The Dragon who conquered Europe: Goran Dragic and Slovenian magic
MUNICH (Germany) - You can always get a good sense of someone's personality during the first couple of minutes of the call, well before the on-the-record interview even starts.
Goran Dragic fits the script perfectly.
"Hey, come on now, I didn't do it by myself," the ever-modest Slovene legend responded after learning the reason behind the call - his role in Slovenia's incredible title run in FIBA EuroBasket 2017.
"We all did it together. We really were a team, I'd say even more than just a team. There was zero egoism on that squad," Dragic added.
"WHEN WE WON IT ALL IN ISTANBUL, IT WAS ALL WORTH IT. ALL THE CLOSE CALL DEFEATS OF THE PREVIOUS EVENTS, AND THE LACK OF LUCK."
Going through the history books, it's easy to see why a two-million-strong nation is considered a basketball nation. Since 2005, the national team has made it to the Knockout Phase of every single edition of FIBA EuroBasket, missing out on the Quarter-Finals just once, back in 2015.
However, they did have just one Semi-Finals appearance to their name, with their deepest run coming in 2009 in Poland. And if you look at the rosters of Slovenia's national teams throughout the years, you could easily that Slovenia could've climbed to the top sooner, with the likes of Jaka Lakovic, Sani Becirovic, Erazem Lorbek, Bostjan Nachbar, Radoslav Nesterovic, Matjaz Smodis and others.
"When we won it all in Istanbul, it was all worth it. All the close call defeats of the previous events, and the lack of luck," Dragic explained.
"But I really wanted to win even more medals with the national team. We could've been there even before 2017, when you look at all the big names we had. But we never had such chemistry like in 2017. There was always something missing. And we didn't have the right coach, one like Igor (Kokoskov). In 2017, everything clicked."
It's not like he wants to undermine the coaching greats like Bozidar Maljkovic, who was at the helm in back-to-back Quarter-Finals exits in 2011 and 2013, or Jure Zdovc, who got as close as possible to winning a medal in 2009 - Serbia defeated Slovenia 96-92 in overtime in the Semi-Finals, while Greece squeezed past Slovenia 57-56 in the Third-Place Game.
But once Kokoskov took over, as Dragic highlights, everything clicked. Because of the team-first mentality, because of the modern basketball with multiple solutions in each possession, because of the connection of the team and the crowd and, of course, because of the aforementioned chemistry.
"Igor deserves all the credit for the team spirit. He put each of us, players, in our best situations, nobody complained about anything, everybody knew their role on the team. That's on the coaching staff, for sure."
Traveling back to the summer of 2017, Slovenia weren't regarded as favorites prior to the event. Spain with the Gasol brothers, Ricky Rubio, Sergio Rodriguez and all the others? Sure. Serbia with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Boban Marjanovic? Of course. Turkey with the home crowd? Why not. Even Croatia, coming off of their 2016 summer, with Bojan Bogdanovic and Dario Saric in peak form, were considered to be more of a threat than Slovenia.
"WE NEVER HAD SO MUCH CHEMISTRY LIKE IN 2017."
And it was the two exhibition games against the neighbors that made people think twice about writing off Slovenia before FIBA EuroBasket even began. Slovenia presented their one-two punch of Dragic and Luka Doncic, and Europe took notice.
"I told the journalists before the event that we are going to win a medal. I don't care which one. I believed in us all the way, and once the games in Helsinki began, I knew something special was coming. That game against France, that probably made everybody else on the team believe we could go all the way, that's how confident we were," Goran explained.
Slovenia were already at 4-0 before the game against France. They climbed to 5-0 with a dominant 95-78 win over Les Bleus, booking a date with Ukraine in the Round of 16, which turned out to be an even more convincing triumph, blowing out the yellow-and-blue 79-55, barely breaking a sweat.
The Quarter-Finals? That's the game we all remember.
"I completely agree with you, Latvia was by far the toughest game of the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 for us," Dragic recalled the epic showdown against an up-and-coming and extremely talented opponents from the Baltics.
Up until then, the Round of 16 matchups had not offered a lot of drama for the folks in Istanbul. Sure, Germany and France played out a one-possession ending, but the next closest game was an eight-point margin between Serbia and Hungary. Spain kicked off the Quarter-Finals with a 12-point win over Germany, before Slovenia and Latvia took the stage.
