Trail-blazing Z Mobile Prishtina guard Berisha keeps breaking ground for Kosovo
PRISHTINA (FIBA Europe Cup) - The trail-blazing Z Mobile Prishtina guard Dardan Berisha has been at the heart of the basketball boom in Kosovo, with Europe's newest nation flipping through one historic milestone after another.
The 30-year-old player is not taking any of it for granted, cherishing the unique opportunity to be the man leading the ground-breaking growth of the game in his homeland.
Having hit unforgettable landmarks with the national team in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Pre-Qualifiers, Berisha has continued to make history in the Kosovar capital by lifting local powerhouse Z Mobile Prishtina to their best-ever international campaign in the FIBA Europe Cup.
"I think we're going in the right direction to make even more history for Kosovar basketball and the Prishtina club."
Following their victory over the Hungarian title-holders Szolnoki Olaj, FIBA.basketball caught up with the scoring ace from Kosovo to talk about the club's unprecedented success in the competition and the impressive and still growing collection of milestones he has been able to accumulate for Kosovo.
Dardan, we didn't need to wait for a new chapter in the history books. After conquering the Regular Season for the first time, you now got that first-ever win in the Second Round…
It was a very important game for us to stay [in contention] to go through this group. Especially on our home court with that great atmosphere, we must win these games. It was a big game and a big win for us. We are happy to have won the game but there's still a lot of work in front of us. Step by step, I think we're going in the right direction to make even more history for Kosovar basketball and the Prishtina club.
Undefeated in Kosovo, reached the Second Round in the FIBA Europe Cup. All things considered, how would you evaluate the season so far for Z Mobile Prishtina?
I think we have had a great season so far. In Kosovo, we are one level above the other teams. This team was built for the European competition. At the beginning of the season, our goal was to qualify for the Basketball Champions League but we now want to do well in the FIBA Europe Cup. After a couple of years [of unsuccessful attempts], we wanted to advance from the Group Phase and we managed to accomplish that. Now we want to get past the Second Round. It's a very good season for us. Historic. The people in and around the club are very happy and so am I, playing at home. It's a special season for me, the club and for basketball in Kosovo in general.
"The fans are crazy, giving us so much energy and motivation."
s.Oliver Wurzburg, Pinar Karsiyaka, Szolnoki Olaj – that's a tough group of teams. What is your mindset for the FIBA Europe Cup going forward and what are your goals?
We know that we're not the favorites to progress from this group, but this might work in our favor. Psychologically, it might even make it easier for us to go to big teams like Karsiyaka and just give a 100 percent to try and win. It's going to be very, very important for us to win all of the games on our home court in front of our crowd, which makes it very difficult for every team that comes here. If we win our home games and, with a little bit of luck, get one win on the road, this could be enough to go through. We understand that it's going to be extremely difficult, but we're going to give our all for this. And even if we don't advance, this still will have been a great season and great memories for us.
There was an early-season coaching change with European legend Damir Mulaomerovic taking over the reins. How valuable is it to be working with a name of this stature?
He is one of the legends of European basketball, who played for a lot of big clubs back in the day. He was a great player and he is a great coach. It's very easy to work with him, because he was a player himself and he understands us. I am happy to work with Damir. He is also the coach of the national team of Kosovo, just like in the club. It's been very nice and helpful to have a coach like him. To have such a big European name is great, both in the national team and the club.
View this post on Instagram
Talking about playing at home, whoever goes and plays in Prishtina, knows that the atmosphere the fans create there is next-level. What do you think explains people's passion for the sport?
People love the sport. People love the club. Prishtina have a big history in the Kosovo, we have won the Balkan League twice. People love basketball. The fans are crazy, giving us so much energy and motivation. We are very happy to have them. I don't know the secret but people here just love basketball, they love [seeing their side] compete with great teams. We are happy to have them. They are the best fans in the FIBA Europe Cup and, for me, among the best in Europe.
You have played abroad in quite a few places, but all roads seem to lead back to Prishtina. Can you compare playing back in Kosovo with your experiences abroad?
I always say that I'll give everything to Kosovo basketball and Prishtina. If I can help in any way, I will do it. My family is here, my friends are here. It's a pleasure to be able to play at home for a team like Prishtina at a good level in the FIBA Europe Cup. It's also very motivating. I have played in Poland, Italy, Czech Republic, Croatia and it was a nice experience everywhere, but of course home is the best. I enjoy it a lot, especially when we play in a European competition. And as I said, if I can help in any way, I am always there.
"I think I am a lucky guy. Not a lot of players have such an opportunity."
Winning the first-ever international game, reaching the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers with the national team. Now reaching the Second Round for the first time ever with Z Mobile Prishtina. How would you describe the feeling to be able to have your fingerprints on all of these milestone achievements for Kosovo over the past couple of years?
I think I am a lucky guy. Not a lot of players have such an opportunity. Kosovo is a new country and we're making new history for the people, for the kids. It's definitely something bigger than just a game for us. It's a huge pleasure and I feel very lucky to be here and involved with Prishtina, to be the captain of the Kosovo national team.
It was special to win the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Pre-Qualifiers and be among the 32 best teams in Europe, bringing Lithuania, Poland and Hungary to Prishtina and playing against them. Of course, right now we're not at their level yet, but it was still very nice. It was historic to have an opportunity to battle against them. I always say that I'm very lucky to play and make history for Kosovo and for Prishtina.
Right now, kids in Prishtina and elsewhere in Kosovo are probably looking up to you. Growing up did you have someone like that from Kosovo that you idolized?
Maybe not from Kosovo. Of course, I was born and grew up here, but I moved to Cibona Zagreb at a young age. My idol at that time was Drazen Petrovic. And of course Michael Jordan (laughs), like every player around my age. I watched them everywhere I could – on CDs, on YouTube. Those two players were ones I looked up to. I didn't really have any idols in Kosovo…
View this post on Instagram
That's where I'm sort of steering the conversation. Do you think having that role model, an example from their country can have an impact going forward for the kids coming through?
This is very important for me. If they see my example, maybe they will see that they have an opportunity to play in Europe, like I did in different countries. We have all this talent in Kosovo, especially in individual sports. But with time we're also showing that we're also good in football, we have some talents in basketball and I hope we can raise the level in a couple of years to help both the clubs and the national team to reach even more things. We have the potential and I think we'll have good players in the future.
What do you think is the next milestone that can be attained – either club or country?
Right now, we're really focusing on the FIBA Europe Cup. I really hope we can go through our Second Round group. It's going to be very difficult, so we're focused 100 percent on the task. We will be in the Balkan League soon and we've still got the championship in Kosovo. All of this is a big experience for us to maybe build an even better team next year and try to reach even bigger goals in the FIBA Europe Cup. But right now, we're very happy to be where we are now and I think we have more potential to do even bigger things in the future.