, you must lead the Bosnian team” She is mostly the reason why I accepted this job. Right now, I’m glad now that she insisted and I accepted.”
Bosnia won their first against Hungary in fashion with four players reaching double-digit scoring levels. But that was only the beginning. The coach is well aware that the real task is about to come in the toughest group of the competition with a lot of different factors coming together in such a limited time period to organize things.
“Firstly, I need to clarify that this is a “Mission Impossible” task. Three different elements came together in the roster and if you need to blend all of these into one coherent scheme, you need at least 10 preparation games.” says the experienced coach.
“I started coaching the team with only a few days left before the World Cup qualifiers. We beat France and Bulgaria while losing against Montenegro.”
“When I first came to the bench, there was this player group who were familiar with the system and each other: Amir Gegic, Miralem Halilovic, John Robertson. They are familiar with the system they played in all this time. But then, there is Dzanan Musa and Jusuf Nurkic. These are high-caliber players that you need to integrate and shift the system a little bit and they joined pretty late. Nurkic joined us on August 5. We just played our first game on the 24th. You need more than 17-18 days to get settled in the system. Despite that, our stubbornness, and our kind-heartedness help us with this. We are about to make things work.”
After coming over Hungary, the next task is Germany, the hosts who are coming from a big win against France. Bekir knows that a bigger job is just about to begin.
“We beat Hungary, which is a team hard to defend but there is Slovenia, France, Germany, and Lithuania, I don’t know which one is a worse nightmare. If we were the favorites, you would definitely be really bad. Because we just don’t know how to play as favorites, to be honest. If we are seen the underdogs, then we give really good reactions. If we happen to beat Germany, well. We are going to create huge trouble for every team in here.”
“I watched Germany against France. They are a solid team and a tough team. But there is one point that concerned me: Against France, I think there were 2-3 fouls in every possession. They are playing at the margins of making a foul, I would say. It is a little bit disturbing to see this. We have some certain advantages over them if we can implement our game plan. But if we lose control of our nerves, and conflict with the refs, then it would be hard for us. They will have the upper edge in the stands and but the Bosnians will also come. It will be a full arena.”
As it was well-documented, Bosnia and Herzegovina was on the verge of missing the tournament due to financial problems. Aziz Bekir reveals that the issue is far from being resolved but still, they are defiant despite the tough circumstances.
“Of course, we are falling short of the required sources but let’s say we are on a budget. I saw that we were planning to play only 2 preparation games. That is not inadequate. I wanted two-three more games but the federation was cautious about further expenditure, the sources are limited.”
“Due to some political circumstances, the state cannot provide resources to the full extent I would say. For instance, we were supposed to get 100,000 euros by now for our required preparations but nothing arrived yet. Somehow we made it to Cologne. Ex-Tofas player Samir Avdic is the Minister of Sports and Culture in the Sarajevo Canton. Thanks to his support, the federation gets much more resources. It would be really hard for us to deal with the situation without him. The political picture is unclear and there are a lot of adverse effects of the economic crises, not just us but all the federations.”
The situation is quite strange for Jusuf Nurkic, the Portland Trailblazers player, who is accustomed to an entirely different way of circumstances back in the NBA. But Aziz Bekir gives him credit for being a leader in this team and never losing his optimism and humor.
“We as the Balkan people are not the most disciplined type but we also have this stubbornness. Nurkic is of course having strange times. He earns 18 million $ a year and travels via special jets and stuff in the US. But here, he is flying in economy class, having difficulty putting his legs between the seats. He laughs to himself at times and makes jokes about the situation at times, but he is always positive. A man of substance, that much I can say. I gave him the nickname “Godfather”. He is a natural leader of this team, his character is very suitable for this.”
Bekir does not want to look too many steps ahead in the tournament as each and every game will be extremely hard. But even if they happen to advance from the group, he also made it clear that it would not be a perfect scenario for him to play against Turkey in the Last 16, which is theoretically possible.
As an ex-PTT and Ulker player back in the late 90s, he got settled in the country and got Turkish citizenship. He also went on to become part of coaching teams in various teams like Ulkerspor and Galarasay, also becoming head coach in Darussafaka, as well as various teams in Anatolian cities like Gaziantep, Konya, Gaziantep, and Usak. As a long-time assistant of Bogdan Tanjevic back in 2004-2010 in Turkish NT, he just finds this scenario as a colossal challenge with all the emotions.
“Honestly, I would not prefer to play against Turkey in the Last 16. It would be too hard for me emotionally. Turkey is my home, like Bosna. I spent 24 years in Bosnia and 30 years in Turkey. So you tell me, how hard is that to play against Turkey at this point?”
“We are talking with Bogdan Tanjevic almost every day. We share ideas and opinions about basketball, especially nowadays when Eurobasket has just started. I have big respect for him, worked with him as an assistant for 6 years. Back in that time, I was new in coaching as Murat Ozyer led me on the bench as an assistant at Ulker. Then I started to work in the National Team setup. Tanjevic is a great personality and it was a great honor to be a part of his staff.”
Being in Germany as the head coach of the Bosnian National Team also brings some memories to Aziz Bekir. Back in 1993 Eurobasket, Bosnia and Herzegovina played independently for the first time in the continental competition, while the players took huge risks to make it to Germany because the city of Sarajevo was sieged. Defying all expectations, Aziz Bekir and his friends made it to the quarter-finals, despite him not playing much. The coach reveals why was that so:
“Germany brings me memories of course. Here I am with my fellow assistant coach Gordan Firic, who was also a part of that team in Eurobasket 1993. But I didn’t play much, had minutes in only one game. Why? Because of a disciplinary matter. During Mediterranean Games that summer, I altercated with a fan in the stands. This was such an irresponsible act and coach Ibrahim Krehic decided to punish me. It was like that in ex-Yugoslavia back in the day. If you do such things that have nothing to do with the game on the court, you would be out. The coach was about to cut me from the roster but we were left shorthanded and there was also the war, so I remained. I was playing for 40 minutes the Mediterranean games in the point guard position but he decided not to give me minutes as much as possible, I played just a single game.”
Memories, challenges, grief, and hope. Coach Aziz Bekir and the Bosnian NT started the Eurobasket campaign remarkably and they are going to play against the hosts Germany, 15:30 CET. With the leadership of Jusuf Nurkic, Dzanan Musa, and co., they will try to add a new chapter to a potentially historical continental campaign, despite all the adversities.