Long before Goran Dragic was driving to the basket in the NBA, a speedy lefty swerving around defenders with go-for-broke moves, he was a 12-year-old kid at the wheel of his father’s compact Mercedes-Benz, learning to navigate the narrow, winding streets of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital known for its bridges, castles and Old World plazas.
Dragic’s father, Marinko, was a driving instructor. He believed it was his duty to teach his two sons, Goran and Zoran (“Goki” and “Zoki”), to drive, and he started them early.
By 14, they were zipping down the highway on family holiday trips. Turns out their driving expertise is coming in handy as the Dragic brothers, traded to the Miami Heat from Phoenix on Feb. 19, get accustomed to South Florida drivers.
“We almost crashed three times since we got here, but not because of our fault,” said Zoran, who was sent to the Heat’s D-League team in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he will have more playing time. “People just go into you, it’s crazy. It’s totally different from Phoenix. When it’s raining there, everybody is driving 3 km per hour. Here, it’s the same as in Europe. They drive crazy.”
Asked what he thinks of Miami drivers, older brother Goran smiled sheepishly.
“I didn’t want to say anything bad because I really love Miami, but it looks like the drivers don’t follow the line here. The line doesn’t mean anything to them,” Dragic said. “But I’m a good driver because of my dad, so I am handling it.”
Fitting in with his Heat teammates has been far less intimidating than I-95.
After a few games together, Dragic and Dwyane Wade looked like a longtime backcourt tandem, exchanging passes at the slightest glance. When Wade heaved a floor-length pass against the Lakers on March 4, a sprinting Dragic arrived just in time to snag it before it went out of bounds.
Later that night, with three minutes to go and the game on the line, Wade had an open look for a three-pointer, but deferred to Dragic, who nailed it from the top of the key to put the Heat up 90-88. The fans went berserk, as they did earlier in the game when the scoreboard showed a replay of Dragic diving between two Lakers for a loose ball.
He said Heat management has gone out of its way to make his transition seamless. They had his Mercedes C63 AMG shipped from Phoenix, helped him get his Florida driver’s license and offered restaurant recommendations and local traffic tips. And they will help his wife, Maja, shop for a house. She is moving to Miami in two weeks with their 1-year-old son, Mateo, and another baby on the way, due in late August.
FROM SUNS TO HEAT
Dragic, 28, was ready for a change of scenery after the past three seasons in Phoenix, and the Heat was searching for a true point guard. Miami wound up with a 2014 All-NBA third-team selection also voted the league’s Most Improved Player.
He is one of only three NBA players — along with LeBron James and Kevin Durant — averaging at least 18 points and five rebounds while shooting 50 percent since the start of last season. Dragic has averaged 18.6 points and 5.1 assists with 50.3 percent shooting.
(Bonus: Dragic speaks Spanish. He played two seasons in Spain, and though his Spanish is a bit rusty, he said it is coming back as he does interviews with Miami Spanish-language media and encounters Spanish speakers around town. His wife, a former dancer, wants to take salsa lessons with him once she arrives in Miami. Dragic says he is “a terrible dancer” and refuses to join her.)
“It’s not as if we went after him because he was the only player available or we were picking somebody out of a hat,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It was very strategic. He was at the top of our list because of his playmaking, competitiveness and ability to be a two-way player. We love his engine. We got a guy who is able to get you easy opportunities in the open court and make the game easier for the other players. He is a high IQ player, and the transition will be fairly quick.”
His new teammates certainly are impressed.
“He pushes the tempo, he’s tough, gritty, a great finisher, puts a lot of pressure on the defense,” Wade said. “It’s been good to have him on our side. Gives us opportunity knowing you have a point guard that’s going to do the job you need him to do. I am enjoying getting to know him as a player and a person. We are all getting used to his style.”
Said forward Udonis Haslem: “Point guard has been an issue for us, and now we’ve got a real, real crafty, intelligent, veteran point guard we can depend on every night.”
SOCCER TO BASKETBALL
It wasn’t always Dragic’s dream to play in the NBA. He and his brother started out as soccer players and diehard fans of Italian club AC Milan. They are now Real Madrid fanatics. Their father played, and they were quite skilled with the ball at their feet. But when Goran was 12, he cut open his left shin while playing hide-and-seek with friends.
He fell on an iron post and got a huge gash that required minor surgery. The scar is still visible. His mother, Mojca, who played club basketball until she became pregnant with Goran at age 21, suggested her boys switch to her sport. They were left-handed shooters, just like her, and she thought they would have a future in the game.
Basketball was the second-most-popular sport to soccer in Slovenia, and the boys enjoyed both, so they made the switch. Their father helped them work on their game by enticing them with ice cream.
“Me and my brother played against my father two-on-one for gelato,” Dragic said. “We were little kids, he was physically stronger, a man. Me and Zoki were always competitive, always wanted to win. But we never beat him because he was always cheating with the counting. He’d score, suddenly he got three points. In the end, though, he always bought us a gelato. It is still my favorite dessert.”
Goran joined local club Ilirija Ljubljana at age 17 and signed his first pro contract with them for $300 a month. Zoran also signed with that club. Goran spent the next few years in the Slovenian and Spanish leagues and in 2008 was drafted No. 45 overall by the San Antonio Spurs, who then traded him to Phoenix.
He will never forget draft night. It was 5 a.m. in Slovenia when his name finally came up. He was at a national team training camp, alone in his room, watching the draft live on his laptop computer.
“When I saw my name, it was such joy,” he said. “A dream come true. I was getting a chance to go to America and play in the NBA.”
COMING TO AMERICA
It took him a while to adjust to American life and the level of play in the NBA.
“Different culture, language, food tastes different,” he said. “It was a big challenge for me. Even in Europe, I like to play fast, that was not something new for me. But guys here are stronger, more athletic, so that was the main thing. I can get to the paint, but it was really tough to finish over the guys. I had to practice to put some moves on. I did it and I’m still here.”
He said veteran Steve Nash became an instant mentor when he arrived in Phoenix.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Steve,” he said. “Just watching him every day helped my game. He was a big influence on me.”
Becoming a father also had a profound effect on Dragic.
“Before, after a bad game, I didn’t fall asleep till 3 a.m. because I was watching tape,” he said. “Now, when you come back, you forget everything bad that happened in the game because your baby is smiling at you. He doesn’t care. He loves you no matter what. It gave me perspective on life.”
Although the Dragic brothers are now separated, with Zoran in South Dakota, they feel blessed that they have been able to play together on the Slovenian national team, and in limited times with the Suns and Heat.
“We each have our path, but it was really unbelievable for me to play on the same team with my big brother,” Zoran said. “Not too many brothers can say they played on the same NBA club.
“Especially not two brothers from Slovenia.”