In the off-season 2011, the League was enlarged by Spartak St.Petersburg, led by Coach Jurij Zdovc, and Patrick Beverley played the role of the premiere violin on the floor. In their debut season, the team made it to the quarterfinals, where they lost to Lokomotiv. For Slovenian power forward Miha Zupan the 2011-2012 season became the second in the jersey of Spartak and the twelfth in the professional career:
– I was practicing and playing in Slovenia for 9 years. Many did not believe that I would be able to play outside my country, however, I spent 10 years abroad, performing successfully at a high level. After a successful season in Greece, I received an invitation from Spartak. These two years were the best in my whole career. The VTB League is a strong league, and I am glad that I played in it. Spartak gave me the opportunity to play equally with everyone, despite the fact that I am a deaf player. The team, city and fans will forever remain in my memory as pleasant memories.
Miha is deaf by birth and spent most of his childhood in a specialized school, where he learned to speak, and to hear after he has received hearing aids. This cheerful, curly-haired guy came to basketball at the age of 14 and a year later was invited to represent Slovenia at the Deaflympics (sports competition for people with hearing impairments), where the team took fifth place. In 2001 and 2005, Miha and his team won silver medals at the Deaflympics in Rome and Melbourne, respectively. In 2010 Zupan went to Turkey for the World Championship as part of the main Slovenian national team and finished at the 8th place. Four years later – the World Championship in Spain, where Slovenia lost to the Americans in the quarterfinals and became the seventh. He also has EuroBasket 2015 in his asset .
– My most deariest wish was to play for the National team. And I did it. I worked hard and get out of way to get into the team, and now I’m proud of it. I played for two National teams of Slovenia: for the main team and for the hearing impaired.
At the age of 17, Miha signed his first professional contract with Slovan from Ljubljana, where he played for the next six seasons. During this time, Miha participated in the All-Star Game of the Slovenian League twice, where in 2004 he not only received the MVP title, but also won the dunk competition. In 2006, Zupan became the player of Olympia from the same city Ljubljana, and in 2007 he has become the first deaf player in the history of the Euroleague. Three years at Olympia and two championships as a part of the team, then a season in Greece and then an offer from Spartak.
– Miha is an awesome guy, very cheerful, friendly, there have never been any problems with him on and off the court, – recalls Anton Ponkrashov, Miha’s teammate in Spartak. – We were generally a united team, we went somewhere together, had a rest and spent some time, and Miha was always with us. He loved to joke, he perfectly blended in our team, and many loved him exactly for his openness. There was no special attitude towards him in the team because of his deafness, and there was normal communication on the court, there were no gestures, there were never any problems in understanding. His basketball IQ was at a very high level, there were no difficulties with him. I think when you go on court, you must understand that everyone is equal here. And Miha went out and gave himself up like everyone else, and it seems to me that he set an example for many people.
At the games in St. Petersburg, Miha always had special support – a group of hard of hearing children and adolescents came to the stands of Yubileiny, for whom he became a real idol. He is an example that you can not just play basketball but do it successfully and at the highest level, especially for children who are at the very beginning of their life journey. In 2010, Miha Zupan was named the Best Hearing-Impaired Athlete of the Year in Slovenia.
– We deaf people are very connected to each other. I met friends in different countries, and St. Petersburg was like my own. Yes, there were special fans and I had the feeling that I give hope to others that they can achieve more in life.
In his deafness, Miha learned to find positive moments. Imagine a situation: the team’s locker room, the coach starts yelling at the players, Miha stretches like for a picture, scratches behind one ear, then behind the other, and sits with a smile until the end of the meeting. The trick was that in this way he turned off his hearing aids and protected himself from external negativity.
– This is my advantage! This way I can concentrate on the game and watch what is happening on the court. Yes, sometimes there are funny moments when I do not hear the referee’s whistle and continue to play, while the others have already stopped.
Miha still continues to play at a professional level. A year ago, he returned to his first club, Slovan and plans to play another season, help the team return to the first division and then finish his playing career. And he already has a plan for what to do next – Miha is going to devote himself entirely to the children’s basketball camp.
He already organized such camps from 2016 to 2018, and if this year the reason for canceling the camp lies on the surface, then last year he had to abandon the camp because of … dancing! Miha was offered to participate in the Slovenian analogue of the show “Dancing with the Stars”:
– It was amazing! I managed to make it to the finals and eventually take second place. It was a surprise to me that I was able to walk this far despite my deafness. I have never danced before, only on occasion, at parties and weddings. In general, it was three months of competition, my partner Maya Gershak is a professional in her field, she taught me a lot. We were a great dance couple and I still have great memories.
– It is a rule in our world to restrict people, and he showed and proved that he can play calmly at the highest level – says Anton Ponkrashov. – This is a very cool story. We remember these times in all the companies in which we discuss basketball, because Miha is really cool. Both a tough player and a tough person. Such stories should be told and shown as examples.
Photo: VTB United League archive, FIBA, personal archive of Miha Zupan, Miro Majcen.