After finally getting its first win of the season with a narrow home success over UNICS Kazan last week, Anadolu Efes Istanbul’s double-round week – starting tonight with a trip to Panathinaikos OPAP Athens – could have ramifications lasting well beyond the end of October.

To see why, we need to look at the context.

Winning a major championship in a competitive league is difficult. Very difficult. So immediately winning another major championship is, while not impossible, an exceptional occurrence. This has been proven time and time again, and not just on basketball courts.

Football’s Champions League, for example, has only been retained by one team (Real Madrid) since 1990; the NFL Superbowl has been won back-to-back by the same team on just one occasion this century, when a young Tom Brady led New England Patriots to glory in 2004 and 2005.

And in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, only Olympiacos Piraeus (2012 and 2013) and Maccabi Tel Aviv (2004 and 2005) have succeeded in repeat title quests in the competition’s modern era.

This immense difficulty in claiming consecutive championships, even for the most talented teams, has a number of explanations. Being crowned champion in any competitive league – and there are surely none more competitive than EuroLeague – necessitates a huge range of factors to all fall into place together at the same time. Taking a title requires an enormous amount of talent, for sure, but much more besides: months of strictly rigorous effort, discipline, sacrifice and favors from fickle fortune (a refereeing decision here, an injury there, a bounce of the ball one way of the other).

It also requires enormous amounts of motivation. Even the most talented group of players will not win anything unless they are prepared to match their technical prowess with sheer hard work. Anything less will see them topped by opponents who are just that bit hungrier. And while all elite athletes are by nature dedicated professionals, even the smallest difference in motivation can make all the difference to the outcome of intensely contested games, especially when that motivation is magnified by applying to a whole team of players rather than just individuals.

Over the last few years, all those necessary ingredients were in place at Anadolu Efes Istanbul. After finishing rock bottom of the standings in 2018, the Turkish team entrusted head coach Ergin Ataman to build a new team, a process that bore fruit faster than anyone could have ever expected. A year after that humiliating last-place finish, Efes’s new batch of players not only hauled themselves into the playoffs, but then went all the way to the 2019 Final Four and the championship game, suffering a narrow defeat to CSKA Moscow.

From that moment, Efes was on a mission. Something serious was building, and everyone within the club – practically the same roster was kept in place – was climbing the mountain with a furious focus to complete the challenge. The club’s thirst for success was only intensified by the curtailing of the 2019-20 season after the COVID-19 outbreak, prematurely ending a season which had seen Efes regularly look head and shoulders above its competitors.

Last season, of course, that three-year mission was finally completed as Efes was crowned champion by overcoming FC Barcelona in the championship game in Cologne. All the hard work and sacrifices had paid off. It was all worthwhile.

In this light, it was particularly interesting to note the comments of Sertac Sanli, who left Efes for Barcelona in the summer.

“Winning the EuroLeague title with Efes was my dream from being a little kid. I completed that dream,” he told earlier this month.

“After winning the title, it would have been easy to stay with Efes – maybe sign a good new contract as a champion. That’s easy. But I need a new challenge. If you want to be an elite athlete, you are always looking for a new challenge – every day, every game, every year. In the last three years with Efes, we had a challenge: to win the title. The first year we lost in the final, the second year we lost to COVID, and in the third year, we did it.”

And in the fourth year? What do you do when you have gained everything you were working so hard to achieve? Start from scratch and do it all again? That’s not easy. Not easy at all.

So it makes sense that Efes has struggled to reach the same level of performance in the opening weeks of the new campaign, especially with the added complications of injuries – Kruno Simon has been badly missed – and a tough schedule including meetings with Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow and AX Armani Exchange Milan.

By now, though, reality will be setting in. Yes, Efes is the reigning champion, but that achievement is already in the past. The present and the future have to be earned the hard way, and hugely talented, competitive, seasoned performers such as Shane Larkin, Vasilije Micic, Bryant Dunston, Adrien Moerman, Chris Singleton and the rest will have accustomed themselves to the hard idea that a long grind lies ahead.

Easing the burden of being winless will significantly help ease the mental load for Efes’s stars, and last week’s success against UNICS could be a springboard for a sustained rival. But only if it is immediately followed by more wins, which explains why this week’s games – and the chance to rise to 3-4 or drop to 1-6 – are so important.

Tonight’s host Panathinaikos, meanwhile, is in a very different situation, which can be roughly compared to Efes in the autumn of 2018: a year of disappointment (the Greens finished 16th last season with a 11-23 record) followed by a summer of refreshing the roster with hopes of building a brighter future.

The opening weeks, though, have not been kind. Four losses out of five, including three in a row – have left Panathinaikos’s ambitions for an Efes-style revival already looking fragile. A strong week at home in Athens (against Efes on Tuesday and LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne on Thursday) is absolutely essential to restore confidence before the onset of November.

The season is young and 29 games still remain in the regular season. But tonight’s game at the OAKA Altion could tell us a lot about the prospects of these two teams in the coming months.

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