Darussafaka Tekfen Istanbul is no ordinary sports club and Dogus Ozdemiroglu is no ordinary professional athlete.
Founded more than 150 years ago, the Darussafaka Association provides education to children who have lost one or both of their parents and was the first non-governmental educational organization in Turkey. In 1914, the school founded a sports club and basketball quickly became the most popular and successful sport, progressing to win its first major title with the Istanbul Championship in 1960.
In 2005, a nine-year-old boy from Edremit – a small town in western Turkey – lost his father to cancer. A few weeks later, his school teacher saw a television commercial for the Darussafaka School and thought her pupil would be an ideal candidate to enroll. She encouraged the boy to visit the school and helped him prepare for the entrance exam. The boy passed with flying colors and he was offered a scholarship.
That little boy was Dogus Ozdemiroglu.
"I was confused because I didn't know what it would be like. But after the first week, I felt very good and was very comfortable."
"I passed the exam, so I came to visit the school with my mother," recalled Ozdemiroglu, thinking back to that life-changing moment more than a decade ago. "I had a lot of questions and a lot of doubt. I was confused because I didn't know what it would be like. But after the first week, I felt very good and was very comfortable. Everyone tried to help me. I liked my teachers and had a good group of friends."
So he stayed at the school, and very soon he found another exciting new development to pursue: the sport of basketball.
"In the first week of school, one of my teachers – Irfan – asked me if I wanted to play basketball," Ozdemiroglu explained. "I was quite tall, so he thought I should play, but I wanted to play soccer. I had always played a lot of soccer – my favorite team was Real Madrid – and I didn’t know much about basketball. I had played once or twice in the street back in my hometown, but I was too busy playing soccer. So I said 'no thanks' to the teacher.
"But he was so insistent to make me come to practices, he almost forced me to play basketball! My friends agreed that we would all go together, and straight away I liked the sport a lot, so I started to come to every practice."
With the help of Darussafaka's teachers and the camaraderie of his friends, Dogus's team quickly became good – very good.
"We had a lot of success in Istanbul tournaments," he said with a smile. "Then we played in the national school championship and went all the way to the final. We were winning in the last few seconds against Bilfen School, but their point guard took a three-point shot, it went in and they won. The point guard was named Berk Ugurlu; he later joined Fenerbahce and now plays for Pinar Karsiyaka."
On the subject of Fenerbahce, by a strange quirk of events, Dogus could have joined that club just after he had moved to Istanbul, when a chance meeting in the street saw him cross paths with Orkun Demir, who is now Darussafaka's director of operations, but was then working for Fenerbahce.
"One day my uncle came to Istanbul to bring me to school and show me around the city," Ozdemiroglu recalled. "I had just started playing basketball about three weeks earlier. We were walking by Taksim Square and somebody stopped us – a complete stranger. It was Orkun Demir. He said: 'Are you playing basketball? You want to come to play for Fenerbahce?' I told him, 'I’ve just started to play for Darussafaka.' He asked me who my coach was and we talked for a while. A few years later, he came to one of my first games with Darussafaka. I reminded him about that meeting and we spoke about it; he said he remembered it!"
Having rejected that unexpected opportunity to try out with Fenerbahce in order to continue with Darussafaka, Dogus was the most gifted member on his team and in due course he was selected to join the senior side, which was then competing in the Turkish second division.
"The school changed my life. Coming here was the biggest decision of my life."
"When I started playing basketball at the school, they told me there was a professional team and from that moment I started to come and watch every game," he said. "I had a dream: to play for Darussafaka. And when I was in high school, in the 10th grade, I played my first game. When my friends heard that I was playing, they started calling everyone from the school and told them: 'Come quick, Dogus is playing!' So they all came to watch and support me, and it was emotional for all of us.
"The first time I went onto the court, all my friends in the crowd went crazy and I felt like I was going to die… I was so nervous! I tried to dribble and the ball went in completely a different direction! The first few seconds were terrible. But then it was great – we were down by 6 or 7 points when I went onto the court, but in four and half minutes we had a 9-0 run to take the lead, and eventually we won the game!"
Despite still having a year before he graduated from school, Dogus continued to play regularly for the Darussafaka senior team and helped them gain promotion to the Turkish top flight in 2014. He made his EuroLeague debut a year later, still as a teenager. And whenever he stepped onto the floor, he could rely upon the loyal support from his big group of school friends, who were all able to live their dreams by watching their classmate in action for Darussafaka. Perhaps the greatest of those dreams was winning the 7DAYS EuroCup last season for the biggest trophy in club history.
"I felt very proud for me, my friends, my school, and the whole Darussafaka family to play for the team," he said. "The school changed my life. Coming here was the biggest decision of my life. I was just a kid when I came to the school, but I was never alone. I was living with so many people and we shared everything – if you were given some chocolate, you would share it with everyone else!
"At the school, you stayed there all the time and slept in the dormitory, so I only saw my family every two months. I was seeing my friends more than my family, but they became my family and we are still all together now as friends."
Even though he is now an established professional, Ozdemiroglu has remained close to his boyhood friends and also close to the Darussafaka school, emphasizing the special bond between the school and the professional team.
"As players, we need to be a good example for the kids. We also have to know that playing for this club in EuroLeague is a great commercial for the Darussafaka school."
"Our first aim is to represent Darussafaka well," he stated. "This school is very special – not just for me but for the whole of Turkey. I remember when I was at the school, my friends and I used to come and watch the team and the players were our heroes. We tried to do whatever they did. So as players, we need to be a good example for the kids. We also have to know that playing for this club in EuroLeague is a great commercial for the Darussafaka school. People all over Europe are starting to learn about the school, and that will help us reach more kids who lose their father or mother.
"As a professional player, my first aim is to use the achievements of the team to let more people know about the school."
It is a school worthy of promoting – and a story well worth telling.