]DALLAS – Dallas Mavericks veteran Salah Mejri and rookie Luka Dončić have a long history together, one that first ignited back in 2015 when they were teammates with Real Madrid in the EuroLeague.
At the time, Dončić was just 16 years old and was the third-youngest player to make his debut in the history of the Liga ACB competition. And while the world has become captivated with the NBA’s latest sensation, Mejri is the first to remind everyone that Dončić has been playing “grown man basketball for a long time.”
In fact, Mejri said he predicted Dončić’s success back in the summer and long before the 19-year-old became the second-youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double Monday afternoon, tallying 18 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a 116-106 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
“The kid was the best player in Europe,” Mejri said. “He didn’t come out of nowhere. He’s been balling.
“People here usually only focus on NBA Basketball — not all of them, but many of them. So, they didn’t know about Luka. But he’s been killing it for at least four years. At least.”
Jr. NBA Clinic, presented by Nike
Mejri echoed his predictions of Luka’s success last week when he teamed up with the Mavs Foundation and Mavs Basketball Academy to host a clinic with Dončić as they awarded 75 financially-insecure children at BridgeBuilders with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn skills at a Jr. NBA Clinic, presented by Nike. Bridgebuilders is a local organization that is backed by the Mavs Foundation and serves some of the neediest children and families in Dallas-Fort Worth.
“We have 75 kids that are extremely excited,” said Ben Hunt, Youth Director of the Mavs Basketball Academy. “Each of them receives a Jr. NBA t-shirt and really have a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Luka, Salah and the Dallas Mavericks.
“We are also excited to be here on a court dedicated by the Mavs Foundation.”
The Mavs Basketball Academy brings the excitement of the NBA to local communities and gives professional basketball training for every skill level of the game. Each year, the Mavs Basketball Academy hosts various Jr. NBA Clinics throughout the Metroplex along with year-long Mavs Academy basketball camps.
“Salah and Luka are fantastic, so to have them here to engage with the kids and talk to them about their journey is exciting for all of us” Hunt said.
Chasing A Dream
Dončić’s journey starts in the country of Slovenia, a picturesque nation dotted by glistening mountains in the horizon and lined with cafes and local boutiques along the riverbanks.
Luka was born on February 28, 1999, to Mirjam Poterbin, a former hurdler and dancer and owner of a hair salon. His father, Sasa, was a longtime European pro basketball player and his mom said from the time he could walk, Luka loved the game of basketball.
Basketball loved Luka back, too, as he excelled on the hardwood, earning a chance to sign with the Real Madrid junior club at the age of 13.
“Playing basketball is my life. My mother always says she doesn’t remember me doing anything else that wasn’t throwing a basketball. I don’t remember either.”
What he does remember, however, is leaving home at age 13 to move over 1,200 miles away to a new country, leaving behind the only life and people he’d ever known to chase a dream.
Luka said he shared a home with other developing youth players during this time, some of them soccer players, and others who were teens with visions of playing basketball at the highest level in Europe.
He became a phenom, quickly climbing the ranks and he debuted on Real Madrid’s senior team at age 16 — becoming the youngest in club history and third-youngest player in the history of the Liga ACB competition.
It was during this time that he first crossed paths with Mejri and other former NBA players.
“I remember we brought him in the playoffs against Valencia and it was very, very hard — and a very hard team to play against,” Mejri said. “They’re very aggressive, their arena is pretty loud, and it was the semifinals, and he played great.
“He made a huge big shot to amp up the game to help us win the game, and since then he kept doing it throughout playoff games. He was only 16 and playing with grown men. He did a lot in the playoffs and it was in crunch time, so he’s doing the same here. He is not afraid to play.”
Dončić eventually led Madrid to the 2018 EuroLeague title, taking home the EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP at the age of 19. A short time later, he declared for the NBA Draft and was selected third by the Atlanta Hawks and quickly traded to the Dallas Mavericks.
Last week, Dončić shared his story and passion to the children at Bridgebuilders and explained the importance of hard work and discipline. Most of all, he said, they have to believe in themselves, silence the critics and learn to love the game.
“It’s always fun to step away and play with the kids,” Dončić said. “The Mavericks do a lot in the community. I really like that and I know it means a lot to them. It’s always a pleasure to be with the kids.”
Mejri: ‘I’m so happy to see him being successful’
Mejri admits watching the Luka Dončić NBA story unfold has been a treat, but one he predicted long before he reached the league.
“My favorite memory of the season so far is seeing Luka killing it,” Mejri said. “I always believed in Luka and knew he’d be successful in the league. People ask me ‘do you think Luka is like a high school and college kid’…and you can’t compare them. He’s been playing old man basketball for five years and I’m so happy to see him killing it.”
Dončić has dazzled fans all season long and emerged as a clear-cut favorite for Rookie of the Year honors, averaging 19.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. He has started all 46 games he played in this season and is poised to possibly punch a ticket to the NBA All-Star Game next month in Charlotte.
All at the age of 19 years and 328 days.
“I’m so happy to see him being successful,” Mejri added. “I’m proud like a father. I’m not his father, but I’m proud like a father.”
Although he’s ruthless on the court, Dončić admits he’s shy when he comes to speaking in front of audiences. This is why he spends a great deal of time signing autographs for fans before home games and on the road; it’s his chance to connect on a more personal level and work on his English skills.
“Signing autographs and meeting with fans and working with the children at the clinics is my chance to give back and visit with people,” he said. “I never forget the bigger picture in all of this.”
He also says he’s really grown to love Dallas.
“It reminds me a lot of Madrid. It’s really similar. Good weather. Good people. I really like it here.”
Oh, and he has another update for Texans.
“I can say yall now,” Dončić laughed. “Yall, yall, yall. See I’m pretty good at it.”
Mejri and Dončić ended the Jr. NBA Clinic last week with a message of hope for the youngsters:
“You just have to work hard, and you’ll make it.”
ABOUT BRIDGEBUILDERS: BridgeBuilders is an urban missionary organization that breaks the cycle of poverty by confronting the spiritual needs of the “poor” and resolving the material realities that prevent them from flourishing. Through Missions, Work, and Kids programs, BridgeBuilders has served the city of Dallas for more than 20 years.
ABOUT THE JR. NBA: The Jr. NBA is the league’s youth basketball participation program that provides a fun environment for kids to learn the fundamentals and values of the game. The Jr. NBA is focused on helping grow and improve the youth basketball experience for players, coaches and parents, and offers a free curriculum covering all levels of the game that includes 48 practice plans and more than 250 instructional videos featuring NBA and WNBA players. As part of the Jr. NBA program presented by Nike, the Dallas Mavericks host free basketball clinics across North Texas with after-school programs and other nonprofit partners.
To share your story about how the Dallas Mavericks have touched you or your family in the community, email Tamara at firstname.lastname@example.org