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Luka Dončić still a hometown hero for Slovenian school where he started
National Basketball Association

Luka Dončić still a hometown hero for Slovenian school where he started

Published Jun. 9, 2024 12:11 p.m. ET

The laughter of schoolchildren at recess and basketballs ringing on the pavement echoed through the quiet streets of a residential district in Slovenia's capital, the place where Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Dončić got his start.

The phenom point guard has led his franchise to just its third appearance in the NBA Finals, where the Mavericks lost the opening game to the Boston Celtics despite 30 points from Dončić. Game 2 is Sunday night.

At 25 years old, Dončić has already racked up a raft of accolades that have him on track to be one of the greatest Europeans — or anyone else — to play the game.


But his road to a shot at an NBA championship started two decades and 5,500 miles from the bright lights of Dallas at the Miran Jarc primary school in Ljubljana, a city of around 300,000 nestled in a green valley of the Slovenian Alps.

"My first impression was that he was taller than all the guys at his age, and he really moved with the ball really great," said Rok Dezman, who coached Doncic at the school from the age of 6. "You could feel that he’s really talented."

Dončić’s precociousness on the court was evident from the first grade, Dezman said, so he immediately began competing with players several years older than him to level the playing field.

But that age disparity meant that Dončić, today standing at 6-foot-7, didn’t always have a height advantage, leading him to focus on sinking shots from a distance rather than measuring up against bigger players under the rim.

Still, Dezman said, Doncic sought ways to outsmart his age and size disadvantage.

"He took it as a challenge every time that he dealt with older guys," Dezman said. "He was trying to find a way to finish also in the paint. The size didn’t matter to him."

Hanging on a wall inside the school is a printed photo of Dončić with a quote attributed to him: "I never dreamed of success. I worked for it."

According to Uros Rozman, Dončić’s gym teacher at Miran Jarc from fourth to seventh grade, that inspirational slogan truly reflects the single-mindedness Dončić always displayed for upping his game.

"Talent is important, but when you grow up and play with adults, talent is not enough," said Rozman, who today is the principal of the school. "You must work hard, and he was a hard worker in our school already. The basketball was in his hands all the time."

Shortly after starting to play on his primary school team, Dončić joined the youth league of the Union Olimpija club in Ljubljana, where he continued to practice with players several years his senior. Once he finished seventh grade, he left his country and family to play for the youth academy of Real Madrid in Spain.

Only five years later, he'd be drafted into the NBA.

The reverberations of Dončić's success are felt by all the students at Miran Jarc, said Aleksandar Drobnjak, a ninth grader at the school who plays for the same youth team, Olimpija, that Dončić did as a youngster.

Drobnjak said attending Dončić's alma mater is "an honor and a pleasure," and that he and other students have taken inspiration from his work ethic.

"Every single pupil at this school knows Luka Dončić went to our school and now is a world-famous basketball star," he said. "If we can do the same thing as him, we can be famous like him. With hard work, with focus, with listening, with honor."

On the court, Dončić displays a swagger and confidence not typical of most European players, and is known for venting his emotions during games to both officials and opponents.

According to Dezman, Dončić's first coach, it's a competitiveness that he has shown since his earliest days in the gym at his primary school in Ljubljana. "He’s stayed the same guy," Dezman said. "The main thing with Luka is that he lives basketball. He’s a born winner. He has to win."

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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