It was about when one of his coaches chopped the head off a young goat for good luck that Jimmy Baron realized pro basketball in Turkey was unlike any hoops he'd ever played.
He was playing for Mercin of the Turkish Basketball League, the same league superstar NBA guard Deron Williams has agreed to play in during the lockout. They'd lost their first four games of the season and rumor was, if things didn't get better soon, heads were going to roll.
"The coach didn't speak any English," says Baron, a 3-point specialist from the University of Rhode Island. "But he motioned me to come out in front of the arena with the whole team. He put us in a circle and there's this goat standing there. All of a sudden one of the assistant coaches gets out this huge machete. And then -- whack! -- he cuts the goat's head off!"
The Turkish players immediately stuck their fingers in the blood of the neck and wiped it on their foreheads.
"Then they started motioning for me to do it," Baron remembers. "I'm like, 'You gotta be crazy!' And I got the heck out of there."
Hey, D-Will, you still want to play for Besiktas (pronounced: "Besh-eek-tash") this fall?
Because it's not just goat decapitations. Turkish fans take their hoops as seriously as a lion takes lunch. They will heat up coins with lighters and throw them at players -- even their own. Also batteries, shoes and rocks.
"I made a winning shot on the road one night," says former UCLA forward Josh Shipp, who plays for Galatasaray in the Turkish Basketball League. "And next thing you know, I was getting pelted with batteries, cell phones, you name it. I had to run for it. But that's nothing. I played with a guy who said they won a game on their rival's court once and the whole crowd rushed the court. They had to punch people just to get into the locker room!"
It's not unusual for players who are not pleasing the team's ownership to have their hot water, electricity and Internet cut off in their company-supplied apartments. This happened to a teammate of Baron's at Mercin, Marcus Cousin (University of Houston). "He ended up staying with me it was so bad," Baron says.
Hey, Kobe Bryant, maybe that $1 million a month you wanted from Besiktas isn't looking like quite enough?
It's not that it won't be fun for Williams, the All-Star point guard who was traded from Utah to New Jersey at the end of last season. Power forward Michael Wright (Arizona '01) led the TBL in scoring and efficiency this year and Wright never made an NBA team.
"Deron Williams will dominate this league," Baron says. "Nobody will be able to guard him." It's just that everything besides the hoops will be a challenge.
"They take it almost as seriously as soccer," says Eric Devendorf (Syracuse), who played for two months in Turkey and then bolted. "At one of our games, the fans came on the floor and tried to fight us! It's a whole different world over there. Women wearing burkas. People dropping in the street to pray all the time. It's just different. And the cities are real dirty. Man, if you don't have Slingbox you got nothing. I'm never going back. No way."
Turkish fans lose their minds at women's games, so you can imagine what it's like at men's. "I was watching our women's team play one night," Baron says. "They were beating this team when one of [the other team's] fans set off a flare in the gym. There was smoke everywhere. They had to stop the game."
Plus, Americans like Williams who play in Turkey have to understand, it's a country where anti-Americanism and anti-Jewish sentiment run deep. In one game in 2009, Israel's Bnei Hasharon team had to flee the court and lock itself in the locker room when fans of Turk Telekom rioted over violence in Gaza. Fans chanted "God is Great" and "Killer Israel" to an empty court. One pro-Islamic faction set an Israeli flag on fire outside the arena.
Hey, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, maybe you want to re-think this idea of playing in a country that's bordered by Iraq, Iran and Syria?
After all, you won't exactly be playing in the Staples Center. Sometimes the arenas are so cold you can see your breath. Your breakfast is often olives, tomatoes and hummus. There are days when guys have to boil water to take a hot bath. Two-a-day practices during the season when you're losing. And forget private jets, Four Seasons and HBO. Put it this way, in no way will you think you're playing for Mark Cuban.
"And sometimes," says Baron, who now plays happily in Spain, "like at Besiktas the people who own the team also own the soccer team. And if the soccer team isn't doing good, the basketball players don't get paid."
That's true. When Allen Iverson had his cup of coffee with Besiktas in 2010, the players refused to practice one day over delayed and missing paychecks. Iverson finally went back to the USA for calf surgery.
The normal kind.
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Rick Reilly is an 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.
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