It has not even started yet and these fans are already standing, feet on their seats, shouting, screaming, and singing indecipherable chants. It’s a Balkans’ thing: you’ ll hardly experience the same atmosphere anywhere else — not that level of intensity, passion, or rage flowing towards all directions. These are primitive instincts, an attachment to the possibility of a victory that they’ ll feel like theirs, like they actually were on the court themselves — and still, basketball itself hardly matters here. They’re waving flags that signal the closing of all pre-war rituals — a silence lasts only for a short moment, the last breath before the final fight, that’s how it feels. And then it starts.
That’s what the atmosphere was like in Ülker Sports Arena last Thursday, shortly before the matchup between Fenerbahçe and Real Madrid. The Turks were after the second-best mark in the standings, at the time held by Pablo Laso’s Real Madrid team. Meanwhile, CSKA was watching both of them from a safe distance. Sergio Llull was looking to establish himself as the MVP of this league, or simply its best player, or both — those titles are currently (at least seemingly) reserved for Miloš Teodosić, CSKA’s leader. Kostas Sloukas wanted to add his name to that discussion.
The happenings in the stands — those high levels of fluctuating intensity — were soon reflected on the court; extended sequences of turnovers, highly aggressive fouls, technicals, and constant whining about the officials’ decisions, unlike anything we have seen this season.
Ayon carried the ball himself down the court three times. Dončić revealed some of the limitations someone of his embryonic-basketball-age must suffer, instead of just revealing his paranormal talent. Llull was overwhelmed, out of sync with his frenetic tendencies, intimidated by a threatening defense that was coming after him time and again, closing any inch of available space.
Sloukas didn’t add his name to any discussion, let alone the one mentioned above. Veselý had an off night, not the first one for this season. Datome and Nunnally, in the first half, weren’t actually there. When you consider Obradović’s established seven-man rotation, then add to that Bogdanović’s long absence, Fenerbahçe looks too shorthanded to go after anything.
Still, all these fans need is a close game — put them an equal distance from a loss (meaning one week of guaranteed time in emotional underground), and from a win (taking them sailing through the sky, [ed. queue up Domenico Modugno]) — a fundamental uncertainty about how this whole thing is going to end; even the possibility of a loss can cause these fans physical pain. And so they push it far away, there where it should not be possible to reach, or so they think. They dismiss the possibility of that pain with every gesture available, as if they themselves are part of the game, burning out every available decibel of their voice, as if the louder the noise, the closer they reach to victory. It’s not hard to see that something important is at stake here, undefined for the most part yet undeniably present — a loyalty, an unconditional devotion to their basketball team that jeopardizes whatever it is that keeps a man emotionally stable.
Do these fans observe the game? Or are they experiencing a personal, private moment in the most public of spaces?