A memorable trip across the continent to a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague game turned into a magical basketball weekend earlier this month for two devoted fans, a father and son from FYROM, thanks in large part to a superpower club and its resident legend rising to the occasion!
Round 10's clash of titans at Palau Blaugrana between host FC Barcelona Lassa and Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens was a special occasion for 39-year old Vlatko Atanasoski and his father Mihajlo. The two men, who have long been passionate fans of the EuroLeague, not to mention successful former players in their hometown of Prilep, travelled to see the game in person as a special moment they wanted to share together.
Basketball has been a great influence on the lives of both Vlatko and Mihajlo, which resulted with a deep and never-ending love story between them and the orange ball. But they never could have imagined that the sport that provided them with so much joy throughout the years would also play a life-saving role for one of them just four years ago.
It was Mihajlo - a former player who during his 17-year career once scored 66 points in a basketball game - who planted a love for basketball in Vlatko decades ago, when he was just a five-year old boy in the early 1980s. Vlatko also played for years.
"We have lived through many years of profound moments brought on by the majesty of games," Vlatko says.
Between them, EuroLeague games have often been on top of their TV-viewing pleasures, topics of their discussions and conversations, and a source of numerous shared memories for them.
"I think my father never missed a EuroLeague game on TV," Vlatko says.
Even so, Mihajlo had never had the chance to see a EuroLeague game in person and to experience the ultimate enjoyment level of seeing two top teams battle it out on the floor.
Unfortunately, the two had a terrible traffic accident in the summer of 2012. Both suffered serious injuries, but the father was in particularly bad condition and spent two weeks in intensive care at the hospital and was lucky to survive and eventually recover. He also suffered a severe case of amnesia. And what helped him during the recovery period to battle such heavy loss of memory was talking extensively about basketball.
"That was the theme through which he was able to recover his memories the easiest," Vlatko said. "Step by step, after a year, he was back to his old self!"
And when all was well again, Vlatko was waiting with a very special idea.
"When he got back home, I promised myself that when I was able to afford it, I would take him to one live EuroLeague game," Vlatko explained. "I managed to buy tickets for a game which I found that would be a real illustration of the period when we as a family enjoyed the magic of basketball: Barça against PAO, the clash of the giants."
What Vlatko also did for this early December game on a Friday night was turn to EuroLeague Basketball for some help. Explaining his story in a letter, he asked if it would be possible during this once-in-a-lifetime trip for him and his father to have their photo taken with two players who would miss the game with injury, but whom he and his father considered to be their favorite players on each team: Juan Carlos Navarro and James Gist.
While Panathinaikos forward Gist could not make the trip due to his recent injury, the morning after the game, FC Barcelona Lassa and Navarro, the EuroLeague scoring king, answered the call and made it a day to remember – and much more - for these two devoted basketball lovers.
Vlatko and his father spent Saturday morning at the Joan Gamper Training Facilities, having unforgettable moments with Barcelona's basketball team at their morning training session.
It was already a surprise when Navarro himself actually waited for them at the entrance of the gym. But the EuroLeague Legend greeting his and Barcelona's visitors with a friendly hug and plenty of enthusiasm was just a start of things to come.
"At that moment I was so overwhelmed that I was unable to follow the rhythm my heart was beating in," Vlatko said afterward.
The two passionate EuroLeague fans and Navarro admirers had a very friendly chat with Juan Carlos about the previous night's game and shared memories of great games in the past.
"He was so friendly and natural that I felt that we are long-time friends," Vlatko said. "On his proposal, we were even allowed to have a shooting session with him, which was more than the wildest of dreams!"
Vlatko and his dad received a jersey from Navarro that he signed "From your friend La Bomba Navarro", making it a basketball memento for the ages.
"The jersey came as an unexpected surprise that I will keep close to me forever," Vlatko said. "I immediately put it on."
If that already was not enough, at Navarro's suggestion, father and son were allowed to attend the Barcelona practice session and take a look at the preparation process of one of the most storied clubs in European basketball history.
"Everything was organized to go so smoothly that we felt like we belonged there," Vlatko says.
He and his father went back to FYROM full of fabulous impressions and memories, something they will never ever forget.
"My father still cannot believe it all, he still feels like he is in a dream," Vlatko said. "And for me, just thinking about all that has happened brings tears to my eyes."
"EuroLeague enabled us to live our dream as father and son. Without a doubt it has been possible to have the best day in my life without any exaggeration."