by M. Bahadır Akgün / firstname.lastname@example.org
“Like I told him several years ago after conquering the EuroLeague and winning the championship against Beşiktaş, he will stay with us as long as I will be here. None of us doubt it.”
These words inked by Zeljko Obradovic in the preface of Gigi Datome‘s autobiographical book Gioco Come Sono proved to be true this summer. Having joined Fenerbahçe before Zeljko Obradovic‘s third season in the team, who signed with them in 2013 July, Datome has played for Fenerbahçe and reached countless achievements with the Turkish team until Obradovic left Istanbul in June 2020.
And it was a touchy goodbye by Gigi to say the least. He posted an emotional goodbye message on his social media accounts, where we experience our celebrations, blues, joy even more and more intense in these extraordinary days. “I felt that I gave everything for Fenerbahçe’s jersey in these five years, but I got even more from you in return. Always yours, Gigi” as he finished his farewell letter. It touched not only Fenerbahçe fans but also many people following basketball in Turkey. To be honest, that emotion felt in the country is what pushed me to write this article: Wow, how much loved Gigi Datome is!
It is actually pretty difficult for me to put these words down on the paper, but I believe this is the proper way to say goodbye to a person that is loved this much. Plus, this is not only a farewell letter, because seeing how he has been welcomed in Italy showed that the love for him is not limited to Turkey.
He mentioned EuroLeague title celebrations in Istanbul saying that he felt like “the Pope walking in the streets of Rome” in his book. He was welcomed like a spiritual leader by newspapers, basketball fans and many more upon hearing that he signed with Olimpia Milano. It is most definitely not easy to receive such love, deserve it… And yet, you cannot help but wonder when you do not read not even one single negative reaction: Well, why do they love him so much?
That’s how I started, looking for an answer to this question. And then I found myself dying to talk to people that have been in close contact with him for years, journalists that have followed him for such a long time. Just so I could ask this simple question… Eventually, idea of such an article emerged and Fenerbahçe Beko General Manager Maurizio Gherardini, his former and current teammate Nicolo Melli, former teammates Ekpe Udoh, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rodrigo De La Fuente, Fenerbahçe Beko’s Communication and Media Officer İlker Üçer and Italian journalists Mario Canfora (La Gazzetta dello Sport) and Simone Mazzola (Backdoor Podcast) talked to Eurohoops.
We need to go back to where his story in Fenerbahçe started if we want to talk about his farewell to Turkish team and greetings he received in his return to his homeland. In other words, if we are telling a Gigi Datome & Fenerbahçe story, it is the summer of 2015 we need to remember. Considering a return from the NBA, Gigi Datome was looking for more responsibility and role in the team he would sign later. Naturally, he had a lot of suitors, including powerhouses, in Europe.
It did not take long for Obradovic to understand that Gigi Datome was the right guy for his team and himself. He describes that first meeting in the preface of Gigi’s book:
“We were wanting to bring him to Fenerbahçe in the summer of 2015 with Maurizio Gherardini. I had collected information about him and everyone had told me positive things, and the references were the best. However, there was something that hit me a lot: He wanted to meet me in person.
I was in Barcelona for the coach clinics. He took a flight and met me for a few hours. We talked about everything, not only about basketball. And from that moment, I had understood what kind of a person he is directly looking at his eyes. He was the right guy for me, for us.”
Eventually, Gigi proved how great of a choice it was with all the success he had and joy he gave to fans and teammates over the years. He crowned those years with a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague title, domestic championships and a number of cups… As if all these accomplishments were not enough, he was named the MVP of several domestic cups and championships with his ever fighting character never shying away from the responsibility. It was another proof that he would do more than his best in big moments once he has the responsibility.
Having had a lot of success in only two years together at Fenerbahçe, Nicolo Melli describes his selflessness both on and off the court in his own words as:
“The tough periods that can happen in a season are a little bit lighter with him, and I believe that this is a huge quality for a teammate, player to be able to make sure that everybody is in a good position and is positive. And this is what Gigi is. He always cares about his teammates. He has always a good word for somebody. He tries to bring everybody together and this is, I think, one of his best qualities as a player, person and teammate.”
Ekpe Udoh left Fenerbahçe right after club’s and country’s first EuroLeague title that he won along with Gigi Datome. They kept their close relationship even after the former’s departure, and Udoh puts what a special personality and great teammate Datome is into perspective explicitly:
“When it came to basketball, he is selfless and will do whatever it takes to help the team win. That’s my guy!”
Not only his teammates know how great assistance he provides as a leader. Journalists covering stories about him for years and people that could build a close relationship with him are also aware of it. One of those people is Mario Canfora, who wrote about his arrival in Milano on La Gazzetta dello Sport. And this is what he has to say about Gigi:
“He is now a leader in the locker room. He solved all the difficult cases in the national team, and also I know that they frequently exchanged ideas with Obradovic over many issues. Plus, he is loved by the kids too. You can be sure that Milano’s 70# jersey will be sold a lot.”
And Obradovic confirms these words in Gioco Come Sono:
“Over the years, I could build a relationship based on respect and trust with Gigi. He is a silent leader. He understands every aspect of basketball, and he can foresee situations and possible problems. If there is a problem, he is the first person I discuss and look for a constructive dialogue along with captain Melih Mahmutoğlu.”
