MILWAUKEE -- Sometimes Ersan Ilyasova has to think for a minute about where he is and what he should say. He speaks Turkish but he also knows Spanish from his days in Barcelona as well as a little Serbian from his childhood.
But now he speaks Russian at home, for his wife Julia, and English at work, when he's playing for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Occasionally, he mixes it all up and accidentally throws a Russian word in the middle of an English sentence.
"And some people are like . . . what? You have to explain yourself," Ilyasova said.
If there's one thing Ilyasova doesn't have to explain, it's his ability to play basketball. The 25-year-old, 6-foot-10 forward began playing professionally at the age of 13 in his home country of Turkey, and he plays year-round even now. It's just that to get to this point in his career -- a solid-shooting, instinctive-rebounding, all-around contributor for the Bucks -- he had to take a lot of language lessons.
Before Ilyasova ever averaged double digits in scoring for the Bucks or bailed them out with his sharpshooting jumpers, he grew up southeast of Istanbul in the city of Eskisehir, which means "Old Town." His mother was a Russian collegiate basketball player. His father was a Turkish volleyball player.
"When you grow up with so many athletes in the family, you have one mentality. I had the sport mentality," Ilyasova said.
During this time, Turkish basketball was becoming one of the best countries globally to develop the sport and its young players. Utah center Enes Kanter, Orlando forward Hedo Turkoglu, Houston Rockets center Omer Asik and Ilyasova are among the roughly eight players who are from Turkey to play in the NBA in the last decade or so.
As a youth, Ilyasova showed lots of promise . He signed a contract at the age of 13 to play professionally when he made the senior squad of Ulkerspor. While pro basketball disrupted his schooling, he went to class a couple of times a week just to catch-up. But it isn't unusual, he said, for young prospects in Europe to start their sports careers early.
"When you start to play professionally, it's really hard to keep up with it," Ilyasova said. "I always tried to go back to school and play catch-up with the other students."
The goal for these young players is to play for their Turkish teams at the highest levels.
"But I had the mentality to be an NBA player," he said.
In 2003, Bucks director of player personnel Dave Babcock first saw Ilyasova at the age of 16 on a trip he took to scout Australia's Andrew Bogut, who was playing in the FIBA U19 World Championships in Greece. Bogut was impressive and named the most valuable player.
From Greece, Babcock went to Madrid to see the U16 European championships. Only a handful of NBA teams went, and Ilyasova was the best player on the court. Babcock said he played the three position easily and was a blur up and down the court.
"He could do things then, he was incredible," Babcock said.
But the next summer, Ilyasova broke his ankle and flew to New York -- his first visit to the United States -- for a complicated surgery.
Since most people in the NBA hadn't seen what he could really do, the Bucks had a leg up on scouting him. Babcock also knew Ilyasova's Turkish agent very well and acquired all the medical reports on the ankle. John Heinrich, the Bucks' team doctor at the time, studied Ilyasova's health history and thought he was worth the gamble of a second-round draft pick.
In 2005, Ilyasova played for Ulker Spor Kulubu Istanbul while he also managed to get his high school diploma. Babcock went to a practice, interviewed the people who knew him and remained impressed. Ilyasova entered the draft, but Babcock could see he was still recovering and the ankle was at best 50 percent healed.
"If that," Babcock said.
The Bucks selected him in the second round with 36th-overall pick in the 2005 draft. Ilyasova had only heard of Milwaukee by watching NBA games.
"When you go to the draft, it's not about you no more. It's whatever team picks you, and there are 30 teams up there. I end up in Milwaukee," Ilyasova said.
He had just turned 18 years old. He knew exactly three English words: Yes, no and hi. He had no driver's license.
"It was real tough on me. Different culture, different language," Ilyasova said.
The Bucks worked with him in training camp and then assigned him to Tulsa in the NBA Developmental League. To this day, Babcock believes the ankle was still an issue for Ilyasova back then, delaying his progress on the court. Babcock consistently consulted then-Tulsa coach Joey Meyer on what was best for Ilyasova and also hired a personal coach to work with Ilyasova.
In 2006, Ilyasova worked his way into the Milwaukee rotation. To get acclimated, his Turkish agent drove Ilyasova around and translated for a couple of months.
