It's fair to say that no other player in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague appreciates the opportunity to play in the continent's top competition more than Zanis Peiners.
The Darussafaka Tefken Istanbul forward has taken a longer, slower and more indirect route to the top than most of his peers, due to a rare heart condition which first arose when he was a teenager in his native Latvia and regularly threatened to completely derail his career.
Recalling the first time the problem arose, Peiners takes up the story: "We were playing a friendly game before an Under 16 Championship, and it was the last game before they named the roster for the national team so it was important. I went onto the court and at first everything was normal. But then suddenly a problem started with my heart – it was beating with an irregular rhythm. So I came to the bench, the doctor tested me and told me he didn't like what was happening and I could not play. I was taken out of the team. The head coach said he would still take me, but the doctor wouldn't allow it."
Still a boy with big dreams, it was some tough news for Peiners to swallow. "I almost had tears in my eyes, but I tried to stay strong and fight through it. I tried to tell myself: 'It's happened, I can't do anything about it.' But I was so disappointed. When you’re young and trying to get onto the national team, that's really important. I was so close, but I didn't make it because of a heart problem I had never felt before, and that was an emotional moment for me. I've had similar situations nearly every year since, but I've never had the same emotions as the first time."
'We had a bunch of players like me who couldn't get onto other teams so we all wanted to prove them wrong.'
Peiners underwent tests which revealed there was no serious problem with his heart so he was able to continue playing, but he was advised to take precautions.
"I didn’t feel bad on or off the court. It was just an irregular rhythm, nothing else," he explained. "The doctor told me it would be much more serious if I felt dizzy as well, but that never happened. So I carried on playing basketball, but I wasn't able to play at 100 percent because I had to be careful with my health.
"I started to be able to identify those moments when it might be coming and prepare myself. Most of the time it happens when I'm sitting on the bench, the coach calls me to play and I stand up quickly, go into the game and immediately run one or two sprints. So it's like a sudden stress situation, and off the basketball court it's happened a couple of times in a similar way, suddenly standing up. Sometimes it goes away after 15 seconds, but when it becomes longer I can usually get rid of it by thinking about something else or doing something else. Sometimes that doesn't help and I need to sleep for half an hour, and then it's okay again."
Despite failing to make the national junior teams, Peiners was able to secure a contract with the strongest team in Latvia, VEF Riga, but that experience didn't last long as his heart problem again got in the way. He spent one year with the team before they conducted their own medical tests and determined he could not play.
"No other team would take me, even the worst team in the Latvian league," he said. "Nobody wanted me partly because of the heart problem, but also because I didn’t do well with VEF. I played small minutes and didn't do enough to prove they needed to take a risk with me."
So Peiners headed to university to study economics, assuming that his dreams of becoming a professional basketball player were over, and came across a coach who was willing to give him the chance that he needed.
"My coach at university was Martins Zibarts, who is now the head coach of the Latvian women's national team, which went to the World Cup earlier this year," Peiners said. "He was prepared to take the risk with me, and this was the only team to give me a chance.
"The university team was playing in the Latvian top division, and I remember my brother told me: 'You need to play so good that even with your heart problems, teams will still want you. If you're an average player, they will take you healthy, but if you're better than that they'll take you anyway.' Honestly, that's what he said and it was true, because a year later VEF Riga wanted to take me back!"
Peiners and his fellow students on the university team caused quite a stir, advancing all the way to the Latvian national semifinals despite being a group of amateurs competing against hardened professionals. As the teams most outstanding player, Peiners soon started to receive offers from other clubs, but decided to reject them in order to complete his studies.
"I wanted to finish my university degree, and I thought it was a bad idea to sign a professional contract because I wasn't sure if I would be able to play a whole year. What would happen if after a month I had to stop because of my heart? So during those three years in university I could have joined other teams, but I decided to finish my degree.
"We had a couple of really good years, because we had a bunch of players like me who couldn't get onto other teams so we all wanted to prove them wrong. We also weren't getting paid and all the other teams were. We started to play really well and we cut a lot of coaches from other teams in those two years!"
'To compare where I was five years ago when nobody wanted me, and now I'm here. I just want to enjoy this.'
After leaving university, Peiners decided that he would attempt to play professionally and signed with Mykolaiv in Ukraine, but still his ambitions were very modest. "I remember being asked once what my goal was," he recalled. "And I never had a goal because I didn't even know what the next day would bring. Maybe the doctors would tell me that I really had to stop playing for good.
"So I never thought long-term, and for sure I never thought I would play in the EuroLeague. Maybe I could reach a certain level, even if I couldn't play at 100% because I wanted to look after my health. But day by day I learned that I could push myself harder, and every year I became a bit better, reached a higher level, and eventually, I realized that maybe I could make some money playing the game I love."
Peiners's career took him to Ventspils, PAOK and Lietkabelis Panevezys, where he averaged 12.8 points in the 7DAYS EuroCup last season to attract the attention of Darussafaka. But he is still taken aback by just how far he has advanced.
"Even a year ago I never thought I would play in the EuroLeague," he admitted. "After university, I played four or five years at more or less the same level. I wasn't even close to thinking about the EuroLeague. I really feel my friends and family are very proud I am playing in this competition. To compare where I was five years ago when nobody wanted me, and now I'm here. I just want to enjoy this. Of course, I want to win every game, score points and have great games, but I just want to really enjoy this year because maybe I'll never be in the EuroLeague again and I never thought I would be here at all. This is really emotional for me. It's a dream come true."
After hearing his story, we can all share his pride.