El-Amin finds a basketball home

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ISTANBUL, Turkey – Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, is one of the most remarkable places of worship in the history of the world. More than 1,400 years old, it's a monument to the challenges and promises that come when two different ideas crash into one another.

Built in the 6th century by Roman emperor Justinian, Haghia Sophia was regarded as the heart of Christianity in the East. When Istanbul was conquered by the Ottoman Muslims in the 15th century, the church was turned into a mosque and remained that way for 500 years, until the Turkish government took over the site and turned it into a museum.

Haghia Sophia is unlike any mosque in the world. The sultans who ordered the church turned into a mosque did not bother painting or destroying the Christian imagery throughout the edifice. They left it there, and added their own decorative touches alongside it – an interesting move considering that Islam forbids the images of living things inside a mosque.

At the head of the mosque, Mary, holding baby Jesus, looks down upon the worshippers of Allah. Christian crosses along with friezes of Jesus and Christian emperor Constantine coexist alongside beautiful Islamic calligraphy evoking the name of Allah. Heavenward gazing minarets stand next to ancient baptisteries. Priests and imams worshipping the same god with different names pray side by side.

History and belief becoming inseparably tangled.

Istanbul is the place where these two worlds collide. Christian and Muslim. Europe and Asia. Modernity and antiquity. Civilizations, history and culture layered one on top of the other.

Surrounded by an ancient power, Greece, to the west, Ukraine and the historic Russian powerhouse to the east and current powder kegs such as Iran, Iraq and Syria to the south, Turkey sits on the fault line of the world.


The country straddles two huge tectonic plates along the North Anatolian Fault, making it one of the most earthquake-ridden places on earth.

It is also a place of hope for many in the world. As the East and West seem destined toward a monumental clash of cultures, Istanbul stands as a buffer, bridging Europe and Asia, and an idea of how East and West might not only meet, but co-exist.

Despite being 95 percent Muslim, Istanbul has the flavor and attitude of a great western European city. The country is both democratic and tolerant of other cultures and beliefs. Until a recent spat with president George W. Bush over staging part of the war against Iraq in Turkey, America had no stronger ally in the Muslim world.

"We love America," said my taxi driver (the only one I've had all trip who speaks English) on the way to Sultanahmet. "Maybe too much. We want to be like Americans, but keep our heritage, too. But with the music and the movies and the basketball, it is growing hard to stop."

Mosques stand next to high rises. Women wearing veils walk along sidewalks next to girls in mini-skirts. The call to prayer rings throughout the city to the backbeat of hip-hop on the street corner. While older women weave woolen rugs splashed with azure and gold, children wearing the NBA jerseys of Mehmet Okur and Hedo Turkoglu shoot 3s in the playground.

While the sport of basketball is still struggling to gain a foothold throughout most of the Muslim world, it is thriving here.

Former UConn star and Chicago Bulls point guard Khalid El-Amin has found a home in Turkey the past two years, and he's one of the country's brightest stars.

El-Amin was the MVP of Turkish league last season, leading the league in assists and ranking in the top five in scoring.

In the Turkish Cup in Bursa this week, no one got louder cheers or more enthusiastic support than El-Amin. The crowd jumps to its feet and chants "EL-A-MIN" in a way that shakes the rafters after each basket.

El-Amin is one of a growing group of American players who have found their way to Turkey, where the competition is strong, the pay is good and the fans are passionate.

"It's a lot of fun to be part of this," El-Amin said in an interview with Insider on Wednesday. "I didn't really know what to think about it at first. When I got the offer, I knew that Turkey was Muslim, but that was pretty much it. The fans here really love the excitement and the beauty of the game."

For El-Amin, the move to Turkey is an oasis from his last pit stop in Israel. With tensions between Jews and Palestinians running high, El-Amin was bombarded with racial slurs from Israeli fans. He fought through it, and now he's helping lead a basketball revolution in Turkey.

"All of that stuff just made me a strong person and makes me appreciate this," El-Amin said. "As a Muslim, it's just really gratifying to see this. Muslims love basketball. They just don't have the facilities and the coaching to promote the sport the way it's done elsewhere. I think in five more years, it's going to overtake soccer in places like Turkey."

El-Amin may not be exaggerating. The world is changing, and more and more young people are dropping the slower sport of soccer for the fast pace of basketball.

