Zanis Peiners had the makings of high-level talent from Latvia around 2009. But a heart condition ended up turning the point forward into a late-bloomer nearly a decade later. Peiners arrived at 7DAYS EuroCup side Lietkabelis Panevezys after a series of stops at lower level clubs. And the 27-year is showing he has plenty of game, averaging 12.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
Peiners is not from one of the hotbeds of Latvian basketball such as Riga, Liepaja or even Valmiera or Ventspils. Instead, he comes from the city of Rezekne - located in eastern Latvia about 60 kilometers from the Russian border and home to about 30,000 people. About 45 percent of the people in Rezekne are Latvian and another 45% are Russian. Peiners’s father is from Russia and his mother is Ukrainian and he grew up speaking Russian. Peiners’s parents lived separately and his mother decided to put him in a Latvian kindergarten. “The first month it was a problem for me with the Latvian language, but I learned quickly because there was no other options,” Peiners recalled.
The 2.05-meter forward started playing the game when he was 7 years old - giving up Greco-Roman wrestling after his first three months with the round leather. “I recognized that my body is better for basketball,” Peiners said. “And from the first practices the coach put me to play with older guys and let me play with the ball a lot - like a point guard, if there was any roles in that age.”
Peiners excelled quickly and he wanted to become a professional as fast as possible - which meant in 2007 a move to Riga, located about 250 kilometers from Rezekne. “It would have been tougher to make it straight from Rezekne, where there wasn’t any senior level team,” Peiners said.
Peiners originally had a non-citizen passport and it wasn’t until the Latvian federation was considering him for the U16 national team that his mother took on Latvian citizenship, automatically giving Peiners a Latvian passport as well. He ended up not playing for the national team in 2006 as he was diagnosed with arrhythmia, which is more commonly known as an irregular heartbeat. Despite the condition, Peiners worked his way up the ranks in Riga, reaching storied club VEF Riga in 2009 and playing a couple of games in the VTB United League, Baltic League and Latvia League.
Peiners, however, underwent more extensive tests after his first season with VEF and his doctors recommended that he stop playing basketball professionally, which led VEF to terminate the contract. Peiners had already started working on getting his bachelor’s degree while at VEF and decided to attend Riga’s Latvijas Universitate (University of Latvia) while also playing basketball there. “Only Latvian University gave me a chance to play in the Latvian league. I am very thankful to them for that opportunity,” said Peiners, who played there for three years.
Despite none of the players receiving a salary, the team reached the Latvian playoffs two years in a row. And other clubs started taking notice of Peiners’s game. “I got some options to leave the club, but I wanted to graduate to have some guarantee in my life in case my heart condition would not let me to play professionally. I got a bachelor’s degree in economics, and I think it was right decision.”
After finishing his studies, Peiners headed to Ukrainian club MBC Mikolaiv, with the head coach being a Latvian in Agris Galvanoskis. “He knew about my situation with my health. So for me it was better to go for my first year to a coach who knows the situation,” Peiners said. “Year by year, the situation with my heart got better and last two years I haven’t had any arrhythmias anymore.”
Peiners said he was never really nervous about playing, but said sometimes his heart would jump out of rhythm. The only precaution he takes during games is always keeping warm when not playing. “I am always trying to be warm and do something behind our bench. I do not sit more than one or two minutes after I get subbed out,” he said. “Then I stand up and do some small activity. I have done this for the last five years, and it has helped me to get rid of arrhythmias and it’s healthier for my heart.”
Peiners worked his way up the levels in Europe from Ukraine back to Latvia for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons with BC Ventspils before playing last season in Greece with PAOK Thessaloniki. The 2014-15 season saw him play in the 7DAYS EuroCup with Ventspils, where he averaged 5.8 points, 1.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists. After that season he also played for the first time for the Latvian national team at EuroBasket 2015. It was the first time that he had been cleared by doctors to play for Latvia.
Peiners went back to EuroBasket last summer and played a role for the Latvian team that lost to eventual champion Slovenia 103-97 in a thrilling quarterfinal showdown. Peiners averaged 5.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists. He also gained even more confidence with his ever-improving game - and that is showing on the court in the EuroCup.