Free agent point guard Goran Dragic speaks on his path from Slovenia to the NBA.
SLAM: Tell us about your hometown and how you originally got into hoops.
Goran Dragic: I grew up in Ljubljana [Slovenia]. I started playing soccer, then I had a leg injury, then after that all my friends were playing basketball. That’s how I learned it. My wish was to be a soccer player, but then everything turned around and I became a basketball player.
SLAM: So you were mainly into soccer as a kid?
GD: Yes, yes. In Europe, the main sport is soccer, so all the kids from my neighborhood were playing soccer.
SLAM: Was anyone playing basketball?
GD: Yeah, that too, but more soccer. Then maybe in seventh, eighth grade, we started to play basketball—all of us kids in the neighborhood.
SLAM: What was the injury that made you switch?
GD: I broke my leg at a soccer game. Then my mom decided that it’s too rough to play soccer, so then I tried to switch sports. I’m lucky I did that, that I decided to switch to basketball.
SLAM: Were you good right away, or did it take a while to get into it?
GD: When I was playing against my friends, I was good enough to play. Soon as I started playing, I knew it was the sport for me. I probably needed a couple years to know the system and learn basketball.
SLAM: You went pro at 17, which over here is considered early, but over there is pretty standard, right?
GD: Yeah, I’d say it’s pretty standard. I signed my first contract when I was 17 years old. I was playing in a second-division Slovenia league, and then I transferred to a first-division team in Slovenia, and that’s how I started my basketball career.
SLAM: You think that toughened you up a little?
GD: I would say yes. When I was 18 years old, I went for the first time to a foreign country—I signed in Spain. It was really tough for me, [being] the first time without my family. Another country, a different language. But I think I got tougher.
SLAM: Yeah, you had to adapt to a brand new culture.
GD: It was tough, especially with the language. But then a lot of my teammates helped me a lot. Coach, too. Then after two-to-three months I was really happy over there and really grateful they gave me an opportunity.
SLAM: Later, when you were an NBA rookie, you had already gone through the process of getting used to a new environment. Did that help with your NBA transition?
GD: It helped me a little bit, especially because it was not something new for me. I [had done it] in Spain and then I came to the USA, but still—it’s a different style of basketball. The players are stronger. The League is much faster. Of course, I needed some time to adapt to this environment. But a lot of my teammates helped me, especially Grant Hill and Steve Nash. They were great to me.
SLAM: Who was your favorite player when you were growing up?
GD: My favorite player, naturally, was Rasho Nesterovic. He was coming from Slovenia, so he was one of the biggest players in Slovenia. And of course, Michael Jordan, Steve Nash and Grant Hill. I was really happy I had the chance to play with [Nash and Hill] on the same team. I learned a lot from them, especially how you do things on the court and off the court, like eating healthy.
SLAM: Had you been in touch with Nesterovic when you originally went pro and then came to the NBA?
GD: Yeah. We played for the same national team, and then when I moved from Europe to the NBA, we were pretty close. He helped me a lot, especially with how everything is different here. Every time I needed something, I’d call him and ask him about it, and he’d help me.
SLAM: It must’ve been tough to watch the NBA when you were little, with the time difference and all.
GD: Yeah. I was a big fan of the NBA when I was a kid. I was dreaming about some day playing in this League. Once a week I’d wake up at 2, 2:30, 3 a.m. to watch NBA games, and then the next day I’d have school so I’d be really tired and sleepy. But basketball is my love, so I’d have to wake up and see some games.
SLAM: Your parents were OK with that?
GD: No, no. They were mad at me! They knew I loved basketball. If it was a Friday or a Saturday they were fine, but Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, they didn’t let me watch the games.
SLAM: Do you get a chance follow soccer during the NBA season?
GD: When it’s the NBA season, no, but when I was with the Phoenix Suns, we’d play after practice a lot with Steve Nash. When it’s the offseason I play with my friends a little bit—we play soccer, tennis, table-tennis, that kind of stuff.
SLAM: Is Nash the only NBA player you’ve been teammates with that plays soccer?
GD: Yeah, and Grant Hill, he played a little bit. And Shaq—he was the goalie.
SLAM: I couldn’t imagine Shaq on the soccer field.
GD: Yeah, he was terrible. [Laughs] He’s too big for soccer.