In an era when players come and go all the time, changing teams and countries easily, it quickly becomes a matter of pride when a club manages to raise a player in its youth categories and take him up to the first team. This is the case of guard Alberto Diaz at Unicaja Malaga. The 22-year-old Diaz started playing as a kid in a Malaga neighborhood and worked his way up the Unicaja ladder until becoming a full-time member of the first team last season. Now, in the team's debut season in the 7DAYS EuroCup, Diaz has become more important than ever for the team. He has averaged 3.9 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists in over 19 minutes on the court, while started in eight of his 18 appearances in the competition this season. With his help, the team reached the playoff rounds, defeated FC Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals and is now leading their semifinals series against Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar after one game.
Diaz took his first steps in basketball in the Malaga neighborhood of Los Guindos. But he was not the first member of the family to take up the sport. "I started playing when I was six years old, but my brother started before I did and then my parents asked me whether I wanted to play." Diaz went to see his brother play and that's when the basketball bug got him for good. "I roamed the courts without having a proper team, but after a while I wanted to start playing more seriously. Of course, I had my idols as a child and they were the players of the Unicaja Malaga team, so obviously I wanted to be like them."
Those idols included two players that played his same position and established themselves as institutions in the club: Carlos Cabezas and Berni Rodriguez. However, Diaz is as humble as they come when asked about following the footsteps of those two household names. "It's true that it is a dream for me, thinking about getting to where Cabezas and Berni got. However, it's almost impossible for me to match what they did, but being here is a privilege and sharing the same history of the club with names like those is a dream-come-true."
After years of working his way up the youth system, in 2012 Diaz was finally offered the chance every young player waits for: making his debut in the first team. "Making my debut with the Unicaja first team was very special. I had won in Mannheim with the junior national team, I was in the Spanish second division having played a good year and also with the Unicaja junior team." The ground was set for Diaz to step on the court with the big guys, even though he was only 18 years old. "It was one of those years when it seemed that everything I did turned out okay for me, so in the end, Unicaja was in a difficult moment with many straight losses, and Coach Luis Casimiro gave me the chance to make my debut. It was a very special moment for me, undoubtedly."
Diaz made his debut in the Spanish League and even managed to play a few moments in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague in a Top 16 game against ALBA Berlin. It was just the beginning of a promising career that soon took him away from his beloved Malaga, as he was sent on loan to Bilbao Basket and Fuenlabrada in two different seasons. It was a new situation for a young Diaz. "Playing away from Malaga was an important step for me. Leaving your city, your friends, your people... forces you to grow up. It was of great use for me both sports-wise and personally. Those two teams had some difficulties during those seasons also, and that just made me value being able to play at home even more."
After a solid season with Fuenlabrada, in which he played all 34 games of the Spanish League regular season, Unicaja coach Joan Plaza decided to bring Diaz back home. Of course, things would not be easy at the beginning, but it was clear from the start that more was expected of Diaz from the get-go. "It's true that when I got back to Malaga there were many uncertainties. It was to be a long year and I would have a limited role, but Coach Plaza always told me that I had to work hard no matter what, that chances would come." And come they did. Injuries for guards Stefan Markovic and Jamar Smith opened the door for the chance that Diaz needed, allowing him to play some 24 EuroLeague games with the team. "Circumstances forced me to play a more significant role in the team last season, and that allowed me to improve fast. Of course, it's great to have a coach that trusts you by your side. Coach Plaza is a key piece in my progression as a player and I am sure he will be in my future. I am very thankful to him for the chances he has given me."
When the season ended, Unicaja learned that it would play in the EuroCup this season, a competition that the team had never participated in before. It was no surprise then, that having played always in the EuroLeague and being a Top 16 regular in that competition, the spirits at Unicaja were optimistic at the beginning of the season. "At the beginning of the season, it is true that we had high goals; I think it's normal because the team comes from many seasons playing the EuroLeague Top 16, but I think that the team, the fans and the club quickly realized that the EuroCup had good, strong teams and that the level here was high. In the middle of the competition I think we had a more realistic approach about our chances, but little by little we started believing."
The transition to the new competition was more rocky than everyone expected. "It has been complicated, let me tell you. We had some ups and downs and in the group phases. We had some games in which we were not solid for 40 minutes. We knew there would be great teams in this league, and that it would be complicated. There are several teams here that have the capacity to compete in the EuroLeague, no doubt about it." After a hesitant start however, Unicaja used the experience of such a deep roster to prevail and start controlling the situation, up to the point of dominating its semifinal series. "As the season went on I think we found our place and the team is more solid. We got to the key moments of the season in a good moment for us, and I think we simply improved and clenched our teeth at the right time."
Now, Unicaja sits in a privileged situation. The team is ahead in the semifinal series against Lokomotiv and faces Game 2 this week at home at a packed Martin Carpena Arena. As a home-grown talent, eyes will be on Diaz to see if he can take the next step and help the team climb to its third continental final ever. Whatever happens during the next few days, the city and the club hope Diaz will remain with the team and become a household name himself, perhaps even as captain of the team in the years to come. "It's a bit early to say that I can be captain of Unicaja, but of course, It would be a great honor for me and it would make me proud. It's not something I think about, because the future is unpredictable. If it happens, I will embrace it with all my soul, but if it doesn't, that's okay."