Also Italian journalist Simone Mazzola is on the same page about Datome’s unifying personality and leadership skills:
“For us, he is the captain of the national team and the perfect example of how an athlete should be: He is giving everything to the team and people, and he gets affection and respect in return. This is Gigi Datome: An example for everyone.“
Gigi Datome is not “special” only for his teammates. Everyone loves him so much from the fans to staff of the team. İlker Üçer, who worked closely with him during all his years in Fenerbahçe, expresses perfectly why it is so nice to work with him, to be a part of the team he is also a part of:
“Gigi was a leader in real terms. You could see his impact not only on the court, but locker room, office and everywhere else starting from the entrance of the arena. He was always positive, always helpful. He never shied away from the responsibility. He had the same warm approach and attention towards everyone. That is why everyone he communicated loved him so much. His teammates, coaches, media, opponents or all the other participants of this game… Everyone loved Gigi so much.”
However, it is not something new that Gigi is appreciated so much. Having played in Rome with Gigi Datome years ago, Rodrigo De La Fuente mentions that he has always been a special and different personality:
“It was a pleasure to be with Gigi back in Rome. He was very young back then but he was always a very nice, kind man. He was always somebody that wanted to get better, improve and a great competitor.”
His time in İstanbul proved that Gigi Datome is more than a basketball player. He even reminded us of the fact that athletes are also human beings so many times. He has peculiar hobbies like playing guitar and drawing. He painted an Einstein drawing basketball plays on a wall at his own home in İstanbul. He constantly reads books and improves himself intellectually.
He is different from many other players for ordinary basketball fans in this sense, but Bogdan Bogdanovic’s words show that he is different also for his own teammates that spent years with him:
“It is really difficult to find the words for Gigi. He is a true artist, abstract artist. (He is) different. Even from the artist’s perspective, I think he is different. He is really well human being and really nice person. He is always good friend. He takes care of teammates and people around him. He is a family-first man. That’s what I respect about him.
Secondly, Gigi is a totally different person off the floor. His lifestyle is totally different. Usually people would talk about money, politics, cars, basketball or any other sports, but Gigi is totally different. He talks about history, about future, music, different type of music. Then (he gives) some fun facts. All those stories that may not be important to normal people but to him it seems very important. And that’s what makes him different. I really respect Gigi. He is a very good friend of mine. It’s really nice to have good friends like him.”
Gigi Datome had great close relationships with many people during his Fenerbahçe stint. And then there was Melli, who was his not only teammate but also roommate for two years in trips. Their interaction on social media always gave us the perspective about their close friendship, but his words for this article makes it even clearer how close the two have been:
“I think Gigi has been loved this much in Turkey and especially Fenerbahçe because Gigi is a very loyal, honest and positive person, player and teammate. We were also roommates so we shared a lot of moments together. We had a lot of fun. And sometimes he is funny making a goof or something, which makes him even a better teammate.”
We can see that it is a great opportunity to know Gigi Datome the human being in addition to knowing Gigi Datome the player. All these people that talked to Eurohoops shared different anecdotes and thoughts about how different he is. His coach for five-years in Fenerbahçe, Zeljko Obradovic praises Gigi the human being as following:
“I say this with all my heart: All the world knows Datome the player, I had the pleasure of knowing also the person. Gigi is the embodiment of spiritual perfection that is required to play at high level, the one that a locker room needs. To have that soul in the locker room is fundamental for me.”
Maurizio Gherardini played a role as important as Obradovic in Gigi Datome signing with Fenerbahce at the first place. Knowing a lot of renowned basketball personalities closely, Gherardini’s words about the Italian forward give us a clearer picture about his personality:
“He has a natural charisma but an humble approach to the people around him. He is always available, still very different from the average athlete. He’s a thinker, he reads a lot, he paints, he does some sculptures and plays the guitar. He is a versatile personality who knows how to transfer to people his love for the game and his curiosity for whatever life brings. He has a big heart and he cares and you feel it when you have the chance to meet him. Somehow unique…
How many players would have made the effort to go to a foreign country like Turkey and learn a language that would be so difficult for an Italian? That’s Gigi!”
Journalists Mazzola and Canfora do not think otherwise either, as these are their words, respectively:
“Gigi is a special player because he is different from all the others. When most of his teammates know only how to use a smartphone, he reads books after books in trips and away games, which is his great passion. Another great passion of him is playing the guitar.”
“In my opinion, Gigi is loved this much because he is a person of great depth. He is an exemplary professional that plays and gives his best always respecting fans and opponents.”
All his former teammates we had a chat told us that Gigi Datome is one of their favorite teammates ever, easily. For example, Ekpe Udoh:
“Gigi Datome is one of my favorite teammates of all time. He could thrive in any decade. His personality is contagious and smooth. He would always look out for me during holidays and I was able to get to know his parents as well.”
Or Melli, who spent two years at Fenerbahce along with Gigi Datome and has shared a lot also in the national team:
“I was very lucky to share with him two years. We have great memories, some of them wonderful, some others a little bit bitter, but you know, this is sports. But Gigi is definitely one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
I think the person that could(n’t) tell about Gigi the best is Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Serbian star struggled a lot to find the right words about his former teammate, which proves his point about Gigi Datome being such a special person, one that is hard to tell and explain:
“He did everything with Fenerbahce in terms of his basketball career. I know he is a competitive player and he’ll miss Fenerbahce and the fans. I know how much Fenerbahce fans love him as well. I think that era of the team will be remembered forever and I think that he was a big-big part of it. He has some unbelievable games like every other player, but Gigi is special. Gigi is special for sure.”