The Don Draper of the NBA: Does Ersan İlyasova Really Exist?

Josh Elias | May 31st, 2019


Ersan İlyasova is supposed to be a Turkish power forward drafted in the second round who carved out a solid enough career for himself that he’s still a decent NBA player well over a decade after being drafted. He’s known for being a good floor spacer at 6’10” while shooting 37% from behind the arc for his career and has fit in really well with Milwaukee’s system for quite a few years. This year, he averaged a sliver over 18 minutes per game in Milwaukee’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals – the furthest run he’s been a part of in his career.

And most of that’s true.

But there’s just one problem with that description of Ersan İlyasova. There is no Ersan İlyasova.

Let me explain. On September 19, 2002, a man named Şemsettin Bulut registered Ersan as a Turkish citizen, claiming to have forgotten to register his son’s birth 15 years prior when he was born. It came out that a month earlier, Arsen Ilyasov, an 18-year-old Uzbekistani, crossed the border into Turkey and was promptly never heard from again. The Uzbekistan Basketball Federation heard about this and brought the matter to FIBA, the ruling body on international basketball, but FIBA ruled in Turkey’s favor. End of the story, right? Well, not exactly.

First, let’s dive into simply looking at his name. Now, Ersan, though not a common name, is a name used in Turkey. Soccer players Ersan Gülüm and Ersan Dogu are the only examples I’m particularly familiar with, but lots of people have uncommon names, so the Russian name Arsen being much more common than the Turkish use of Ersan isn’t telling in and of itself.

Then his last name: İlyasova. It doesn’t phonetically sound Turkish, but that’s just about the weakest basis for evidence to go off of what’s possible. So let’s do some more investigating.

İlyas is actually a pretty common surname in the Turkic region (and in fact is the Turkish translation of my own last name). The Turkic region, though, happens to include both Turkey and Uzbekistan, so that doesn’t narrow this down at all and frankly gives us no leads. And the suffix -ova is just a suffix that shows that the family originates from the plains. Although it’s a female suffix, not a male suffix, which makes it a bit odd, to say the least. But it’s still not evidence of anything.

So, without any progress made by looking at his name, we can look then at his family. His parents are Anvar and Iraliye İlyasova from Crimea.

Or Enver and Iraliye İlyasova from Crimea.

Or Enver and Iraliye Ilyasov from Crimea.

No one really seems to have a consensus for which is right. What’s easy to spot though is that those are pretty different people from Şemsettin Bulut, the guy who legally registered Ersan as his son. Şemsettin Bulut is a schoolteacher from Eskişehir, where İlyasova’s official records state he was born, though all evidence points toward Bulut having completely made up İlyasova’s official records. Not much is known about the guy, other than that he’s clearly not Ersan’s father, and yet legally registered Ersan as such.

So then let’s make sense of his actual parents I guess. We have a lead with Bulut, but we don’t know enough about him to be able to follow it anywhere. His father’s name is Anvar İlyasova, according to Ersan’s official website. On, his dad is named as Enver İlyasova. And if I simply type in “Ersan İlyasova father” into Google, it shows his name as Enver Ilyasov.

And if that doesn’t already make this questionable enough, there’s also the fact that there’s not an Anvar İlyasova, Enver İlyasova, or Enver Ilyasov that EVER lived in Eskişehir with a wife Iraliye. Or even in Turkey at all.

At least Iraliye seems to be consistent, right? Well, there’s the small thing about Iraliye not being a documented name at all. In Turkey, Uzbekistan, Russia – you name it, there are no documents of Iraliye being a name for a single person. The only time I’ve come across Iraliye aside from stories of Ersan İlyasova, is a lone private Facebook account that claims to be Iraliye İlyasova herself, but considering they claim to work for the New York Times, who do not list Iraliye İlyasova as an employee anywhere, and also list themself as a male living in Quebec, originally from Algeria, it can be safely assumed that the account is, one, definitely not the Crimean mother of Ersan, and two, likely a completely fake account.

While it’s not a name, Iraliye is a word though. In both Uzbek and Turkish, in fact. In most Eastern European languages, including Uzbek it means a divorcée, and in Turkish it’s a waybill. A waybill, for context, is a shipping document that travels with a shipment of goods or passengers. Now, I’m not saying there’s for sure something behind that, and this might, in fact, be a ludicrous stretch, but to me, when you pretend your name is the word for either someone who’s divorced or a shipping document, when your son may have illegally crossed borders, there’s some sort of story there, and I want to know it. But unfortunately, we don’t.

Following what we can figure out, let’s look a little more into the legal case about this. When Uzbekistan filed a suit against Turkey over this, their objection included this wording: “Biz bu çocuğu tanıyoruz. Bu bizim Arsen” – meaning, “We know this child. This is our Arsen.” The coaches in Uzbekistan’s youth setup specifically remembered coaching Arsen Ilyasov, and made statements about it as soon as he began to get noticed in Turkey. That’s right, the thing I haven’t mentioned yet about this “Arsen Ilyasov” who crossed the Turkish border and promptly was never heard from again under that name: he was a star youth basketball player who had been playing for the Uzbek under-18 team and had public interest shown in him from Turkish top-division teams Trabzonspor and Ülkerspor.

Completely coincidentally I’m sure, after a year playing for Yeşilyurt in the Turkish second division, Ersan İlyasova signed for Ülkerspor.

When this complaint by Uzbekistan was filed against Turkey, the Turkish Basketball Federation does what any party that definitely doesn’t believe they’re guilty would do, and promptly asked for the investigation to be delayed for two weeks, after which all documentation on Arsen Ilyasov’s entry to Turkey, previously publicly available information, had “disappeared”.

FIBA went on to rule in Turkey’s favor, citing not necessarily that they actually believed he’s Turkish, but instead simply that there was a (newfound) lack of evidence.

So, I’ve spent quite a lot of time researching this investigation and everything surrounding it, and though I’ve come across a lot of circumstantial evidence, we’ve also found there are no documents left that could ever prove anything.

So I guess I just have to believe what Ersan says. Which is, per Chad Ford, “He told us that he grew up in Tajikistan and moved to Uzbekistan when he was 13. He and his family moved to Turkey when he was 15.”

That means even according to İlyasova himself, Ersan İlyasova is not Turkish and isn’t even really Ersan İlyasova. The next question to ask is whether he actually is the age he’s listed at, another contentious debate no one’s really sure of. Without the documents the Turkish Basketball Federation “lost” though, I’m sure we’ll never find out.

Questions and comments?

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Main Credit Image:Embed from Getty Images

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