MIAMI (AP) — A quick summary of the last few weeks in the life of Miami guard Goran Dragic:
He led Slovenia, his mother’s homeland and the place he calls home, to an improbable gold medal at the European Championships. The title game came against Serbia, his father’s homeland and a place where he still has relatives.
He was the tournament’s MVP. He received one of Slovenia’s highest civilian honors. He was brought to tears by a gift of a jersey from the mother of his idol, the late star Drazen Petrovic.
And through it all, the words of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra echoed in his head – winning a championship is usually more demanding mentally than physically.
“Now I fully understand what he means,” Dragic said.
It’s a lesson Dragic hopes to put to more use starting next week, when he returns to the U.S. and the Heat begin training camp. The only true point guard on Miami’s roster, Dragic is going to be a major key if the Heat are to return to the playoffs and contend in the Eastern Conference. And coming off his MVP showing at EuroBasket, the Heat hope his game keeps elevating.
“He looked sensational,” Spoelstra said of his point guard’s play at EuroBasket. “I’m so happy for him, so proud of that accomplishment, this most unlikely championship. Slovenia is a country of only 2 million. It’s smaller than the city of Miami. And to beat the powerhouses over there, but also to see how passionate Goran was about trying to lead this team to the title.”
Dragic averaged 22.6 points and 5.1 assists in the nine games. His 35 points in the title game was the high for the tournament.
He told Spoelstra in June he was all-in on trying to deliver Slovenia its first gold medal.
“He trained extremely diligently for this,” Spoelstra said. “And he competed and led at such a high level. You could just see the emotions pouring out of him. I talked to him on the phone after they won and he said, `This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”‘
The task that awaits in Miami won’t be easy.
The Heat had a strange season a year ago – starting 11-30, finishing 30-11 and missing the playoffs in a tiebreaker. Dragic averaged a career-best 20.3 points, and emerged as a locker-room leader as the year went along. He also did what he could to persuade Heat free agents like Dion Waiters and James Johnson to stay.
“It’s a lot of new challenges ahead,” Dragic said. “I’m looking forward to come to Miami and to battle for a title in Miami. Nobody gave us a chance, the Slovenian national team. Nobody is going to give us a chance in Miami. But I always believe. Why not?”
An estimated 20,000 people stood in the pouring rain to greet the Slovenian team when it arrived home. The medal ceremony after the championship game became Slovenia’s most-watched television event in the country, at least since ratings started being kept. Dragic was told 94 percent of the nation was watching.
“I’m just proud of him,” Heat President Pat Riley said. “And I’m proud that we have him.”
Before 1991, both Serbia and Slovenia were part of Yugoslavia. Hence, the family ties for Dragic still exist.
“Playing for my national team for the past 12 years, you’re always waiting to achieve something, and as soon as we won the final all the burden from my shoulders fell down,” he said. “I felt so happy. And, of course, on the other side, I have family in Serbia. But I was born in Slovenia … it was not a question that I was going to do everything to bring them a title.”