Culture - a closer look at Galatasaray NEF
GALATASARAY (Turkey) - History and culture would certainly be words high up on the list most commonly associated with Galatasaray NEF. This is, after all, a club that has sixteen Turkish Championships, three Turkish Cups, two Turkish President’s Cups, and one Eurocup. However, after a disappointing debut season in the Basketball Champions League, the club needed to find its way back to upholding that history and culture.
We spoke to head coach Ekrem Memnun about his lifelong journey with the club and his determination to build a culture within this team that is deserving of a club that means much more than basketball to so many people.
Ekrem Memnun breaking it down in a timeout.
“I came to this club at the age of ten and now I’m fifty two,” said Memnun. “To me, it’s a school not only for basketball but for life,” he continued. A man with humble beginnings, Memnun is unequivocal in his affirmation of the role Galatasaray played in his own life: “I’m not from a rich family, my father came to Turkey from Yugoslavia and tried to build a family here. The club gave me a chance and an education. I owe everything I have in my life to Galatasaray.”
The description of Galatasaray as a school of life is more than just a metaphor. The sports club was actually started by students from the prestigious Galatasaray High School and celebrates its 116th Anniversary on the 30th of October. The club now has over ten million followers on social media and is among the global sports brands with one of the most passionate and loyal supporter bases you could hope to find. In the case of Ekrem Memnun, that passion has seen him pay the club back at almost every level. “This club is my family, this is my home,” he said. “I have worked in every level of this club, I coached mini girls, mini boys, all the way up to senior women and now senior men,” he continued.
Memnun has amassed an array of championships with the Galatasaray Women’s team, including four Turkish Championships, multiple Turkish Cups, and President Cup titles. Almost certainly his finest season at the helm resulted with the Turkish League, Euroleague, and President’s Cup treble in 2014. But for one of Galatasaray’s most decorated coaches across all sports, the most valuable season from his perspective was none of the above. Nor was it any of his seasons with the Turkish Women’s National Team, including a trip to the Olympics - something most coaches can only dream of. No, for Ekrem Memnun, his most valuable season was his first head coaching position with the Galatasaray U14 Girls.
“My first (head coaching) position was when I was just twenty years old. I still wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to go in life. I’d never been a head coach, I didn’t know any plays, I didn’t even know where to put my hands on the bench,” he recalled with a smile.“ The GM came to me and asked me to coach the U14 Girls,” said Memnun. Within weeks, the team was headed to the National Tournament, something it seemed neither the squad, nor their young coach Ekrem Memnun were ready for: “We went to the tournament with six players and ended up finishing two games with only three players after losing half the squad to foul trouble.”
That team somehow reached the Final of the National Tournament against all odds but it wasn’t the basketball results that left a lasting imprint on their young coach. “I didn’t know anything but the fight they showed and the love they showed for each other and the game... ” he recounted, "I have won many championships and taken the National Team to the Olympics, all great stories but to this day, that tournament was the most I have enjoyed coaching.”
Recreating that fight and love for each other and the game is no easy task in the world of professional sport but it is the task that Memnun has assigned himself and his staff. “Now Basketball is a different world with professionalism, we have adjusted to that and results are important but what I believe is that without love nothing can happen,” said Memnun. To achieve it Memnun has started on the root and branch approach to building a culture to support the spine of the team. “Tactics can be copied, you can copy a practice plan but culture can’t be copied. It’s you, it’s yours, it’s unique,” he exclaimed.
The fight and love for each other and the team is starting to show in this Galatasaray team. They have already picked up statement wins on the road in Igokea in the BCL and Efes in the Turkish league. Despite a close loss on the road to PAOK, the early signs are very positive. Galatasaray games so far have been close, hard-fought affairs, and their big players have had to step up when the team has needed them the most but it has possibly been the reactions to losses that have been most indicative of the fighting spirit in the team. The ability to react well to the tough times is well aligned with a specific mindset that Memnun is trying to instill in his squad, a mindset that underpins the foundations of the culture they are building.
“I am very into Growth Mindset. Everybody wants to win and compete but we first have to make a contract or agreement with the players that they have to beat themselves first,” said Memnun. Growth Mindset is a concept developed by psychologist Carol Dweck in the context of the psychology of success and has been a vital tool for many teachers, coaches, and educators across a broad spectrum of disciplines. The basis is that with the right psychological framing any person can improve themselves as opposed to a traditional fixed mindset where people believe their skills or traits are simply set and largely unable to adapt or change.
