It is always nice to be the first to do something, but as the 2006-07 Euroleague starts this week, there is one special player who is accomplishing something truly remarkable. When he takes the court on Thursday in Zagreb against Cibona, Union Olimpija forward Miha Zupan will be the first deaf player to play in a Euroleague game. Zupan was born without hearing and learned to speak over many years of effort at special schools before taking up basketball at the late age 14. Ten years later, he wears a special earpiece that lets him hear more than ever before and he will bounce, shoot and rebound the ball like any other Euroleague player. But just by being on the court, Miha Zupan will have done as much as any athlete to reach this opportunity. “Basketball changed my life,” Zupan told Euroleague.net. "I have learned to talk better with the ball in my hands." 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." How do you communicate with your teammates and coach on court? Do you hear fans during the games?
"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." You were the final cut from the Slovenian national team for the World Championships and two years ago you became the MVP at the Slovenian League All-Star game. So is the sky your only limit?
"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." 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." Let's speak about Union Olimpija. How far can your team go in Group B this season?
"As usual, Union Olimpija starts the season with a very different roster than last season. I think we have a good team with no stars, but with a lot of players who can score 15 points or decide any game. That's why we will be a difficult opponent for everyone, because our rivals will not know where the danger can come from. I don't know in which place we will finish this group, but I am sure we will be among the best five and make it to the Top 16." Who are your top candidates to win the Euroleague?
"In such a great championship like the Euroleague, in which each possession can decide the final outcome of any game, it is difficult to highlight a team. From my point of view, CSKA, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos are the clear favorites, but at the same time there are a lot of teams that can reach high. Professional sports are so complex that any injury, any bad night or any missed shot in crunch time can change a whole season."