Derya Ercevik, a former Turkish hoops player, has firsthand evidence. He now runs basketball clinics for children between the ages of 6 and 17. He's seen an explosion of interest in his camps in the past few years and now has to turn kids away.

"Soccer is still the most popular sport in Turkey," Ercevik said. "But not among the youngest generation. With Mehmet and Hedo making it to the NBA, now these kids have a dream that they think they can make real. When they made it to the NBA, lots of kids got more serious about playing basketball."

The results have been astounding. Faruk Aragon, who has coached in Turkey for 30 years and is now a scout for the Detroit Pistons, said that the level of basketball sophistication in Turkey is increasing at a dizzying pace.

"I was the first Turkish coach to recruit an American player here," Aragon said. "We had to offer him $10,000, which was a lot of money. But when most players saw that we were still playing on concrete, not wooden floors, even $10,000 wasn't enough."

Now, Istanbul has state-of-the-art facilities and a growing pro infrastructure.

"The coaching is getting better, the players are working harder and the interest level is growing," Aragon said. "Turkey now is a real competitor in the international realm. The speed of the growth here has been astounding."

El-Amin agreed. While he says that the level of play in Turkey still doesn't hold a candle to the United States, he said the Turks can play some ball.

"It's very competitive here," El-Amin said. "They understand how to play the game. The coaches understand how to let guys with different talents like myself use them to the best of my ability. It's a real challenge every night."

Somewhere, David Stern is smiling. Part of his globalization plan in the NBA has hinged on the fact that countries become drunk with NBA fervor when one of their fellow countrymen makes the leap. It's happened in China, Spain, Germany, Argentina and now it's spreading to Russia.

NBA-TV recently set up shop here, and now Turkish teenagers are staying up all hours of the night to catch games.

Stern undoubtedly will be using Turkey as a model to help the NBA spread its tentacles into the rest of the Muslim world, just as America has long looked to Turkey as a way of bridging the enormous chasms between the Islamic and Christian worlds.

The league (and the world) will have its work cut out for it.

Tolerance is a way of life in Turkey. Most Turks are not religious fundamentalists. They've embraced contradiction. In the rest of the Middle East, that's not always the case.

Tony Ronzone, the Pistons' director of basketball operations, once coached the Saudi Arabian national team. While Saudi Arabia actually had the infrastructure and facilities to help build strong basketball teams, Ronzone said that culture and politics often got in the way.

"You had to do a different type of teaching there," Ronzone said. "You had to understand the culture and religion and adapt the game to it. American coaches too often want to push all of the culture and belief aside and say that there's a universal way to coach and play basketball. I don't buy that. In Saudi Arabia, they are strict about saying their prayers five times a day. When the call to prayer came, practice ended. My players took their rugs, took off their shoes, washed their feet, kneeled down and said their prayers. By the time they got back to practice, all of the energy and focus was gone. To be successful there you had to work with it, not try to fight against it."

Ronzone's creativity eventually led to success. During the month of Ramadan, when faithful Muslims fast from food or water during daylight hours, Ronzone scheduled practices as late as 11 p.m. and worked to get games played later – some starting as late as midnight. He also convinced one of the princes of Saudi Arabia to allow for exceptions for his players when traveling outside the city.

Ronzone's been back several times since he last coached there in 1993 and said the quality of basketball is improving. And in other more westernized Muslim states, like the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, the passion for the game is high, according to Ronzone, who has coached in both places.

"It's only a matter of time," Ronzone said. "I don't know how long. Maybe another 10 years. They have the same hopes and dreams as American kids. Someday, one of them will be good enough to make it. When he does, I think everything will change."

And while no one is claiming that basketball is going to change the world, those contact points between East and West, those shared passions and the sense of belonging that team sports like basketball can bring do help.

Organizations such as Seeds of Peace in Israel and Playing for Peace in Northern Ireland and South Africa are going into divided societies and using basketball camps with young people as a way to develop teamwork and communication among warring cultures.

The results have been encouraging. Ercevik's camps in Turkey aren't that ambitious, but he's already seeing the connections.

"Basketball is a game, yes," Ercevik said. "But it is also a life lesson. You learn how to come together and have goals. Help each other. Be a team. Stay positive. Learn sportsmanship. You see kids make these connections on the court. Why not make them in life?"

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.