He averaged 6.1 points and 2.9 rebounds per game as a rookie with the Bucks and squeezed in English classes at Berlitz three times a week.
"It was really tough for me, sitting in a class all by myself," Ilyasova said. "The way I really learned the language was watching TV or movies with the subtitles. If you don't understand, you can read right away."
But that wasn't always easy either. The accents and dialect of the actors on TV weren't always the same as talking to teammates or the locals.
"When you're talking to the players, it's like another language. They speak really quick and it's different," Ilyasova said.
Ilyasova struggled though the language barrier and the NBA grind. After the Bucks season ended in 2007, Ilyasova said there weren't any contract renegotiations. Regal FC Barcelona of the Spanish League, however, was interested.
"They really want me out there," Ilyasova said.
Babcock said he and then-GM Larry Harris weren't happy about the possibility of losing Ilyasova.
"But looking back on it, it might have been a blessing for Ersan career-wise," Babcock said. "He would have played for us and developed, but he went to Barcelona and made a big name for himself and got better."
It would mean, however, yet another new language and new culture for Ilyasova.
"That was tough, too," he said.
What he got in Barcelona was time. The team was very good, drew good crowds, found itself playing for championships and Ilyasova could work on his game. Babcock said Ilyasova got stronger and better physically. Always a good shooter, he became better -- shooting 52 percent from the field in his second season.
"In the NBA, you don't always have enough practice because there are 82 games in a short period of time," Ilyasova said. "Sometimes you play four, five games a week. For young players, there's no time to develop.
"If you're not really playing, it's hard to be in shape. I kind of decided to go back to Europe because they play twice a week and they've got a lot of time to just practice. I think it was a good decision for me at the time. I improved a lot those two years and tried to come back strong."
His goal was always to return to the Bucks and the NBA. And in 2009, he did when the Bucks signed him to a three-year, $7 million deal.
For Ilyasova, it was a pay cut -- millions, he says.
"By the time I come back to play for the Milwaukee Bucks, I was no problem with money because I signed a huge contract with Barcelona," Ilysaova said. "I was giving up a lot of money to come back to the NBA. It was big decision for me. This is what I wanted.
"When I came back for the Bucks in 2009, we make the playoffs that year, it was really exciting. I was happy to be back. My wife is from Milwaukee, so she was happy too."
Julia immigrated to Milwaukee from Belarus when she was 15 and later met Ersan through mutual, Russian-speaking friends. They have two daughters, ages 5 and 2. Since his return, Ilyasova has continued to grow as a player until he finished the 2011-'12 season with career bests in points (13 ppg), rebounding (8.8), assists (1.2) and field-goal percentage (49.2).
Last July, Ilyasova signed a Bucks contract for a third time -- this deal was for $32 million over four years.
Though he didn't last year, Ilyasova still usually plays for the Turkish national team every summer, from June to September. If the Bucks make the playoffs, he knows he won't get much rest between seasons.
"I really enjoy playing for national team. When I go back to Turkey, I see my friends who I grew up with," Ilyasova said. "You play for whole country. It's a different feeling. When we go to the European championship and try to compete, we see all those fans behind us. That's different really; it's a really nice feeling."
And yet through all of his travels, and being so far from home, Ilyasova likes Milwaukee. He wants to be here. He once endured teasing from Bogut, who called him Borat, the satirical fictional character invented and performed by actor Sacha Baron Cohen.
"And it really ticked him off," Babcock said. "But Ersan has a great sense of humor."
Ilyasova has been sidelined the last two games with a bone bruise suffered against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 6. After a slow start, he has regained his shooting touch and is having a solid season, averaging over 12 points per game.
Ilyasova can keep up with anyone now -- on the court or in conversation.
"By my second contract, they were talking about Brooklyn and Toronto, but I'm really glad I stayed in Milwaukee," Ilyasova said. "I made my family in Milwaukee, and I am really kind of familiar with all the places.
"Sometimes you go in the restaurant and people really know you. It's kind of nice. The things I don't like, crowded cities and waiting lines, traffic especially -- it's really easy to be in Milwaukee."
Bucks' Ilyasova has mastered the translation game
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