| His was the classic tale of a truly gifted young talent being betrayed by a moment's misfortune. But six years after doctors told Sani Becirovic that he would never play basketball professionally again due to a brutal knee injury, the Lottomatica Roma guard has been chosen the November MVP in the Euroleague. The culmination of his comeback was two years ago, when he became Euroleague champion with Panathinaikos. But now Becirovic has entered a new phase of his career, reclaiming the mantle of team leader that his youthful accomplishments all but promised him - until his injury in 2002. "It was not only the doctors saying I would not be able to play again, but that I might not walk normally, that it would be a miracle if I did," Becirovic recalls in a Euroleague.net interview. "It only proves that if you are a big enough believer, miracles can happen. Every time I step on the court, I try to keep that in mind, that not so many years ago, I was a young kid with his dreams taken away by a knee injury. But a miracle happened."
Sani, congratulations for being chosen November MVP. Did you have any feeling, going into the month, that this team was ready to take off?
"After we lost our first game to Alba, we were pretty disappointed. But at the same time that that we were disappointed, it gave us what we needed to get closer and get where we are now. We saw that playing as a team, we were very strong. Playing like individuals, on the other hand, none of us could win the game by himself. I think now that it was good that we lost the first game to Alba the way we did, because it motivated us to work even harder as a team."
Going game by game in November, the first stop was Ljubljana and your old team Olimpija. You seemed super-motivated to be home again in that game...
"Every time I go there, of course, I get to play in front of friends and family for a change. Not just me, but I think every player who visits his own country tries to do a little more and show that he still can play well. You want to show your friends what you are doing abroad. I was motivated like never before that night. And I think god that things worked out. We won and I played well. Mot of all, it was a really important win for the team. It gave us confidence, the thing we needed at the start of this streak."
Maybe the crown jewel of the month was beating Tau in Vitoria. Tell us about that game going in and how you guys pulled it off?
"We knew that Tau has an excellent team and for I don't know how long didn't lose at home. At the same time, we were full of confidence after the game in Ljubljana, and even though we lost in Italy the game in between, it could not shake our confidence. We went to Vitoria with a mission that seemed totally impossible, to win a game at Tau. And we did it. We followed the game plan and sure we had some luck with a couple balls, but in the end, we deserved it."
Last week, at home against Fenerbahce, in some ways seemed the toughest game. At least watching, nothing seemed sure for your team until the buzzer sounded...
"The thing is that in the last two weeks, we have had more injuries than people know. Many players have been playing with perhaps small things, but still injuries that limit you and don't give you the possibility to play at 100 percent. If that happens to one guy, OK, no problem. But if there are five or six guys on the team struggling, playing only games and going to therapy, no practice in between, unfortunately it shows. We had a full infirmary and were just trying to keep guys in good enough shape to play the games. It was obvious against Fenerbahce and more obvious again Sunday when we lost in the Italian League against Bologna in double overtime. At the end, we couldn't give anymore. In that sense, yes, I agree that Fenerbahce was our toughest win of the month in the Euroleague, even though it was the only home game. And this is why, because of health problems."
First place alone halfway through the Euroleague regular season: how much does that mean, from your experience?
"It's great. And it's something that no one expected. Only a few of us believed we can pull something off like this, a winning streak like this. But I repeat that I believe in my teammates and in Coach Repesa a lot. I believe that we have a good group of players and that we can do much more now that we've proven to everyone, and proven to ourselves especially, that we are serious when we talk about going a step further than this team did last year."
How much did Dejan Bodiroga and Jasmin Repesa being here as GM and coach, respectively, influence your decision to join Roma?
"It was big, very big, to have Dejan here. He's a role mod for all of us players who come from ex-Yugoslavia. To have the privilege to be talked into something by Dejan, when he says he really wants you to be one of the top guys on a team that goes for the best results, it feels very good. To hear that from someone who won everything and knows basketball the way he knows it definitely helped in making my decision. The other major factor I can't not talk about was Jasmin Repesa. I know him, I know his work and I knew exactly what I was getting into. It took just five minutes of talking to him to get the whole idea of what he would ask of me and my role on this team. Once I was done talking to him, five minutes later, the deal was done."
Still, was it difficult to leave Panathinaikos after winning the Euroleague title there, which was kind of a culmination to your comeback from serious injury a few years earlier?
"It was really, really hard to leave Panathinaikos, yeah. I felt great there, the guys were great, everything surrounding the team was like it should be, organization-wise. For me, Athens was always good. On the other hand, I had not been given the chance in the last months to prove my quality as a player. When I talked to Zeljko Obradovic privately, I was straight with him. I wanted to see if I could be the leader of a top European team, to get minutes and be the go-to guy. He didn't try to convince me otherwise. He said he thought I should try for that and thanked me for what I did there. There were no hard feelings or nothing in the way of problems or complaints about me not playing the last two months. It was just a talk between a coach and a player about me leaving to try for something more. It was hard for me, but on the other hand, I was looking forward to just what I have found here in Rome."
What do you trying to bring from your experience in Europe to help Roma's otherwise all-American backcourt with Ibby Jaaber, Allan Ray and Brandon Jennings?
"I wouldn't say they have so much adjusting to do, except maybe Brandon because it's his first season in Europe. Ibby and Allan have been around and know a lot. My thing with them is just to try to show them the big picture here, that every game matters in Europe. The result matters. What doesn't matter is if you look nice, make spectacular plays all game and then lose. This is the biggest difference I see between America and Europe, maybe. It's the one thing that all Europeans - not just coaches, but players, too - try to help Americans understand. There are no easy games here. There is always pressure because the result matters every time."
You were only 20 years old when you were injured and doctors said to forget a basketball career, something you prepared for all your life. What brought you back from that lowest moment?
"Many things brought me back. First of all my family, friends and wife believed in me and gave me strength to the overcome the difficulties that my kind of injury brings. I am thankful to all of them for having so much faith in me and supporting me in something more than difficult moments, moments that can only be described as hell. It was not only the doctors saying I would not be able to play again, but that I might not walk normally, that it would be a miracle if I did. It only proves that if you are a big enough believer, miracles can happen. Every time I step on the court, I try to keep that in mind, that not so many years ago, I was a young kid with his dreams taken away by a knee injury. But a miracle happened."
You are still only 27. After all you've been through, good and bad, what do you want most for your career now and in the future?
"Most of all, I want to be healthy and to enjoy playing the game of basketball. It's something I really love. Career-wise, I want to win something with Rome, for this team that chose me to be one of its leaders. It's another step and I hope during the span of my three-year contract to win trophies here. At the end of the day, it is here where I am doing what I always expected, what I was supposed to do when I was young, before the injury: to be a leader of one of the important teams in Europe. All my skills from before my injury are back. The only main difference is that I changed my view of the game. Before I was a scorer looking to score in every situation. That was my main concern, because I could score in many ways. Now, I am trying more to involve my teammates and to do what it takes to win. That is not just scoring, but also other things: sharing, making your teammates comfortable, making them feel better on the court. The injury changed me in that way - for the better."