By Stefan Djordjevic / firstname.lastname@example.org
Turk Telekom debuted in the Basketball Champions League last season and it was a success. They topped Group A with an 11-3 record and reached the quarterfinals before the season got suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They eventually fell to JDA Dijon in the Final Eight Tournament in Athens by just one point (83-82), however, there have been a lot of changes to the team roster and it was practically a new start in every way.
One thing that stayed the same, however, is the presence of Kyle Wiltjer who continued with the team after a year together, a year that the 28-year-old Canadian forward enjoyed quite a bit.
“I chose to stay in the team because Turk Telekom is a very professional organization. Our coach is a very passionate coach. He wants to win. They treat me very well here, in this club, in this city. I know where is what. I have a good life here,” Wiltjer told Eurohoops’s Mehmet Bahadır Akgun and Bugra Uzar.
He was also a big part of the club’s successful activity in the transfer market this summer, especially in acquiring Wiltjer’s former Houston Rockets teammates Sam Dekker and Tyler Ennis.
“When I heard they wanted Sam Dekker and Tyler Ennis, I instantly FaceTime them and give them a lot of pressure. Coaches try to recruit nice but I basically force them to come. Having them here was awesome and we got Nick (Johnson) back who was with us last year. All the guys I’ve known over the years and it’s fun to play with the guys I know. We’re also friends off the court.”
Speaking of Tyler Ennis, the guard has suffered a devastating injury and not too long after the prior one he fell to while playing for Fenerbahce in late 2018. However, Wiltjer has no doubt in his mind that Ennis will overcome hardship. In fact, he’s already done it before and is actively doing it now.
“Yeah, he’s obviously very devastated and wishes he could be playing but that guy is at the extreme, one of the best professionals I’ve ever met. He converted his garage into a rehab gym. He’s got weights, an exercise table, a massage table. He’s at home and already working to get back. If you get hurt, you could just shut down the season and not wanna watch any of the games, but he has been our biggest fan. He watches all of our games. It just shows a lot about his character. I know he will get back stronger than ever.”
In addition to squads having to deal with injuries that are unfortunate but yet a normal part of the game, this season will also be marked by the challenges due to the coronavirus positives and the procedures that come along with the goal of staying healthy.
“You have to adapt. We are fortunate that we can still play even though it’s a difficult season with people getting positive cases, but we’re just happy we can continue playing basketball. Last year, when the season finished, we didn’t know what to expect for the next year. We’re just happy we’re still playing and we must take every match seriously, whether we have 12 players or 5 players,” Wiltjer said and praised the Basketball Champions League for its efforts in making things easier for everybody with adequate moves – including the changes to the format – prior to the start of the 2020-21 campaign.
“I’m very pleased with the Basketball Champions League. They could’ve canceled the whole league due to positives but instead, they thought outside the box and created this new format. It’s super competitive because there are only six games and every game matters. I think it makes it a very interesting format and I am glad that they adapted it.”
One of the safety precautions that is implemented worldwide is not allowing fans in the stands, or at the very least in a very limited number.
“It’s definitely a weird feeling. I am an energetic player and I’ve always played off the crowd. You have a home game and you’re playing Hapoel Jerusalem which, in normal life, it would be a packed arena. If I make a three-pointer, I yell at the crowd. It’s just weird. You hit a three and there’s just no one. But it’s also fun because you hear everything. If a guy says something on the court, you can hear crystal clear, if someone says something on the bench, you can hear it. It makes it entertaining in a different way,” Wiltjer explained.
He also shared his state of mind when it comes to mental health amidst the pandemic, all the rules and precautions one has to take. He finds his comfort (and extra motivation) in the fact that his wife is beside him and that they will soon enough have an additional family member.
“I’m here and I’m very fortunate to have my wife is here. She is actually pregnant, so I’m taking care of her. It’s been exciting for us. We just try to stay as safe as possible. When we go to the grocery store, we wear our masks, and to help with my mentality, I’ve just been cooking a lot more than normal. I used to go out and eat at restaurants, but now I’ve been trying to be a little chef here at my apartment and eat very healthy. It was good for me basketball-wise as well.”
Wiltjer spent his rookie season (2016-17) in Houston after which he built up a career in Europe. Although he would like to get back home to continue his career, he won’t have any regrets about staying on the Old Continent.
“That’s my home. For American players, that’s definitely always a dream. Because there is nothing better than playing in front of friends and family. But for me, I’ve taken it one year at a time. When I played with the Houston Rockets in my rookie year, I had to go to the training camp and make the team, and I was fortunate that year to do it. Then I went to Olympiacos, then Spain and now Turkey. I would love to play in the NBA someday, but I love Europe as well. I’m just very at peace with basketball and having a great time,” he noted.
He does find some time to keep an eye on the NBA and, while didn’t keep a close track of the recent trade craze, he does think of one team as the favorite to win this year. “The Lakers look really good again and they’re obviously NBA champions so it’s gonna be tough to beat those guys for sure.”
The guy leading the Lakers squad in LeBron James is also on his Top 5 list of all-time best (with a bit of a twist): “Definitely, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, I’d play LeBron in there, and at the four, I’d put myself so I can play with them.”
Moving away from the club basketball, Wiltjer already wore the Canadian national team jersey in the World Cup and the forward would be privileged to put it on again, especially at the Olympics.
“I would love to represent Canada. Last year I pretty much played all competitions – World Cup, all the windows… It was something I was unsure of at the beginning of last year, but after playing with Canada… I played very well and the coaching staff is great there, an NBA coach in Nick Nurse. If I get an opportunity to play, even if it’s limited minutes, whatever my role is, I would love to play in the Olympics. It’s a huge dream of mine.”
Nick Nurse is a big part of the Canadian project, a very talented project on the rise in recent years, and they can do big things.
“He’s an amazing coach. I played for him last summer and he just has a great basketball mind. He coached overseas and was kind of an underdog in the coaching world. For him to become an NBA champion was awesome. I would love to play for him again. I think that would be awesome,” Wiltjer said and added.
“There’s a lot of talent. Now that there’s a lot of talent, It’s very difficult getting everyone together for events. Some guys have different contracts and some teams don’t let you play. For us, the talent is there, it’s just a matter of getting everyone together and I think Canada Basketball did a hugely positive thing, hiring Nick Nurse.”
Photo Credit: Basketball Champions League