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Going home with Luka Dončić
As he prepares for his fourth NBA season, Dallas' star guard gives us some of the backstory on the courts where his unique game was born
After school, before practices with his youth teams and sometimes even after those practices, Luka Dončić often wound up in the same place. The lure of the Savsko naselje sports park, in the Bežigrad district of the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, had a powerful pull on Dončić even before he started playing regularly at age 7.
The basketball courts in the park were a two-minute walk from where Dončić lived. He started out just "watching the older guys play," then quickly worked up to playing (and schooling) older kids.
It was too soon to think too much about trying to reach the NBA from a country of 2 million people — even as the son of Slovenian League star Saša Dončić. One of the early goals was simply figuring out how to keep playing into the night because, as Luka explained, Slovenia tends to get dark "pretty early." He remembers "a lot of times" that he tried to play when he couldn't quite see.
"It wasn't so good of an idea," Dončić said over the phone the other day.
A better one would surface quickly years later in adulthood when Dončić — 2022's cover star for the latest edition of NBA 2K — began discussing the refurbishment of his childhood courts with the philanthropic arm (2K Foundations) of the video game franchise.
Among Luka’s foremost prerequisites for the project? Copious lighting around the courts that would be painted various shades of blue.
"It's perfect," Dončić said of the finished product, which was unveiled as part of a Saturday afternoon ribbon-cutting, followed by 3-on-3 games, full-court scrimmages and skills challenges for local children.
"Nice colors, too," he added.
Dončić took particular pride in the primary logo on each court — his new Jordan Brand logo that, all at once, features his initials (LD), his uniform number (77) and an S for his home country — and the six floodlight towers installed for maximum visibility.
"It's the perfect temperature to play, especially in the summer," Dončić said of nighttime in his hometown. "Now the kids can play longer."
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Last weekend's event was the capper to a momentous summer for Dončić. He led tiny Slovenia to the brink of a medal in its first-ever Olympic men's basketball tournament — after Luka and Co. prevailed in a win-or-go-home qualification game on Lithuania’s home floor in Kaunas. He signed a five-year contract extension with the Dallas Mavericks worth in excess of $200 million right after the Olympics. And he hosted a Mavericks delegation in Ljubljana, led by team owner Mark Cuban and the team's new special advisor Dirk Nowitzki, to formally ink that deal in early August.
"Everyone was so appreciative and welcoming," Nowitzki said. "They are very proud people and so proud of their country and they were delighted that we came there."
Dončić might have needed a couple 3-point attempts to sink the first basket in the history of the new venue, but there was a similar celebratory vibe at Saturday's court unveiling. The 22-year-old is savoring the therapeutic effects of regular trips for morning coffee with friends and a few more days at home before returning to Dallas to resume life under the NBA microscope.
For all of his individual brilliance, which had a global basketball audience fawning as he emerged as the most feared player at the Tokyo Games not named Kevin Durant, Dončić does not shy from the reality that there is "always room for improvement."
The Mavericks will be asking a lot from him again, thanks to a largely unchanged roster that, at least for now, features Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown as the most notable additions to a team coming off consecutive first-round eliminations against the LA Clippers. The frantic nature of his offseason, furthermore, means Dončić will be back in Dallas soon having enjoyed scant rest since the Mavericks, after three road wins over the Clippers, finally faltered in Game 7 at Staples Center.
Dallas has an all-new coaching staff (led by Jason Kidd) as well as an overhauled front office (led by Nico Harrison). Among the new regime's top priorities is managing Dončić's load and usage rate in a smarter way so he has more gas left for crunch time in the wake of 35% shooting (and 28% shooting on 3s) in fourth quarters of an otherwise brilliant series against the Clippers (35.7 PPG, 10.3 APG and 7.9 RPG).
Dončić insisted in our chat that he will be ready to start anew when training camps open on Sept. 28 in spite of the tight turnaround. He also continues to talk about winning it all as the only acceptable outcome even though he has yet to breach the second round of the playoffs with some thin teams.
"Every time there's a new season, I'm excited," Dončić said. "Every time it's the same goal and that's what we're going to try to do again this year: Win a championship. I think that should be everybody's goal and I'm just hoping that happens one day."
As for his freshness, Dončić acknowledged that it has been "a long summer" but brushed off the notion that he's had insufficient rest.
"I had two weeks off and I'm back to practicing," he said.
It won't be the last time he has a compacted window to recharge, because national team stints mean too much to him. Slovenia stunningly won its first 17 games with Dončić in uniform at senior level, dating to its wholly unexpected 9-0 run to the 2017 EuroBasket crown under new Mavericks assistant coach Igor Kokoškov, until losses to France and Australia in Slovenia's final two games in Tokyo consigned Dončić's team to a crushing fourth place.
It's a disappointment he's clearly not over, but Dončić plans to "always be available for my country."
"We tried to do it for our country — everybody wanted a medal — but we couldn't," Dončić said. "But I think this team is going to stay together a long time."
He mentioned the next EuroBasket tournament in September 2022, as well the FIBA World Cup in 2023, among his future targets, while acknowledging that his whirlwind summer has only led to expectations of "more and more" — both in the old neighborhood in Savsko naselje and his adopted home address in Big D.
"I have more responsibility now," Dončić said.