March 18, 2005

Scrapbook Showdown

March 17, 2005

By Darren Sabedra
San Jose Mercury News

It was getting late in the day when Kursat Kimyacioglu lined up his three young daughters in the family's Mountain View back yard for a layup drill. He wanted them to put the ball in the basket one-handed, something they'd never tried. The girls grew frustrated, but Dad kept encouraging them. Within 20 minutes, as darkness gathered, they got the hang of it.

From those humble beginnings some 12 years ago comes this: Saturday in Fresno, two sisters will play against one another in an NCAA tournament game.

Sebnem Kimyacioglu is a senior forward at Stanford. Yasemin Kimyacioglu is a sophomore guard at Santa Clara. The family Kimyacioglu (Kim-yah-ZHEE-oh-lou) had known for a week that both sisters would be in the tournament, but it wasn't until Sunday, when the NCAA field was unveiled, that the unthinkable materialized.

``I never expected them to play in the first round,'' said Kursat, the father. ``But when it was announced, I was extremely excited, a different type of feeling. There was a bittersweet type of feeling; maybe we brought them here for this day, that they would play against each other.

``But the downside was, at the end of the day, one would prevail, and one would go out in the first round.''

Kursat watched ESPN's selection show at Santa Clara, with the team and its supporters. Fusun, the mother, tuned in from home, with eldest daughter Elif. Sebnem and her teammates gathered in the lounge area of their locker room, with ESPN cameras zooming in to catch reaction from the nation's top-ranked team.

When reality hit, Yasemin was stunned. She asked her father, ``How should I handle this?''

Kursat, an electronics engineer who learned basketball from books and videos, told her: ``You have to understand, this is a very exciting day for all of us, not for only you and your sister.''

Sebnem was no less rattled by the development. ``It was almost like, is this really happening?'' she said.

It wasn't until the sisters spoke Sunday night that everything seemed all right. ``Now I'm really excited for it,'' Sebnem said.

``We're going to have fun with it,'' said Yasemin. ``We're really close, and I've had a lot of fun going to Stanford games, cheering my sister on these past four years. But playing against her will be even better.''

Basketball has been the family's passion since the sisters were in grade school. Kursat, an avid soccer player, steered them away from that sport because of six knee operations he paid for playing it. He and Fusun instead pointed them toward martial arts, hoping to make them mentally and physically tough.

``All three of them are black belts,'' Kursat said, proudly.

When eldest daughter Elif, a UC-San Diego graduate, was in sixth grade, she spotted an ad for a YMCA girls basketball team. Sebnem, a third grader, quickly exhibited a special talent.

``She could get to every ball, fight for every ball,'' Kursat said. ``She was athletically dominating.''

Fusun, sitting nearby in the family's living room, nods her head. ``In elementary school,'' she said, ``her fourth grade teacher told us, `She is always playing basketball with the boys.' ''

Within a year, Kursat, who moved with Fusun to the United States from their native Turkey in 1980, sought stronger competition. The league he targeted had no openings but would take Sebnem if Kursat accepted one of its coaching vacancies.

He agreed.

Kursat coached his daughters through middle school. They then moved on to Pinewood High, a school that was becoming a perennial Central Coast Section power under Coach Doc Scheppler.

Scheppler says not a day goes by that he doesn't make reference to Sebnem and Yasemin.

``The gist of those two kids is they truly respect and love each other, and that comes first,'' he said. ``On Saturday, the beauty is both of them are going to go at each other hard. They might not guard each other, but they're both competitors. Their engine might run out of gas, but they're going to still play hard. That's the thing that distinguishes them as Division I athletes.

``Sebnem is so fundamentally sound, makes the right pass at the right time. Defensively, she is a textbook. Yasemin brings that unbridled tenaciousness and refusal to let somebody beat her.''

Yasemin wasn't as highly touted in high school. But given an opportunity to walk on at Santa Clara, she eventually earned a scholarship and, like Sebnem, became a team co-captain.

Now, even though the game is a David-and-Goliath matchup, the sisters are about to experience something they will cherish forever.

``Later on down the road, it's going to be a story to tell,'' Sebnem said.

Their parents will be there to capture every minute. They haven't decided whether to show up wearing red, the primary color for both teams, but plan to sit somewhere in the middle, away from the rooting sections they have been a part of all season.

Before Sunday, their hope was that the selection committee would schedule the teams on separate days in the same time zone, Stanford in Fresno and perhaps Santa Clara in Seattle. That wouldn't be much different from the regular season, when Kursat and Fusun spent countless hours in the air to watch their daughters play.

Saturday, they will hop in their car and drive three hours to history.

``We're going to the game just to enjoy it,'' Kursat said. ``This will be a historical day for our family, for our community here, for Turk-American basketball.''