Armenia U-20 Basketball Team
As a previous professional basketball player and coach, I applied for a job at FIBA Europe. When taking the job, I have presumed that I would witness many great stories before my eyes while dealing with some awkward political situations. The job required a lot of travel and I was quite excited about the potential of seeing new places, while getting to watch some top level European basketball.
This past week, I completed my first youth event in Romania, Oradea. It was the Under 20 European Championship for Men, Division B. Usually, the level of basketball in Division B tournaments are not that high, but these tournaments provide a platform for countries, which are not traditionally basketball oriented at all, to display their youth basketball programs. As a spectator you get to see these programs succeed or fail. The benchmark for success varies by country in such situations. For instance; Finland would consider 5th place as a failure, while Malta would consider a single close game in the tournament a success. The examples above might not be accurate at all, but it is just to provide the reader with some sort of idea about the participants of the event.
The event in Oradea hosted 21 teams. There were some presumed power houses like Russia and Croatia, in addition to smaller countries like Malta and Azerbaijan.
Romania ended up with the championship, while the second and third place teams (Croatia and Great Britain) earned the right to play the division A tournament next year in addition to the champion’s.
But for me, the best story came from Armenia. The Armenian Basketball Federation has struggled with raising interest towards basketball in their country for years. They showed up to the event with a team combined of players who did not have enough experience, who did not have enough time to prepare for the event, and who did not know each other as well as any of the other teams’ players.
Prior to the first technical meeting, we already had a problem in our hands. Armenia and Azerbaijan were staying in the same hotel. Many phone calls were made, and many discussions were had to fix the issue, but eventually both teams were made to stay in the same hotel.
I was already extremely down prior to the start of the event for personal reasons, and this issue got on my nerves. The Azerbaijanis were complaining about this situation to me, due to the fact that I could speak their language, and I was the one who coached the Azerbaijani national team until 3 years ago. I kindly told them off, and that they had to deal with it, whether they liked it or not.
The Armenians, on the other hand, had a much more calmer approach. I approached Artur, who was the head of their delegation, to talk about this issue. He clearly wasn’t happy about the situation, but he talked to me in a professional manner, and promised that any incidents would be avoided from their side. This calmed me down a lot, but in most cases, the Armenians are not the aggressors.
The technical meeting was complete, and everyone was looking forward to 10 days filled with basketball. Some teams were more focused than others, and some had more heart than the others. This was easy to presume but we just did not know which team had what.
I went to bed without knowing what to expect from any of the teams. Tomorrow was the first game day, and I was kind of looking forward to it. It would help me put the emotional stress away and focus on my job.
There were two game gyms for the event and I decided to go to the smaller one that we had for the first day. After a couple of games, Finland stepped on the court to warm-up for their game against Armenia. Finland had got relegated from division A last year, which was hosted in Helsinki. It was a shame that they had gotten relegated, because they had beaten some top level teams like Spain and France during the group phase. I was curious to see if they would be able to dominate the division B tournament this year, and it was the only team that I wanted watch from a basketball standpoint. In my mind, considering their experience, it would be an easy win for them against Armenia.
Armenia also stepped on the court to warm-up, and you could see the clear difference between the two teams. Armenia probably had a 6-8 man rotation, whereas Finland could play all twelve of their players. What I mean by a 6 to 8 man rotation is that Armenia had 8 players maximum, who could potentially keep up with higher level teams. This rotation I thought, could only keep up with Finland physically, and not basketball wise.
The tip-off was made, and Armenia had a quick start by scoring 6 in a row. Finland slowly caught up with them but there were two kids from Armenia on the court, who seemed to have eaten the heart of a lion. One of them were #8 Aram Arslanian, and the other #6 Matthew Madoyan. Every time they rose for a shot, they made you rise as well and made you pray for that ball to go in. Armenia lost the game by almost 30 points, but these kids won some hearts at that small gym that day even if they were not the best players of their team. I mentioned a lion’s heart, and I believe that Arslan means lion in Armenian. It is only fitting.
The biggest surprise came when Armenia beat Poland, which was a contender team. Everybody was gobsmacked to say the least. But finally they had raised some eyebrows from the people who had not seen them play yet.
Eventually, the thing that we did not want to happen happened, and Armenia matched with Azerbaijan for a classification game. Everybody was tense, and I woke up early to go to the game.
