By Sam Smith
Duje Dukan still hopes to mix it up with NBA stars on the United Center floor, though just not quite like he did when he was 11 years old.
That was when Dukan, who signed with the Windy City Bulls last week, was a Chicago Bulls ball boy and found himself swallowed up by one of the most brutal brawls in recent NBA history when Shaquille O’Neal barely missed Brad Miller with a fill swing haymaker that surely would have killed the former Bulls center.
“Yeah, I was in the middle of that,” recalled Dukan with a laugh, which he wasn’t doing then. “I want to try to get back to the NBA and show I belong. It’s always been a dream to play in the United Center, so when I got the chance two years ago in the Big 10 tournament it was unforgettable. But being able to play an NBA game on that floor would be more special, so whether it is with the Bulls or a different organization, it’s something I’m working toward every day.”
Dukan enjoyed a good start with Windy City in his debut last week against the Long Island Nets. With several recent personnel changes and a new rotation, which is common in the ever changing D-league, the 6-10, 220-pound forward played 18 minutes, shooting six of nine and three of four on threes for 15 points. Windy City lost, but then swept a back to back set with the Westchester Knicks Friday and Saturday. They now return home to the Sears Centre Tuesday for a three-game home stand through Saturday. Duge averaged 9.3 points in 15.7 minutes in the three games, shooting 11 of 18 overall and six of nine threes as primarily a stretch power forward.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Dukan. “We just have to get these pieces we added, all of us new guys moving in the same direction to fit into the team and I think we’ll be pretty good.”
It’s also been Dukan’s story, a team oriented player from a Croatian basketball legacy who was merely a substitute on two U. of Wisconsin Final Four teams and earned his way into the NBA as a member of the Sacramento Kings.
It was just one NBA game for the Kings last season, 24 minutes with six points and four rebounds. But it’s also official.
Duje Dukan played in the National Basketball Association.
For now, he’s the basketball Moonlight Graham, the New York Giants baseball player from 1905 who played in one Major League baseball game in his career. He was popularized in the W.P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe. The movie “Field of Dreams” was based on the book.
“I’m working to get back there and stick and not one year, but make it multiple years,” says Dukan.
Given that Dukan averaged about four points at Wisconsin and made it onto an NBA roster suggests he’s not a person to be overlooked.
“I’m never satisfied,” says Dukan. “I want to work on all facets of the game. The more diverse and versatile you are the more valuable. Today there really isn’t room for guys who are one dimensional; guys play multiple positions, shoot the ball and put it on the floor. Those are the guys who are most valuable and playing; look at a guy like Draymond Green. He’s thought of as unorthodox at his position, but he’s a huge part of a championship team. I think I can fit stretch four or play three. In college and the D-league, I played mostly four. In high school and AAU, I was more two and three, so I feel I have that in me but I have to get more reps and work on that. Coach here said it’s a possibility I’ll play some three; whatever the team needs, that’s the role I’ll try and fulfill.”
Dukan was born in Croatia. His father, Ivica, played professional basketball for 15 years and late in his career was a teammate of former Bull and European sensation Toni Kukoc. Ivica became the Bulls’ international scout and helped with Kukoc’s draft and development with the Bulls. Duje came to the U.S. when he was 10 months old, attended Deerfield High School and then Wisconsin.
“My dad was the type he didn’t want to get involved with my basketball,” said Duje. “He wanted me to pick and decide if basketball was something I wanted to do. It was something I did like and enjoy, being around the Bulls with Michael and Scottie and Toni and seeing the championships. And even though I was young, being able to celebrate championships gave me a motivation and a desire to one day be able to do that myself. As time went on, I wanted to put the work in and that’s when my dad got involved. He’d tell me when he was watching games what he was scouting for and looking for with a guy and giving me little tricks of the trade that I hopefully can incorporate and help me get better.
“Obviously, that time (in the early 2000s as a ball boy) wasn’t the best as far as the Bulls organization, losing seasons,” Dukan acknowledged. “It still was a great experience for a young kid who dreamed of being a basketball player, being able to see guys who were successful and not so much. It gave me a sneak peak into what I wanted and needed to do if I wanted to make it to that level. I had many experiences dealing with pro players on a daily basis whether it was getting food for them or when they went to check in grabbing clothes. I enjoyed my time, but around my freshman or sophomore year in high school, I became taller than half the guys on the team. So it was time to for me to hang it up and worry about my own career.”
Duje chose Wisconsin even though it was loaded with future first round draft picks like Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. But he has no regrets even as he remained a sixth man.
“It was great,” said Dukan. “We had such a talented group, especially my last two years when we went to back to back Finals Fours. People always mention you could have gone somewhere else and played 35 or 40 minutes, but at the end of the day I don’t know if I would have traded it for the experience of back to back Final Fours and being an intricate piece of that team. That’s something you can’t buy. It was an unbelievable group of guys, a special group and in my time there I got a great education, got my degree, started my masters. I couldn’t have asked for a better time.”
Dukan went undrafted in 2015, but Vlade Divac picked him for the Kings summer league roster and he performed well enough to make the big team. Duje spent much of last season with Reno of the D-league, averaging 14.5 points and 4.3 rebounds. But even with the dysfunction in Sacramento with coach George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins, Dukan said he received a vital education.
“Ironically enough, (Rajon) Rondo, who is now with Chicago, was my veteran there,” said Dukan. “I kind of picked his brain. He’s one of the most intelligent minds I’ve ever been around as far as the game and his knowledge and reading the game. I talked to him a lot as far as the things he picked up and what he did and didn’t do; overall Sacramento was great. Being around that and going to the D league to work on my game was a great experience because it showed I can get my foot in the door.”
Duje signed a three-year deal to play with a top Croatian team last fall, but ran into a situation common with American players. Once there, they are expected to be big time scorers. It’s not Duje’s game, and he and the team worked a buyout. Then he joined Windy City.
“It wasn’t what I expected it to be,” Dukan said of his European pro experience. “They really did a good job of marketing as far as having me buy into what they needed; they said they needed a stretch four man, a guy like me. But then when I got there they didn’t really utilize stretch four. So it was kind of confusing why they brought me in the first place. After that I figured it would be best to go where I knew I could play and develop because sitting and not getting opportunities is not beneficial to anyone.
“I’ve never been a guy known to go one on one and score 30 points,” said Dukan. “I can score 30, but it will be within the framework of an offense, good shots, screen and roll, things like that. I definitely didn’t fit that kind of mold. But I feel everything happens for a reason. It was a learning experience.”
Already talking like an NBA veteran.
And learning just like that Saturday night in the United Center in early 2002 when Charles Oakley chopped O’Neal. O’Neal turned, saw Brad Miller and took that roundhouse swing and mercifully missed. Chasing Miller, Shaq tumbled into the sideline on top of young Duje, among others. Oakley helped Duje get up as players and coaches grabbed and tugged, Miller emerging without his jersey and dancing away like a boxer.
Perhaps that’s why Duje keeps moving in life and on the basketball court.
“I’m still a young player,” Duje noted. “I just want to play and develop and work on my game and get better because I still have a lot of room to grow. Whether that results in me getting a call up (to the NBA) or getting a good contract for next year for Europe, I’ll hopefully use these next 25, 30 games (with Windy City) as a springboard for what becomes the rest of this summer and into next season. The biggest thing is to just play.”