A year after he had hoped to do so, Union Olimpija forward Miha Zupan will make one of the most important debuts in basketball history, when he suits up on Wednesday to become the first legally deaf player take part in the Euroleague. Zupan's remarkable journey to the Euroleague was made to wait a year due to a contractual dispute which led a Slovenian judge to order him off the Olimpija roster just hours before the team's first game last season. "It was like the world fell on top of me or the floor came out from under my feet," Zupan recalled. "I was very disappointed. All the expectation I had of playing in the Euroleague disappeared in one afternoon." This week, however, Zupan is readier than ever. Zupan is in Siena, Italy preparing to face Montepaschi in Olimpija's opening game on Wednesday. By video phone - which Zupan uses to the read lips or sign language of callers - he said that his dream is finally coming true. "After last year's disappointment, I worked as hard as possible knowing that I would have the chance again to play in the Euroleague," Zupan said. "So I am even more excited now. I have great pride in being the first deaf player to play in the Euroleague."
Below, read excerpts from an interview with Miha Zupan published on October 24, 2006:
Hello Miha. It's not often that a player is chosen for a Euroleague.net interview before he's even taken the floor for his first game. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
"I am a guy like any other, with the only difference being that since birth, I was not able to hear the world around me. That's why since childhood I went to a special school for deaf children, where little by little I learned to speak. I never thought I would be a basketball player, since I didn't have any contact with this sport until I was 14. I played football and volleyball. I must confess that it is a great honor for me to be chosen for this interview and it is an ideal opportunity to tell everyone who has some problems in life that there are no limits to achieving what your heart desires." So, at 24, you have been playing basketball for just 10 years. How did your career start?
"I was in the schoolyard when Jani Persic saw me and later became my first coach. I was not that tall back then - I later had a growth spurt of 20 centimeters in a year-and-a-half - but Jani told me I should try to play basketball. He gave me the ball and soon after that I was the best player on the Slovenian national team for deaf people. I made it to the European Championships final twice and at age 17 signed my first contract with a third-division team. Due to the quick growth spurt and my body not conditioned for so much forceful playing, I wound up with knee problems and I underwent an operation that kept me sidelined for six months." Starting to play basketball at 14 is pretty late. How much extra work did you have to do?
"I've never had problems with working hard. As a kid, I had to make a big effort to learn to speak and I think that precisely that lesson in working consistently helped me with basketball. At the same time, basketball changed my life. I have learned to talk better with the ball in my hands, because I had to communicate better with everyone around me."
Can you tell us the strong parts and the weaknesses of your game?
"I guess that my main weakness is my height. I play under the boards and I always find taller players in there. On the other hand, I have nice footwork and ballhandling, so I can handle the big guys really well. If there is no room for me under the boards, I can go outside and take the mid-range shot. I can also hit it from three-point range."
How do you communicate with teammates and coaches on court? Do you hear the fans cheer?
"Modern technology has changed a lot and has made our lives easier. I have a device in my ear which allows me to listen perfectly and with the ability to read lips I can often distinguish what my coach is saying from even further away than the other players. This device works in a way so that I can screen out the distant sounds and intensify those coming from closer. That way, I don't have any communication problems. I think I can say that in some ways, I can obey even better the instructions from our coach." Do you know of any other deaf players who play basketball at this level?
"I heard that there is an American player who takes part in the Lithuanian League. I am also aware of a Turkish guy who plays in Serbia, and long ago I met a German guy who also played in the top division. I am the first deaf player to play in the Euroleague and I want to become the first deaf player to play in the NBA." What are your goals going forward?
"The two big dreams I had when I started playing basketball were playing for Union Olimpija - which meant playing in the Euroleague - and becoming a member of the Slovenian national team. I fulfilled my first dream and I was about to get the second. Since I still have a long career in front of me, I think the national team is just some time away."