Armenia vs. Azerbaijan
The only two people on the court from the two delegations, who did not have visible fire in their eyes were the neutralized American players. Every team has a right to have one neutralized player in their teams, and both teams had opted for an American. Both were clearly the best players in their respective teams. The rest of the players were clearly excited, and wanted to win more than anything else.
For the local organizers and the FIBA staff, the game started in a bad way. #14 of Azerbaijan dunked on the neutralized player of Armenia. It was a crazy dunk.
The neutralized player of Armenia clearly had not liked what had just happened and got into foul trouble quick. He was sitting on the bench with a face that said “Fuck You” to himself. So there it was, a court full of Armenian origin players, against an Azerbaijani team that was led by an American.
The heart that I saw from Arslanian and Madoyan came back out in full force and was contagious for the rest of their team. #10 Hakobyan #2 Koyumjan and #35 Davidyan seemed possessed. (In a good way) They were truly playing their hearts out. With 1 minute left in the 1st quarter, Davidyan caught the ball during a fast-break and dunked on #14 of Azerbaijan, who had dunked on his teammate earlier that quarter. Everything that I did not want was happening so far, everyone was getting aggressive due to these plays. #8 Arslanian seemed to have an old head on younger shoulders. He got into the the key after the dunk, and made sure that his teammates were keeping their cool. I appreciated that a lot. Even though he seemed more mature than the others, Arslanian was also leading his team secretly on the floor, which is truly a unique quality.
The game eventually came down to the wire, and finished in favor of Armenia, 82-80. I’ve looked at my old players at the Azerbaijani bench, and they were clearly shaken. This would have probably made the national news, if they had won. Now it wouldn’t be mentioned anywhere. The Armenian delegation was thrilled. Artur jumped on his head coach to celebrate the victory.
You can see Artur (Head of Delegation) in the arms of Vicken (Head Coach) celebrating the victory, in the photograph above.
What Armenia U20 team has given me and us:
As a previous player and a coach, I certainly can appreciate genuine effort along with true heart. This is what Armenia U20 Men’s Basketball Team has exactly given us.
The coaching board photograph in the begging of this text is also from the Armenian head coach Vicken Eskidjian. The text on the board is crucial for anybody to understand what was going on within the Armenian team during the tournament.
(SMART) HARD! There is so much hidden meaning to those two words that it would be impossible to explain it in a couple of paragraphs. But the most important meaning that you can derive from those two words is “Put your heart out on to the court”. This is also what I have understood from the coach’s speeches to his players during the timeouts. Somehow he has gotten under their skin, and got their blood going. Even during the games that they have lost.
There is only so much you can do, especially if you did not have enough preparation time for such a big tournament. As a coach I know this feeling. However, there is a lot that you can do if you are from a country, or an ethnicity like the Armenians. There is a lot of reason to click, a lot to connect you to one-another. The reason for such connection is unfortunately the bad experiences that has brought these people to where they are today. We or they cannot change the past, however, they can extract the emotion, turn it into passion and put their heart out at whatever it is that they do. This is not only applicable to basketball, but also to many other things.
As a Turk, I’ve always despised the way our generation denied the Armenian Genocide, and as the previous coach of Azerbaijan, I’ve always despised their attitude towards the Armenians.
And when Armenians played my former players, I had hoped that my former team would lose. Because it would be a learning experience. And when the Armenian players lined up to shake the hands of the Azerbaijani players after the game, I loved the look of shock in their faces. Sport is all about respect, and there are many lessons that we can excerpt out of what happened at that gym, on the 21st of July 2017.
I personally would like to thank the Armenian delegation members, including the players, the physio, Artur, and the coaching staff, for not only showing true heart, and passion towards the game of basketball, but also for displaying true professionalism off the court.
A special thanks to the coach Vicken Eskidjian for teaching everybody that was looking their way, a lesson in winning.
At the end of the day, the final score or the trophy won’t help you win in your personal life. They won’t define you as true winners in life. But a coach and a delegation like that will do. They were the true winners of the event for me.
And I would also like to send a tremendous thank you to Catalin Soare, who was the official photographer of FIBA at the event, for not only capturing basketball moments, but also for capturing the story itself, which is a rare quality.