Badgers’ Dukan has certainly lived the basketball life
MADISON, Wis. — Duje Dukan was minding his own business as a ballboy near the Chicago Bulls’ bench the night Shaquille O’Neal temporarily lost his sanity.
Dukan, now a fourth-year junior on Wisconsin’s basketball team, has told the story often over the years, calling it the "craziest" thing that ever happened to him. As the story goes, then-Los Angeles Lakers center O’Neal became upset with Bulls center Brad Miller over physical play and threw two roundhouse punches while Miller’s head was turned. The players — all 580-plus pounds of them — then tumbled into a heap near Chicago’s bench.
Right where Dukan was sitting.
"And all of a sudden I turn around and Brad Miller fell right on my legs," Dukan said. "They’re on top of each other and they’re on my legs. I’m trying to squeeze my way out. Nothing. They were punching each other. I’m stuck. I’m like freaking out."
Before the 10-year-old Dukan sustained serious injury, Bulls forward Charles Oakley pulled him from the wreckage and saved him, but not before Dukan had a memory for a lifetime.
"That was definitely the craziest story," Dukan said. "People are like, ‘Did you see Shaq?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah. I was underneath it.’"
Dukan’s basketball background is unlike most playing the college game today, and the O’Neal-Miller fight represents only a small reason. He spent much of his childhood as a Bulls ballboy because his father, Ivica, was the team’s international scouting director. He also lived across the street from the Berto Center — the Bulls’ practice facility in Deefield, Ill. Dukan had a key to the arena and would spend his days around many of the players.
Not your typical basketball childhood by any means.
"He was always around practice," Ivica said. "He was 2 years old when he traveled to his first NBA Finals."
The unusual experiences growing up so close to basketball at the highest level have helped shape Duje and fuel his love for the game.
"I’m the type of guy that in my free time, instead of watching a movie or something, I’ll just throw in a game," Duje said. "It could be a Division III game or a low D-I game, it doesn’t really matter. As long as it’s basketball. I just love the game.
"Being around it so much and just seeing people succeed and what emotion they had when they did succeed, and just that whole process and obviously the time they put in, hard work and all that stuff behind the scenes, it just kind of got me going in saying, ‘OK, why not? Put in the work and hope for the best and see what happens.’"
In many ways, Duje has his father to thank for putting him in position to fall in love with basketball. Ivica’s entire adult life has centered on the sport. He had a 14-year professional career overseas in England, Switzerland, France and Yugoslavia (now Croatia) and was known as a defensive specialist and 3-point shooter. He also once played for the Yugoslavian national team.
Ivica worked for a sports agency in Europe following his pro career and ran into then-Bulls general manager Jerry Krause in 1991. Krause liked Ivica enough that he asked him to work part-time as an international scout. One year later, Krause made Ivica a full-time offer, and on Aug. 20, 1992, he became the Bulls’ first supervisor of European scouting — a position he has held ever since.
The family moved from Split, Croatia to Deerfield, Ill., when Duje was 10 months old.
Duje spent much of his childhood at the Berto Center, playing basketball and developing relationships with players. Ivica said he never worried when he returned home from work and couldn’t find Duje — he knew his son would be across the street honing his skills.
As a ballboy from 2000-06, Duje spent time around Jamal Crawford, Tyson Chandler and Eddie Curry. And among players Duje considers friends today are Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, who recently was traded to Cleveland.
"He loves the Bulls," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "We kind of joke around with him. He’s always calling guys by their nickname. He calls Luol Deng ‘Lu’ and Joakim Noah ‘Jo.’ He acts like he’s best buds with them. So we joke around with him about that. He’s actually pretty tight with all them. So it’s crazy. It’s kind of a good life growing up to have, I guess. I’m kind of jealous of that."
Added Duje: "It’s funny because the guys will always laugh at me when I say a first name. I’ll be talking about them like ‘Oh, I talked to this guy when I was home.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh you’re friends with them?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.’"
On the court this season, Duje is still searching for the type of success he craves because the 6-foot-8 forward’s minutes have been so scattered. He scored 15 points in 21 minutes during a season-opening victory against St. John’s. But on Wednesday night in an 81-68 loss to Minnesota, he played just two minutes. Last Saturday, Duje played six minutes against Michigan and did not make a first-half appearance.
Duje has appeared in all 19 games this season and is averaging 9.9 minutes, 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds. He noted it was difficult to find a rhythm in games in which he only plays a few minutes at a time.
"But it’s just something I’m going to have to get used to," he said. "I think the more games we get into, the better it’s going to be. Obviously at the beginning of the season, I didn’t know what to expect minutes-wise, rotation-wise and whatnot. But now that it’s getting into the Big Ten season, more and more games, I can kind of can see how things are going to play out, so I’m just preparing myself for that."
Ivica, who experienced such great heights in his basketball career, said it was tough to watch his son go through such struggles. Still, he has taken more of a hands-off approach, letting Duje play the game and offering input only when Duje asks. Duje has forged his own path in basketball thus far without being in the shadow of his father, whose playing career is not especially well known in America.
"Obviously I do have my opinion about games and the system or what I see out there," Ivica said. "But I’m very careful what to say. Because I don’t know what coach is asking or what they’re looking for him to do. Basically what I’m doing, I’m more helping him mentally to be prepared for any kind of adversity that he’s facing. Especially right now being (on) a short leash, coming in after some guys that play more than him and being ready to produce.
"It’s been very difficult for him to do that. That’s where I can do more. Say it doesn’t matter what, you just get ready, come in, do whatever you can to help your team win. I’m very proud because it’s easy to talk to Duje because he understands the game."
Thanks to Duje’s background, he understands the game better than most. He is still trying to absorb those lessons and make as big of an impact as he can. But as Duje says, if he puts in the work and hopes for the best, he’ll see what he can make of himself.
"Obviously, I think I can help the team out more," he said. "I think there’s other things I can do. Not just shooting the ball. I can handle the ball, put the ball on the floor, post up. There are things I haven’t necessarily been able to showcase that much. But I think in due time, it will all come out."
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