Hunting the elusive Ersan Ilyasova

Updated: May 5, 2005, 12:25 AM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN Insider

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BURSA, Turkey – Twenty-six hours, 5,365 miles; one never-ending plane ride from JFK to Istanbul; one small mishap in the largest mosque in Turkey; one ferry across the Sea of Marmara; and a harrowing drive through the winding streets of Turkey that could've passed for a Disney thrill ride. Two hours too late.

Insider's Chad Ford once again has gone in search of hoops – and NBA prospects – in distant lands. He'll be reporting from Turkey all week, then heading to Moscow to cover the Euroleague Final Four.
Tues.: Scouting in Turkey
Wed.: Ersan Ilyasova
Thurs.: Embracing contradiction
Friday: Euroleague Final Four
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International NBA scouting often comes down to being in the right place at exactly the right time. They are ghost chasers. A small mishap here or there and the elusive specters they chase – young whispers of potential in distant lands – can vanish.

The first half of the trip went smoothly enough. My flight had arrived on time from JFK. Getting a visa was easy. Passport control took no time. When I arrived at the other side of customs, a man I had never met, former Turkish basketball player Derya Ercevik was there to meet me.

Ercevik was a tall, thin man with a thick salt-and-pepper goatee. He had a broad smile and a warmth in his handshake that I would quickly recognize as a trademark of the Turkish people. The plan was to meet Pistons international scouting guru Tony Ronzone and Heat director of scouting Adam Simon at the airport, then make the two-hour drive to Bursa to watch four playoff games that day.

While there are a number of interesting draft prospects in Turkey, our target was 6-foot-10 Ersan Ilyasova.

Upon arriving, I found out that Simon's and Ronzone's plans had changed; they would be several hours late. Ercevik suggested a quick tour of Istanbul.

Within minutes, we were in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world – 15 million people live here – swallowed by a mass of people, cars and aging skyscrapers.

Istanbul is both beautiful and dirty. It's painted in vivid colors of red and violet. It is stained by a dark cloud of exhaust and waste that makes my eyes sting, my lungs gasp. It is both lush and barren. Life sprouts up everywhere through cracks of concrete and steel.

At the heart of Istanbul stands the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmet Camii. Built by the Ottomans in the early 16th century, this gigantic mosque gets its name from the mesmeric blue tiles, etched with the word of God, that line the mosque's domes. This holy shrine gives off an otherworldly bluish hue that lifts the soul heavenward.

Ersan Ilyasova
It's no Rucker Park, but here's a hoop next to a mosque in Bursa, Turkey.
I'm not sure I should know this firsthand. When we arrived at the mosque, there was a sign stating clearly in seven languages that foreigners weren't allowed inside at the time. Ercevik was undeterred. He haggled with a guard armed with an AK-47 for a while, then I was invited in.

We took off our shoes and entered one of the most sacred places on Earth.

The mosque was almost empty. A few women with scarves around their heads prayed in segregated areas in the back. A few men, facing the Bosporus, rhythmically moved up and down, exhorting Allah.

Faithful Muslims pray five times a day, and within minutes the mosque began to fill as the call to prayer rang throughout the city.

I have never felt such a mixture of awe and fear. To witness the tide of worshippers rolling into one of the most holy sites in Islam was awesome. The fact that I was in the middle of all of this, where I clearly stood out and didn't belong, was unsettling, to say the least.

The stares were becoming uncomfortable. Ercevik and I moved toward the door and finally found our way out of the back of the mosque.

Within minutes, we were back on the road. The airport is five miles away, but with the traffic in Istanbul – some of the worst in the world – it took us 45 minutes to arrive.

After picking up Ronzone and Simon, we hired a driver to take us to Bursa, where the Turkish playoffs were getting under way. While many people in Istanbul speak at least some English, our driver did not.

We were told it would take us two hours to get to Bursa. Three-and-a-half hours later, minus a pit stop at McDonald's for a McKebob (not kidding), we're still weaving through traffic as though we're playing a video game.

I've complained about the driving in Serbia, Israel and Italy, but nothing tops what I saw in Turkey. Most of the roads are barely wide enough for two cars going in opposite directions. Turkish drivers turn a marginal two-lane road into a four-lane road. Medians are ignored; sidewalks are passing lanes. I've yet to see a car in Istanbul without a major dent or damage. It's like being in a full-time demolition derby.

Bursa is a "sleepy" town of 1.3 million. The former capital of Turkey sits on the slopes of Mount Uludag and is known for its passion for religion (there are more mosques in Bursa than any other city in Turkey) and hoops. There are two pro teams, one the former home of Jazz center Mehmet Okur. Ronzone discovered him here seven years ago almost by accident. He hasn't been back since and is hoping lightning strikes for a second time.

Ersan Ilyasova
Some scouts say Ersan Ilyasova is a lot like the Jazz's Andrei Kirilenko.
Ersan Ilyasova played in this tiny gym in Bursa two hours ago, we were told later that evening. The gym is hot and smells of a Speed Stick-deprived society. It's decorated with red and white balloons all bearing the familiar symbol of Turkish power – the crescent and the star.

The place is full, the crowd deafening. The chanting borders on ritual, as fans on both sides of the fence taunt and challenge each other.

But Ilyasova is not here – just a gaggle of unknown Turkish players and forgotten Americans, such as former UConn point guard Khalid El-Amin, LSU's Jaime Lloreda and Corsley Edwards, who played on a 10-day contract for the Hornets this year. They move up and down the court in a haze, wondering where their dreams have gone and how they could end up in such a place.

The glimmer of hope they get when an NBA scout walks through the door inevitably is replaced by disappointment. The scouts aren't here to see them. There is always someone younger, with more upside, that they are chasing. Guys like El-Amin and Edwards can dominate and barely get noticed. The league is funny that way.

People in the stands who saw Ilyasova play earlier in the day – several Turkish basketball coaches, Turkish league officials and ex-NBA player Ratko Varda – all claim we missed his best performance of the year. Ilyasova finished the night with 14 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and two 3-pointers.

And we're stuck with a box score and secondhand accounts.

The 17-year-old forward from Uzbekistan is widely considered the best prospect to ever come out of Turkey. Since Ilyasova burst onto the scene at an international tournament last spring, sightings of him have been fleeting.

An ankle injury shortly after his breakout performance kept him out most of the season. Since his return in February, his playing time has been sporadic. Five minutes here, 10 minutes there -- a glimpse of a practice in between.

The few scouts who have seen him play claim he has the same type of talent and energy as Andrei Kirilenko. Last spring, several claimed he was the best young international prospect, period, after – at the tender age of 16 – he dominated the competition at the Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Mannheim, Germany.

But the ankle injury has hurt Ilyasova's stock. Surprisingly, he has declared for the draft anyway, and now scouts must determine whether he's worth the risk.

Given the slow to nonexistent progress of other young phenoms, such as Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Darko Milicic, they are understandably wary. That's why missing the game really stings right now.

Ilyasova's next game for Ulker is against stiffer competition, which puts into question whether he'll see significant playing time.

Thousands of dollars and a full day of travel halfway around the world for a box score and the hope that tomorrow brings more than just tales about the ghost we hunt.

Chad Ford covers the NBA draft for ESPN Insider.

Chad Ford

Senior Writer, NBA Insider

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