Anze Kopitar, Goran Dragic And The Rise Of Slovenia

In 2014, the mythical home of dragons started slaying them in the sports world.

It was the middle of the night in the United States in February, and Slovenia was preparing to play a hockey game in Sochi, Russia. Before the puck dropped, the Slovenes had already become the story of the tournament. At the close of 2013, Slovenia was 17th in the IIHF World Rankings, one spot behind Kazakhstan and two ahead of Hungary.

Mere months later, the Slovenes took the ice against the Russians, Americans and Slovaks. Getting there was a near miracle in itself. Without center Anze Kopitar, the nation's best ever player and a bona fide star for the Los Angeles Kings, Slovenia finished ahead of Olympic mainstays Germany and Belarus, and up-and-comer Denmark in the qualifying tournament to reach the Black Sea resort city.

Kopitar was on the ice in Sochi. His father, Matjaz, was behind the bench. With only one NHLer to its name, Slovenia brought a carefree attitude to the games. It was highlighted by the team's sweater, a tapestry of blue, white, and neon green fit with stars and mountains — an homage to the Slovenia coat of arms — that even California Golden Seals fans would call into question. Sure, the ensemble eschewed hockey tradition, but Slovenia had no hockey tradition. Hell, it barely has hockey at all. The country of 2 million is home to seven indoor rinks.

You could forgive the Slovenes — even Kopitar, father and son — for enjoying their stay at the expense of victory.

Just being there was fun. So, too was beating Slovakia, a semifinalist in 2010, 3-1 in the group stage, and Austria, 4-0 in the medal round. Slovenia trailed Sweden 1-0 going into the third period of their quarterfinal matchup before bowing out 5-0 to the eventual silver medalists.

It was the high point of Slovenian hockey — equivalent to the highest peak in Kansas — if only on the team level. Four months later, Anze Kopitar led the playoffs in scoring as the Kings lifted their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

It was January 30, a week before Sochi's opening ceremony. The NBA had just announced the reserves for February's All-Star Game. Slovenian Goran Dragic, to the surprise of many, was not among them. Experts quickly listed him as one of the event's biggest snubs. After all, the 27-year-old was leading the Phoenix Suns, thought to be a lottery team prior to the season, through a scintillating campaign that had Phoenix fighting for a playoff spot. Dragic averaged 20.3 points and 5.9 assists per game, shot 40 percent from three and 50 percent from the field, and joined Eric Bledsoe to form one of the league's most dynamic backcourts. The Suns missed the postseason, but the writers made good where the coaches erred. Dragic was named to the All-NBA Third Team.

At the close of summer, the hybrid guard led Slovenia to the quarterfinals of the newly minted FIBA World Cup. He and brother Zoran scored nearly 30 points per game in the tournament. They'll look to replicate that success in Phoenix. Zoran signed with the Suns in September.

There is an argument to be made that Slovenia, with its miniscule population, is the best athletic nation per capita on the planet. Only four countries in the last decade have qualified for the FIFA World Cup, basketball's World Championships (now the World Cup) and the Winter Olympics in men's ice hockey: the United States, Russia, Germany and Slovenia (Italy also achieved the feat, but only because Torino hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics. The Italians failed to win any of their five hockey games). Those nations rank third, 10th, 19th and 148th in population, respectively.

It's not just team sports, either. Alpine skier Tina Maze took home gold medals in the Giant Slalom and the Downhill at Sochi after winning the 2013 Overall World Cup. She also happens to be a pop star, but that's besides the point.

There is an argument to be made that Slovenia, with its miniscule population, is the best athletic nation per capita on the planet.

The banner year for Slovenia athletics culminated this week when Kopitar became the first Slovenian to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. He shares the space with fellow Los Angeles star Clayton Kershaw. Both are worthy of the spotlight — although they both shun it — but only Kopitar's presence represents a transcendent moment. It's so implausible that it sounds ordinary. Distinguishing the first Slovenian on SI is like recalling that Neil Armstrong was the first American on the moon. Of course he was. Eric Nusbaum, the author who penned the accompanying article, calls Kopitar “the perfect player.” With his size (6-foot-3, 224 pounds), offensive prowess (seven 20-goal, 60-point seasons) and defensive acumen (second in Selke Trophy voting, given to the NHL's best defensive forward), he's not far off.

Nor is Goran Dragic. He's a slasher and a jump shooter, equally adept at driving the lane and pulling up from three. His demeanor gives the impression that he's cool under pressure. His play proves it.

Both have been an utter joy to watch in 2014, which also happens to be the 75-year anniversary of my grandfather's emigration from the region. Slovenia wasn't yet a country. In fact, it wouldn't be until 1991 when it peacefully separated from Yugoslavia, not a small feat in the Powder Keg of Europe. My grandfather had two choices in 1939: head to Nazi Germany or make his way to America to join some relatives. The solution wasn't so simple, especially for a teenager. He chose the latter route and later joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. He couldn't speak English.

I won't soon forget my grandfather's courage, nor will I overlook my status as a Slovenian-American. He wasn't a sports fan by any means, but he watched me play hockey when he could. A Slovenian flag flew outside his house. One flew outside mine as well.

He died in 2006. Slovenia's rise in athletics, led by Kopitar and Dragic, reminds me of the man. If you met him, you'd never think of him as an underdog. You certainly wouldn't call him a Cinderella. But that doesn't mean he didn't overcome obstacles to make it in America — and for America. Thanks to sports, Slovenia is now firmly on the map, even if Boogie Cousins can't find it.

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