Among other things, Noah Charney is the author of Slovenology, which you can get a paper or ebook copy of so you can enjoy Slovenia wherever you are
Back in 2015, I wrote an article for the American magazine, The Atlantic, introducing American readers to someone who was arguably the greatest skier in history: Tina Maze. That was during her epic season, in which she accumulated more points than anyone, male or female, ever had, and it was prior to her Sochi Olympics success. Americans don’t follow skiing and so had to have explained to them both what the sport is and who Tina Maze is. I helped them imagine her dominance in skiing through a parallel they would understand: I likened her to Michael Jordan.
Well, now there’s another Slovenian athlete who can only be liked to Michael Jordan and LeBron James, the two greatest basketball players of all time. Basketball has pulled ahead of both baseball and football as the most popular sport in America, so Americans need no introduction to it. Nor do they need an introduction to the athlete in question.
I’ll confess that I love a man named Luka. It’s a platonic love, but it’s a type of love all the same. Luka Dončič, whom I’ve never met, brings sunshine and joy into my life. When he performs well, my day is brighter. When he has an off night (or if, as is the case while I’m writing this, he’s nursing an ankle injury), I’m a little bluer and a little distracted. My wife and I share this affection, and I’m comfortable that she loves someone else in this way. In fact, millions do, not only Mavericks fans. Luka has a euphoria about him that is infectious. So many athletes, no matter how good, seem in it for the money. Luka is making tons of it, of course, but he has a childlike enthusiasm, a levity that is spreads to those who see him play. That is not what we expect from professional top athletes.
Luka has dominated headlines as much as he has dominated the courts on which he has played. His comparable statistics at age 20 are in line only with Jordan and James. If he continues at this level, barring catastrophic injury and even without improving (as he surely will with experience), then by the time he retires, he will be remembered as the greatest. His talent, numbers and command are already there. He out-LeBron-ed LeBron James, his childhood idol, a few games back, leading his Dallas Mavericks to victory over the first-place, James-led Lakers. His Mavericks are, amazingly, currently the best offensive team in NBA history, and that is without the co-headlining star, Latvian “unicorn” Kristaps Porzingis, playing particularly well, and without a third All-Star player—just Luka and a very deep, talented, balanced team. All Luka needs to do is to avoid a freak injury and keep on going. The smart money is on him, in a decade or so, being dubbed the best basketball player in history.
He is just 20 years old but, having played with Real Madrid in the Euro League (the second-best league in the world after the NBA) for years prior to being drafted by the Mavericks a year ago, he has the experience and calm on the court of a veteran. In the US, he cannot even order a beer (you must be 21 to drink alcohol there), but he is blazing statistical trails and has drawn effusive praise from players and commentators across the board. Last season, his rookie year, he came in second in All-Star votes, behind only LeBron. That popularity comes from a combination of his skill and domination, mixed with that joy. He is totally unpretentious and humble, while totally confident (a rare combination among top athletes). He is clearly having fun. It’s easy to forget that professional athletes are grownups being paid huge sums of money to play games. It’s a pretty sweet deal. Baseball star Willie Mays is credited with a quote that getting paid to play baseball is like getting paid to eat ice cream. Luka might say something similar about basketball. And the fun he is having is passed forward to his fans. That is why he has admirers far beyond the followers of his team.
?Slovenian NBA star Luka Dončić (@dallasmavs) has become an ambassador of Slovenia's tourism?— Feel Slovenia (@SloveniaInfo) January 16, 2020
?He will promote the country's unique attractions and investment opportunities.
?Slovenia will also be included in the @NBAAllstar game!#ifeelsLOVEnia #TexasFeelSlovenia pic.twitter.com/tgCAS7t15a
I’m inordinately proud of our Slovenian athletes. I often hear “considering how small a nation we are” as the precursor to “we’re remarkably good at sports,” and it’s true. Slovenia has a miniscule pool of citizens to draw from and relatively poor resources to support them, when compared to other countries, yet still we produce world-class athletes, Olympians, record holders, gold medalists. We are underdogs due to our size and budgets, and still we win, against the odds. This makes us a joy to cheer for. At the moment, Luka is at the summit of a sport which Europeans are not supposed to be as good at as Americans (especially white Europeans). That compounds Luka’s success and elevates it.
For us fans, this special type of love for an athlete we’ve never met is a strange but wonderful cocktail. There’s pride mixed in (for an underdog from Slovenia), hope (we want him to do well and check news on him constantly), sympathy (we feel down when he is down, we feel on a high when he succeeds), and a sense of good fortune. How lucky we are that we get to watch this sporting genius, already seemingly at the peak of his powers and the zenith of the game, but only 20 years old, and capable of playing, even improving, over the next 10-15 years.
How often can someone we’ve never met, who lives thousands of kilometers away, bring us such joy? Grab your Dončič jerseys and enjoy the ride. It will be a long and glorious one.
A Slovene version of this article first appeared in Playboy. Noah Charney lives in Italy and Slovenia, and lectures internationally in the subjects of art history and art crime. Learn more at www.noahcharney.com or join him on Facebook. You can also follow the Slovenoogy podcast wherever you get podcasts, with the iTunes link here. The book Slovenology can be found here.