Haluk Yildirim, Galatasaray
September 27, 2011
|The greatness of certain players goes beyond their numbers. Galatasaray forward Haluk Yildirim may not be the most famous player in his country, but has become one of the biggest fighters in European basketball. In 2004, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer originating from the lymph nodes. Yildirim not only survived, but returned to play basketball and is now the senior player in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Qualifying Rounds. At age 39, Yildirim is still an effective three-point shooter and defensive stopper. He helped Galatasaray reach the Turkish League finals last season and now hopes to take his team to the Euroleague regular season for the first time ever. Galatasaray played in the European Cup qualifiers back in 1990, but has never been this close to Europe's signature competition. "Everyone here, from the players to the club staff to our great fans, wants to play in the Euroleague," Yildirim said. "It is really important for us. We know it is difficult to get there but our job is not finished."
Hello, Haluk. First of all, how has the pre-season been for Galatasaray?
"Well, it is a different team from last season even though eight or nine of us have returned to the team again. We signed Jaka Lakovic, Darius Songaila and Jamon Gordon, but the EuroBasket made us change our plans a little bit. Lakovic and Songaila arrived just a few days ago, just one week before the qualifying rounds. We played six pre-season games in Slovenia and two more and even under the circumstances, I think we will be ready to play."
You play against PAOK in the quarterfinals. What do you think about the matchup?
"PAOK is a difficult opponent. I have already seen two of their games, since they played in Turkey in the Rixos Cup [a pre-season tournament]. It is not easy to go to Lithuania and play such a difficult team right away. But you cannot expect easy opponents if you want to reach the Euroleague. We didn't have the best draw and PAOK is strong, but again, we will be ready to play."
What do you think of the Qualifying Rounds' new format?
"I think it is better. Of course, playing three games in the same weekend is not easy and anything can happen under this format. Which again, I think is better and more exciting for everyone."
You spoke about Lakovic, Songaila and Gordon. How can they help Galatasaray?
"Above all, they are experienced players. I think we can use their experience not only in the Qualifying Rounds, but throughout the season. They are team players and know how to play difficult games like these. Like I said before, Lakovic and Songaila just arrived to the team, so I am sure we will play better basketball when we are adjusted."
This is your second year with head coach Oktay Mahmuti. How is it playing for him?
"I had never worked with him until last season and he is a very good coach. I was looking forward to being on one of his teams. He helped Galatasaray reach the Turkish League finals last season for the first time in 20 years. He did a great job and is very well respected in basketball. He has worked in Italy and for some of the best clubs in Turkey. He helped Efes make it to the SuproLeague Final Four many years ago. He makes us work hard and do our job properly."
You have been playing professional basketball for 20 years. How has Turkish basketball changed since your early playing days?
"I think it has developed pretty well. Turkey made it to the 2010 FIBA World Championships final by playing very good basketball. Not only was it a very well-organized tournament that shows our development, but the national team did really well. More and more fans are coming to the arenas in the Turkish League and Euroleague games. Everything is moving forward and having the Final Four in Istanbul will also help, of course. It will be a very important event for Turkish basketball and I hope a Turkish team can make it. Of course, it if is Galatasaray, better."
You were diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, but recovered and returned to the floor. Do you see yourself as an example for others?
"Well, I really don't know. I was sidelined for six months and of course, it was a very tough time for me back then. Fortunately, life gives you second chances sometimes and I recovered well enough to keep playing basketball. I have been able to play the Turkish League finals with three different teams since then. If my disease helped me in any way, it was to teach me that I have to step on court and fight. I see all this as a second chance for me."
Not many players stay on the court at age 39. What keeps you going?
"You know, I love basketball, I have always loved it. I try to take good care of my body, too, and playing basketball is probably the only thing I can do really well! I didn't know if I would keep playing this season, but I am in good shape. Darryl Middleton is 44 and still playing basketball in Spain! It is difficult, but it can be done."
You played the Euroleague more than seven years ago. What would it mean for you to be back?
"I had a lot of fun playing the Eurocup last season, but we all want to do better and go to the Euroleague this year. Our team will do its best and everyone here, from the players to the club staff to our great fans, wants to play in the Euroleague. It is really important for us. We know it is difficult to get there but our job is not finished. We want to surprise some teams in Vilnius and make it to the Euroleague."