Slovenia put up 34 in the first quarter. Latvia bounced back with 32 in the second. Kristaps Porzingis went for 34. Goran Dragic had 26 on 9-of-15 shooting from the field, with 8 assists and 6 rebounds. Janis Strelnieks dished out 9 assists with 7 rebounds. Davis and Dairis Bertans combined for 35 points with eight made three-pointers. Luka Doncic had 27 points and 9 rebounds. Klemen Prepelic came off the bench with 17 points on 12-of-12 from the charity stripe.
Madness all over the place.
Slovenia ended up snatching a 103-97 victory. But how often do you get to witness a 200-point game in the Knockout Phase of a FIBA EuroBasket Final Round? An epic duel, and one to remember.
"The Quarter-Finals were always the biggest hurdle for us to jump. That's why we had to prepare mentally for the game more than anything else, and it was a crazy game. But once we managed to defeat Latvia, I would say that the Semi-Finals against Spain and Serbia were easier to play, because we were already there, near the top. We could see the medal waiting for us," Dragic remembered the feeling.
Three things stand out when you talk about the Final itself. First, the one-man show that Dragic put on in the first half, prompting Tyrese Rice to ask a legit question about breaking the FIBA EuroBasket Final scoring record.
Over or under 40 for Dragic?— Rese (@ReseRice4) September 17, 2017
On his way to earning the Most Valuable Player Award, Dragic's scoring tally stopped at 35 in the Final, done on efficient 12-of-22 shooting, as he scored the most points in a the title-decider since Pau Gasol put up 36 in 2003.
"I have always dreamed about a moment like that, about playing a big game for Slovenia," he said. "And I was never afraid of such a moment. If I didn't take all the shots I took, I would've regretted it in a couple of years, for sure."
He could've won the Most Valuable Coach, too, if there was an award like that, which is the second thing that stood out in the Final. Down with an injury that limited him to only 29 minutes in the title game, Dragic took on his role of team captain and a leader during one of the timeouts as Serbia were mounting a comeback.
"I had to raise my voice. I just wanted us to get out of the slump."
"If I'm being honest with you, it was just a one-time talk. I haven't thought about becoming a coach yet, I'm still enjoying my basketball career, and once I'm done I'll probably take a year or two off before thinking about coaching. But it's still early, you never know what could happen," Dragic, now 34 years old, added.
Finally, the third thing. The amount of Slovenian flags and green shirts all over Istanbul back in September 2017. Remember, we are talking about a population of two million in the entire country. It certainly felt like all of them made the trip to Turkey that final weekend.
"What's crazy is that a lot of people came by car or van, driving for who knows how many hours! That ambient when we came out to warm up, it felt like there was 9,000 Slovenian fans in the stands, it was completely unbelievable!" Dragic recalled.
The triumph in Istanbul marked the happy end of an 11-year-long career with the national team for Goran Dragic. The "Did you change your mind?" question became somewhat of a routine for him in the press conference from the Quarter-Finals onwards, but even three years later, there are no regrets.
"When I picture something, I make it happen. I don't change my mind easily. I believe I was being honest with the coach and the team and the Federation from the first day, when I told them that was going to be my final event. My body isn't getting any younger, with the long NBA seasons, it felt like the timing was right to quit after FIBA EuroBasket 2017," the Miami Heat point guard said.
Leave while you are at the top. One of the goals in everybody's sporting lives. But, we still aren't sure if 2017 Slovenia was peak Slovenia, when you know a certain guy named Luka Doncic is developing into one of the biggest stars worldwide.
"Yeah, the national team is in good hands. But Luka will not be enough, he'll need all the help he can get, so our role players and young players need to raise their game as much as possible. And Luka is a born leader, one of the best in the world, a real diamond," Dragic talked about what the future holds for the national team.
"He made life easier for me in 2017, because we could play with two ball-handlers all the time, and it looked great. We were roommates back then. Of course we stayed in touch, we talk all the time nowadays."
The first humble impression from the first minute of the call hasn't faded - a unique personality, completely at ease with all he's done for Slovenia. Not just the national team, but for the entire country. Their dragon climbed the Triglav peak, stayed there and is now ready to enjoy the view. If his diamond roommate stays on the same path, it will most certainly be a stunning one.