For Ekrem Memnun, this individual development is also important to the collective culture they are building: “Other things are not under our control but if everybody focuses on improving the things they can control, the team will improve. If everybody is getting better, they will be part of a winning team and we are all better people.”
There also has to be a synergy between the cultural foundations and the way the team plays and it’s already clear that this year’s iteration of Galatasaray is trying to break the mold a little. “Positional basketball is important, especially in the BCL, where there are good players and great coaches but we want to be a little different if we can,” said Memnun.
One of the clear areas we can see where Memnun’s Galatasaray are different is in transition. Only Arged BM Stal Ostrow Wielkopolski have had more transition possessions per game (16) than Galatasaray’s 12.3 and they rank second for scoring efficiency in those possessions, scoring an eye-popping 1.4 points per play (per Synergy). This is clearly by design. “We want to play fast, more possessions, and give the players confidence to attack,” said Memnun. If we want to see an example of this we don’t need to study hours of tape. When you have the talents of Dee Bost and DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell pulling down rebounds and mercilessly pushing the ball instantly up the floor, you will never be short of transition opportunities.
With the extra focus on stopping Bost and Akoon-Purcell from getting to the rim at will, teams are forced to congest the center lane of the floor. Galatasaray are excellent at filling the corners and extending the threat to the defense out to the full dimensions of the court.
With the extra speed and tempo and license to play with confidence can sometimes come a slightly more liberated brand of shot selection. But this isn’t from a lack of responsibility. This is a conscious choice to trust the players and accept that the confidence they need to win games will at times have an edge. “Maybe some of our shot selection might seem strange to some people based on their reference point but I think it’s more enjoyable for the payers and more fun to watch,” Memnun explained. So far this trust has paid off, especially with Galatasaray’s ball handlers scoring 1.14 points per possession directly from the pick-and-roll (per Synergy), which is second only to AEK. They have also looked to score directly from the pick-and-roll nineteen times per game in their 3 games so far - more than any other team in the BCL.
If we take an example from the video below, Dee Bost takes an off-the-dribble 3-pointer vs the under defense with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. It’s not to say this is a bad shot but many coaches could be forgiven for wanting to hunt an even better shot with that long left on the shot clock.
Again, in this video below we see the defense go under against Melo Trimble and then under for the second time on the re-screen. If anything, a long 2-pointer, off the dribble, with 10 seconds on the shot clock is a shot the defense would accept but when a player like Melo Trimble is given the trust to shoot it with confidence, good things happen.
This isn’t to say that Memnun’s Galatasaray are a transition-only team. They are also a very shrewd team when it comes to maximizing their individual threats and leveraging them to create easy shots. If we watch the clip below, we see Dee Bost used as a back screener for Kerry Blackshear. Knowing that Nymburk would switch, Blackshear screened his own defender after the switch (#23 Palyza). The result was a wide-open shot for Dee Bost.
Whatever the outcome it always comes back to the culture. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all exposed to the process of honesty and player-led reviews. “We have a truth day after every game. We face each other and we discuss what we were thinking and what we want to think in certain situations,” said Memnun. Of course, all teams do video review sessions but what is being described is not the traditional coach-led dressing down of mistakes on film. The priority for coach Memnun is that the players lead the honesty of the session. “We believe in giving players more responsibility because players win,” he said. And in line with the Growth Mindset ethos, it’s a never-ending story of pushing yourself to review and improve. “This is a process, this is not a one-day or a two-day thing. It’s a test of our character every day.” He patiently affirmed. Ekrem Memnun is clearly a man with a passionate vision for where his team can get to and the experience and patience to stay true to the journey of getting there.
We couldn’t discuss fight and culture with a club like Galatasaray and not talk about their fans. This is, after all, a sports club known for creating possibly the most hostile atmospheres in the world. As a person who has grown up in the club man and boy, Ekerem Memnun is fully cognizant of what these fans expect and that everything the team does need to be representative of the fanbase: “We fight for every ball and try to show the character of the people who built this club and show it every day with class. They are an extra power for us but also an extra responsibility because sport is played for the fans.”
Up next for Galatasaray is the perfect opportunity to showcase their ability to bounce back. They have a week off then take on Igokea at home in the Sinan Erdem Arena on the 9th of November.