Goran Dragic has been on such a good run over the past six months it had him in a joking mood last week.
“I think after this season I could just retire,” the Heat’s 31-year-old point guard said about an hour after learning his former teammate Dwyane Wade had been reacquired at the NBA trade deadline.
“You know what I mean?” Dragic continued. “It’s been an unbelievable year for me, for my family. I’m still hungry. I still want to win a championship. Hopefully that will happen in my life. But first of all, nobody expected us to win a gold medal [at EuroBasket 2017 last September]. That was our first gold medal in team sports in Slovenian history. It’s a really huge deal. And then to be MVP [of that tournament] and then make the All-Star game, it’s something great, something special.”
It truly is amazing how much Dragic’s fortunes have changed. A year ago when the Heat was floundering following after an 11-30 start, Dragic was worried he was going to get traded amid reports Pat Riley was ready to hit the reset button with the entire Heat roster.
Now, Dragic is on a postage stamp back home in Slovenia, Europe’s Basketball Player of the Year for 2018, and in Los Angeles this weekend for his first career All-Star game. He’ll become the third-oldest guard in NBA history to achieve that feat at 31 years and 279 days old — only Sam Cassell (34 years, 89 days) and Kyle Korver (33 years, 335 days) were older.
Yes, it took a couple injuries for Dragic to land a spot on Team LeBron for Sunday’s game. But Dragic (17.4 points per game, 4.7 assists per game) earned his spot by getting the neccessary votes from coaches around the conference — and he’s going to relish every second of it.
Not only are his wife and two young children along for the trip, but Dragic flew his parents over from Slovenia to enjoy the experience with him too.
“He’s one of the tough competitors in our league, a tough-minded guy,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who will coach Dragic in the All-Star Game. “One of the guys who’s made a lot out of his career. He’s made himself into a great NBA player. He’s one of the tough left-handed point guards.
“He reminds me of Gail Goodrich of the old Lakers just the way he goes. You know he’s going left. He may go right a couple of dribbles but he’s coming back left and he’s just an old-school my kind of point guard. I was glad to see [him make the All-Star team as an injury replacement]. He’s an elite point guard in our league.”
Earning that kind of praise around the league has taken Dragic some time, but it’s been an interesting ride to becoming the ninth player in Heat history to earn an All-Star spot.
It all started in a humble studio apartment in Slovenia where there was enough room for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bed for his parents and another bed with a pullout he shared with his younger brother Zoran, who got traded to the Heat from Phoenix with him three years ago and now plays overseas in Turkey.
“When the war started, my father [Marinko] ran away from Bosnia and started a new life in Slovenia when he was 19,” Dragic said. “First he started in a factory making parts for cars and boats. Then he met my mom. They got married and me and Z came out. My mom [Mojca], all those years and she still is working in a book factory where they make calendars, books, posters, newspapers. I actually worked there. It was my first job. I drove a forklift. It was not the one with the steering wheel, but one you walk with.”
Dragic said there wasn’t enough money for him and his brother growing up to go to the movies, but there was always food on the table and whatever else they needed to get by. Basketball, though, took him places. After signing a contract at 16, which paid him 500 euros a month to play in Slovenia’s second division, he moved the family into a bigger apartment. Then, when he moved up to Slovenian Basketball League a year later, he bought a three bedroom apartment his parents, Zoran and him could each have their own bedroom.
When he turned 18, the dreams he had for years of playing in the NBA, finally started to feel within reach.
“My best friend, who is coming to Miami in March, his family had decent money,” Dragic said. “His dad was a doctor. So he had a computer and always downloaded NBA games on his computer to watch them. That’s how I got engaged with the NBA.”
The NBA, though, didn’t become engaged with Dragic until they saw him shine against Spurs point guard Tony Parker in the 2007 European basketball championships. It was longtime NBA scout Todd Quinter who passed his name up the chain with the Suns to David Griffin (former championship winning general manager of the Cavaliers) and Steve Kerr (two-time NBA championship coach). It eventually led Phoenix to acquire Dragic in a swap of 2008 second round picks with the Spurs.
Phoenix’s plan at the time was to groom Dragic become the heir apparent to two-time MVP Steve Nash at point guard. But things got complicated, and after being traded to Houston where he and Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry wrestled for the starting job, Dragic found himself back in Phoenix a second time where he earned All-NBA third team honors in 2014. Then, Riley acquired him at the trade deadline in 2015, hoping to pair him with Chris Bosh, Luol Deng and Wade to make a run at Cleveland.
Things just didn’t work out as planned, and now Dragic is the undisputed leader of this Heat team on a relatively affordable contract that has two years left (including a player option in 2019-20). Dragic said he hopes to have the chance to finish his career here after that.
“I really love this organization and how they treat players, how they make you play,” Dragic said. “It’s an awesome fan base here, awesome city. Every player wants to stay as long as they can with a team that you like. That’s my hope. You never know what can happen. I understand it’s a business. But I want to play a lot more years here.
“Even when those [trade] rumors were really loud last year and it was hard... it’s good to have that in my head. Because it pushes me. It pushes me to work. If I start thinking I’m settled, untouchable then you relax and it’s bad for me, bad for everybody. I don’t want that feeling.”