For many in Turkey, the name “Baglar,” a slum district in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, a center of the Turkish state’s decades-long conflict with Kurdish rebels, conjures up images of masked youngsters clashing with police, throwing stones or Molotov cocktails. But for 37-year-old local schoolteacher Gokhan Yildirim, the name means just one thing – basketball.
Beating long odds, the district’s five male basketball teams, coached by Yildirim for the last 18 years, have become among the most successful in Turkey. The district also has four equally successful girls’ teams.
“The children didn’t have a clue about basketball,” he remembered, standing in the Fevzi Cakmak school playground where, as a 19-year-old university student, he started coaching young basketball players. “When we asked them to bring a basketball, they would bring a volleyball. We always had to say ‘Bring the orange ball.’”
Yildirim’s own passion for basketball was born out of watching reruns of the 1978-1981 American television show “The White Shadow” about a former pro player who decides to coach an American inner city high school team comprising mostly African-American players. “I grew up with it. I would always dream of setting up a team before going to sleep. I would choose my best five and it would become a world champion,” Yildirim recounted, laughing.
Not quite world champions, Yildirim’s youth teams have enjoyed local, regional and national success against better-financed and supported competitors in the wealthier west of Turkey.
Success hasn’t come easily. In the beginning, “[e]ven the school supervisor used to say: ‘What’s the use of sport?’” Yildirim said. “When we trained in winter, it would be freezing. Everybody was so cold they would get sick, but they’d be back the next day all the same.”
Six years ago, the municipality of Baglar, proud of the teams’ success, used its limited budget to build an indoor basketball court. Now, each day after finishing his work as a teacher, Yildirim devotes up to six hours to coaching. For him, the Baglar teams combine both his love for basketball and for his native district. “The children here have bigger dreams. They hold on to them with so much strength,” Yildirim explained, watching boys and girls playing in the playground. “Baglar, for me, means hope.”
Diyarbakir’s Baglar quarter was born out of the ongoing war between Turkish security forces and the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Before the conflict started in the 1980s, the slum did not exist. It is a place where it’s not unusual to find nine-children families living in two-room houses; where many have relatives or friends who have either died during the decades of conflict, or who are in prison. Still others have headed into the mountains to fight for the PKK.
“The situation here pushes young children to be fighters. They think they can solve their problems by fighting,” Yildirim said. A pervasive sense of low self-esteem means “starting every game with a 10-point deficit,” he added. “I am trying to counter this by showing them love, telling them this team is their home. Here we protect you, and that each and every one of them is important.”
For a few players, Baglar has been a stepping-stone to professional clubs; another player, Ramazan Ozkan, won a basketball scholarship to a US high school. That success is now sending another message about Baglar that local officials are eager to spread. “In these youth, there is faith. This is not a work that is done with resources. They work with belief, even with faith,” stated Baglar Mayor Yuksel Baran.
At the local basketball court one recent weekday afternoon, the teams were practicing for weekend games. Ali Alaca, the 19-year-old captain of the senior youth team, said basketball was more than just a game for himself and many of his teammates. “This place is not only a place to practice and play, but has become like a second home to me,” Alaca said.
For Yildirim, winning still is important. “What keeps me going is the desire to win. I hate losing,” he said, as he showed all the hardware in the club’s trophy room. Then he paused, and channeling actor Gene Hackman, who played a small-town high school basketball coach in the 1986 film “Hoosiers,” he talked about the big picture: Hackman “says it not important whether you are defeated. It’s important to be a team.”