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"I'm going to tell you an interesting story." Simon Birgander (Helsinkinburg, Sweden, 1997), the giant of UCAM Murcia, the best player statistically in the Endesa League today, pauses in the middle of the interview with EL MUNDO, takes a breath and begins a story he never told. "It was 2004 and the whole family's plan was to go on holiday to Thailand, to the place and the same hotel that was going to be destroyed by the tsunami and where so many people died. Then my grandmother announced that she had breast cancer. Luckily and unluckily, we couldn't go. Probably, if my grandmother hadn't had cancer, we would all have died."
A twist of fate that is now remembered as a vital notch by a guy who, suddenly, has seen his sports career burst onto the front page. How, from secondary school at Joventut, he has gone on to become an absolute protagonist at UCAM Murcia, where he averages 22.5 rating credits, the first of a list in which he is followed by Chima Moneke, Andrés Feliz and Edy Tavares. Led by Sito Alonso and far from the shadow of Ante Tomic, at the same time master and stopper of his virtues, Birgander scores what he never scores (14.9) and rebounds like the best in the history of the competition (9.8), to the surprise even of himself, confidence is sky-high and the agenda full of interview requests for an "embarrassing boy", who enjoys his 10-month-old baby with his girlfriend from Granollers and who, if it weren't for the baskets, would have loved to "be a streamer", such is his passion for the Play Station.
That unusual outburst is completed by Simon in the renewed UCAM, the revelation team both in ACB (fourth, today they face Valencia) and in the Champions League, which he joined this summer. Why is that? "The key, first, is that all the players, both those who have come and those who are here, are very good people. That helps in the locker room, on the court. When you have a good relationship with your teammates it's easier, you want to go the extra mile to help. If you don't like your partner, this extra doesn't appear. I also think that the signings we have made fit into the style that Sito wants to play."
That childhood episode marked Simon, the son of a Swedish basketball player who, however, played and coached football until one summer he grew 15 centimeters "in one fell swoop" and "it was no longer so easy to control the ball." Her grandmother overcame that paradoxical cancer that saved her family, but not the next one, three years later. And that led to a rapprochement with another of the pillars of his life, his grandfather, the sailor Lennard, of whom he brags in the photo on his WhatsApp. "He moved close to home, on his way to my school, and when I finished I would go with him, we would have a snack, he would help me with my math homework, we would watch golf games, which he loved. We had a great connection and that's why it's so important to me. When I played for Clavijo I came to Logroño, at the age of 80. Four years ago, he passed away. For him I wear the number 35 on my shirt", details the center of that initiatory experience in the remote (for him), Logroño, where he arrived at the age of 17 to play in the EBA and "freaked out" with the hours of dinner of the Spaniards. "In Sweden you have breakfast, lunch at 12 and five or six dinners. Here they had dinner at 10 or 11 o'clock and I was no longer hungry, by this time I was half in bed. But now I love everything about Spain, the climate, the atmosphere, the people...", says this Murcian from Sweden who is not the only one: he shares a squad like Ludde Hakanson and the young Wilhelm Falk.
Serious knee injury
La Penya took notice of that giant who soon stood out in Oro with the Clavijo and won it, although soon after in Badalona a nightmare would come for Birgander: after injuring his knee he spent 352 days without playing basketball. "It was super hard, I was coming back and I had to stop. No one knew what the problem was. The worst was mentally, I thought I was never going to play basketball again. In the end I said, let's try this last thing and if it doesn't work, I'll call my mom to see if she can find me a job in Helsinkinburg. I had depression. My girlfriend and my family helped me a lot to get out of this bad time in my life," says the Swede, who took time to feel like himself, struggling with being "overweight" and lacking rhythm.
This summer Simon decided to escape from his comfort zone and accepted Murcia's proposal. "Tomic has taught me a lot and thanks to him I'm better. He is one of the best centers in the history of Europe. Every day I trained against him he helped me. But it was important to me to get out of his shadow. It was difficult to be important in the team with him in front of me. It didn't matter what I did and how I did it, Ante Tomic was always on top of me," confesses Birgander, from whom Sito Alonso soon asked for much more. "The key is the role change. Now my job is more important, more protagonist on the court, I have more balls. At La Penya my job was to defend, to play for the team. Here in Murcia it's like the team needs me more. And the other key is confidence," he says, without hiding "the fear" of responsibility he had in the first days: "People thought I wasn't going to be able to do things I'm doing right now."
Suddenly, Birgander, an English Arsenal fan, is an MVP candidate and UCAM a contender for the Cup and the playoffs. What else? "Uh... Difficult. To follow the same path as this season, individually and collectively. And play in a European Championship with Sweden."
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