Miami Heat

Heat players Goran Dragic, Luol Deng passionate about soccer

Goran Dragic, who grew up playing soccer in Slovenia, dribbles with a ball during the Heat’s media day.
Goran Dragic, who grew up playing soccer in Slovenia, dribbles with a ball during the Heat’s media day. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

If David Beckham and Miami-Dade County officials can ever get that Major League Soccer team going, they will have a set of built-in fans in the Heat locker room.

Goran Dragic and Luol Deng would be among the first to buy season tickets, and several of their teammates would likely follow suit.

“I think it’s exciting that Beckham is trying to put a team here,’’ Dragic said. “I would definitely go. There are a lot of good players in MLS — Andrea Pirlo in New York, [Didier] Drogba in Montreal, Kaka in Orlando. MLS is going up. Miami’s such a great destination, and so many soccer fans here. I’m surprised they don’t have a team here yet.”

Were it not for an ill-fated game of hide-and-seek that left him with a deep gash on his leg and a worried mother, Dragic might not be playing point guard for the Heat. He might be a midfielder for a European soccer club. That was his dream growing up in Slovenia, and he was quite skilled with the ball before his mom suggested he switch sports after the injury.

Deng also spent his childhood playing soccer, in Sudan and England. He played with tennis balls and makeshift balls made of rolled-up socks. Sometimes, the kids would put a towel over a balloon, wrap it in duct tape and play with that.

Deng, a striker and forward, was such a standout for his school soccer team that he was invited to try out for England’s Under-15 team. Right around that time, he was also invited to camp for England’s youth basketball team, and he chose to make basketball his priority.

Dragic and Deng are the most passionate soccer fans on the Heat roster, but there are others with a deep and growing interest in the sport. They often watch European soccer matches on the team bus and in the locker room, and debate about whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the better player. They tease Deng every time his beloved Arsenal Gunners lose a match.

Heat rookie Justise Winslow never played soccer, but he has gotten hooked in recent years, largely because of the FIFA video game. He, Josh Richardson, James Ennis and Tyler Johnson are among the most avid FIFA video gamers on the team.

“In college, I hung out at friend’s house in the afternoons, watching soccer and playing video games,” Winslow said. “In between classes, those 2 p.m. games were on from Europe, so that’s how I fell into it. I like AC Milan. I like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, his ponytail. I used to think they just run around in soccer, but as I got older, I’ve learned to appreciate it. I love the crazy goals, the bicycle kicks, the atmosphere and hype around it. I want to go overseas and see a game live, soak it all in, the chants and all that.’’

Winslow said if he played he’d “probably be a sick goalie.”

John Lucas III played center midfield on a traveling team as a kid in Houston and was a diehard fan of the Houston Dynamos. He played through middle school but then decided to focus on basketball and tennis. His love affair with soccer was rekindled when he went overseas to play in the Spanish basketball league.

“Every time you turn on the TV in Spain, soccer is on,” Lucas III said. “I was there when Real Madrid first got Ronaldo. They’re like rock stars over there. Basketball’s big, but nothing like soccer. Just seeing the parades they do for them, I was like, ‘Wow!’ 

It is soccer players’ footwork and stamina that most impress the Heat players.

“They’ve gotta have crazy footwork, and I think soccer players are in the best shape as athletes because of their constant sprints,” Lucas III said. “It’s amazing the things they do out there, constantly going.’’

Dragic said although he now passes with his hands rather than his feet, the early experiences with soccer were instrumental in his development.

“When you play soccer, you need to have vision where to pass the ball while you’re running,” he said. “You need to make the pass not to the guy, but a little farther if he is running. You need to anticipate. In basketball, you have to do the same thing, especially on fast breaks. I learned to do that on the soccer field.”

Deng said his soccer background “definitely helps me with footwork and stamina.” He has been a diehard Arsenal fan since he was 10 years old and also follows MLS. When he played for the Chicago Bulls, he attended many MLS Fire games and became friends with Fire players.

Dragic and Deng both like to play pickup soccer, bug Dragic said he hasn’t played since he joined the Heat last season.

“This offseason I didn’t play any soccer because it’s a contact sport, and I worry about injuries,” he said. “Instead, I played tennis. But maybe when my little fellow [his 1-year-old son Mateo] gets bigger, I’ll get back out there and teach him the game.“

Heat players’ favorite soccer teams

Chris Bosh: English Premier League

Mario Chalmers: USA/Real Madrid

Luol Deng: Arsenal

Goran Dragic: Real Madrid

James Ennis: Manchester United

Gerald Green: Real Madrid

Corey Hawkins: Manchester United

Tyler Johnson: Bayern Munich

John Lucas III: Barcelona

Josh Richardson: Real Madrid/Arsenal

Amar’e Stoudemire: Chelsea

Greg Whittington : Real Madrid

Justise Winslow: Bayern Munich and AC Milan

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