Call him the adopted son of Berlin basketball. Barely a year after his arrival from Croatia in 2004, Matej Mamic had formed a unique bond with Alba Berlin. Going into his second season in the German capital, the team had made him its captain and its supporters had named a fan club for him. Their bond would soon grow stronger than either side could have expected, however. On November 26, 2005, while going for one more rebound in a career full of them, Mamic crashed to the floor. It was the early fourth quarter of a German League game, and after Mamic hit the back of his head on the floor, he did not get up. Alba's fans at Max Schmeling Halle were speechless as Mamic, who lay motionless, was airlifted by helicopter to a trauma center and the game suspended. For hours after the accident. Mamic could not move from the neck down.
This week, Mamic is returning to Berlin as a guest of Euroleague Basketball at the 2009 Final Four, but it is just the latest of his many triumphant returns. The first of those happened just three months following his career-ending accident. Shortly after his 31st birthday, Mamic strode to center court to the cheers of a 10,000-strong sellout crowd of Alba fans who for the previous few months had despaired - as doctors had - of ever seeing Mamic walk again. "Everyone knew I was coming to the game, but I think they wondered how I would be," Mamic recalls. "It was my first time out of the hospital."
Before the accident, Mamic had been the picture of athletic health while coming up through the ranks at one of the storied clubs of modern basketball in Split, Croatia. He debuted on the Split pro team as a strapping 20-year-old forward in 1995. He then moved for two years to another Croatian team, Rijeka, where he turned into a double-digit scorer for the rest of the decade. His return to Split for another season was just as solid, so much so that foreign teams came offering contracts. Mamic took his first opportunity to play abroad by signing in Turkey for Galatasaray. Croatia would not be without Mamic for long, however. The next season he was back with Cibona Zagreb as a starter helping the team reach the Euroleague playoffs. By 2001-02, he was a double-digit scorer in the Euroleague, too, as Cibona reached the Top 16 two seasons in a row.
After the 2003-04 next season, Alba called Mamic asking him to join a long-term project. "The hardest thing was to go away from the Euroleague, where I had been playing for four years," Mamic says. "But I also knew that Alba was one of the top European teams in terms of organization. I asked a lot of people about Alba, and they said, 'You won't make the wrong decision signing there'. As soon as I started living there, I knew right away that Berlin was a great city and Alba one of the top European teams to play for."
The feeling was mutual. Halfway through his first season, Mamic was asked to be the team’s defensive captain, and soon the supporters were starting what was one of the first fan clubs devoted to a single player in Berlin basketball history. Going into his second season on the team, Mamic was chosen the full-fledged captain for what was an impressive roster. Alba began the domestic season with nine consecutive wins, and though it was still looking for its first ULEB Cup victory, Mamic scored his career high in European competition, 25 points, on November 22, 2005.
Four days later, during the early fourth quarter of a German League game, Mamic went up for the fateful rebound. He lost his balance coming down, hit the back of his head on the floor and he did not get up. Alba's fans were in shock and Mamic was still motionless as he was airlifted by helicopter to a trauma center and the game suspended. For hours after the accident. Mamic could not move from the neck down.
In the weeks that followed, as he fought back from near-paralysis, Mamic had more than just the best medical professionals Alba could find at his side. He also had thousands of Alba basketball lovers with him every step of the way.
"They were always sending things to me, but it was only after 15 or 20 days, when I could go in my wheel chair around the hospital, that I saw them," Mamic recalls. "They were waiting for me, to give me pictures and cards. There was one with 6,000 signatures. Or they sent individual cards and filled forums on the Internet wishing me to get well. Most important to me was a photo they made just three days after the injury, in the next ULEB Cup game. Everyone was behind the basket at Max Schmeling Halle, thousands of people waving signs. Believe me, that picture inspired me when I was down and things were not going how I wanted them to go. I looked at that picture on my hospital room wall, and it motivated me for the day when I would be back with them."
Three months later, despite the suspicions of doctors that he might not walk again, Mamic made that unexpected return at an Alba home game. He came out under his own power and walked across the court with his hands raised to the crowd, spoke to them from the center of the court and then took pictures with everyone he could. "It was a great thing," Mamic says now. "People waited to have conversations with me after the game. It was an unbelievable moment for me.”
Later that spring, when Alba won the German Cup, the team’s stand-in captain insisted that Mamic come on the court and lift the trophy. One year later, despite great progress, Mamic listened to doctors who said the best thing for his young family would be to retire as a player. He stayed in Berlin, working as a coach in Alba's youth teams, until an opportunity in Croatia brought him home. Mamic is now sport director at the first-division Basketball Club Cedevita in Zagreb. He continues to visit Berlin about three times each year to see his doctors and keep feeling the love of the city that adopted him.
"This thing happened to me at the moment when I was playing the best basketball of my life," Mamic recalls. "I was the captain of the team and at that time had such a perfect connection with the Alba fans. Of course, how they handled things around me after the injury, how they gave me support, helped my recovery so much, I will never forget. Berlin will always be in my heart. Forever."