Luka Dončić’s has always been a record-setting genius. Even at age 13

Two days after his astonishing 60-point triple-double, Luka Dončić steps into a small room outside of the American Airlines Center’s home locker room and notices my laptop opened to his own teenaged highlights.

By now, Dončić’s emotional high from his most magnificent career performance to date has faded away. He’s long past the celebration of his game-tying shot that looked akin to coffee jitters on fast forward. Far removed from walking by a television as it compared him to all-time greats. Now, he seems wearier, more focused on an afternoon nap before his next game this evening than reliving the prior one.

His 60 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists against the New York Knicks — which included a miraculous game-tying shot, a historic comeback win in overtime, and the first 60-20 triple-double in league history — had become just another record in a career filled with them, as far back as he can remember.

That’s why one brief answer Dončić gave in his post-game press conference that evening stood out: his response to being asked the last time he had last scored 60 points at any level. Even though that total set his NBA career high, he had surely done it before, at some point in his career, with everything he had accomplished.

Right?

“Never,” he said.

Now, with Dončić standing in this small room typically reserved for pregame chapel, I ask him about his previous personal scoring best. It was a game that had happened more than a decade ago, one which old Slovenian coaches and longtime European scouts pointed to when asked to confirm if he had really never scored 60 before. Did he remember it?

Not well, he admits, but he did.

And with the highlights of a much younger him playing in the background of this room, he makes an observation.

“It’s mostly the same way I play right now,” he says.

Among all the records Dončić broke that evening, there was still one more: the most he has ever scored in any game of his career. It was a 54-point performance he had at age 13, a personal best that lasted almost 11 years.

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Slovenia’s enormous passion is willing Luka Doncic to superstardom


It happened at an international under-13 tournament called the Torneo Lido di Roma, or the Shores of Rome Tournament. Although Dončić rarely played with his age group, his competition in this tournament was his peers.

Olimpija Ljubljana, Slovenia’s most prominent basketball club based in the country’s largest city and capital, has a system in which coaches work with youth players in three-year cycles. It just wasn’t one prepared for the prodigious Dončić. When he arrived for his first club practice at age 8, it took 16 minutes before he moved up to the under-12 team.

That’s how Jernej Smolnikar, the newly appointed coach of the under-13 team, had already become familiar with Dončić. He had just finished his cycle with the generation of boys born in 1996, where the 1999-born Dončić typically played. The Torneo Lido di Roma was Smolnikar’s first games with the new generation he had been assigned to, and Dončić joined them.

“This team (hadn’t) practiced a lot together,” says Jernej Smolnikar, who coached that team. “But (Dončić’s) dominance was at a very high level even at that time, so we had high ambitions to win.”

The tournament, a six-hour drive from Ljubljana, was hosted in the outskirts of Rome, with more family members than fans in the crowd. Smolnikar recalls how his players would gather around smartphones, which were just becoming ubiquitous, using online translators to work around language barriers they had with their Italian competitors.

“Italian and Slovenian, these are completely different (languages),” Smolnikar says. “I remember the kids, everyone had smartphones except for me. I still had this Nokia phone.”

The cultural differences made no difference when Dončić was on the court. Even different basketballs — Italian youth leagues featured a smaller ball than the Slovenians used at home — didn’t bother him. Dončić dominated throughout the 16-team tournament, and his 29 points and 15 rebounds in the semifinals set up a championship clash against Italy’s SS Lazio.

“The anticipation for Luka playing was getting bigger and bigger,” Smolnikar says. ”In the finals, everyone was rooting for him, the locals were rooting for him. He was like a star. In two days he became a star.”

That summer, months after the tournament, Dončić decided to move to Spain and join Real Madrid’s youth academy. The club had already expressed its interest in him, but Dončić and his family still weren’t sure if it was the right move to make so soon.

“I decided (at the) last moment,” Dončić told The Athletic last month, “because I didn’t even know if I wanted to know or not.”

Whether he knew it at the time or not, this championship game made it clear he was right to eventually join Real Madrid and begin the journey that led him to basketball stardom. Dončić led Olimpija Ljubljana to a 104-76 win in that final game and was named the tournament MVP. He finished with 54 points and, of course, a triple-double.

There’s a six-minute, 10-second video published on April 10, 2012, one day after Dončić’s championship performance, that shows every basket he made.

The 13-year-old Dončić doesn’t look exactly like he does now, of course. “I was a bit bigger than everyone there,” he says. He had already grown to 5-foot-11 with obvious physical advantages.

Yet the video shows a teenaged player that is still unmistakably Luka Dončić. He contorts around defenders to toss up soft floaters. He flings hook passes over his shoulder for catch-and-shoot jumpers. He coughs around-the-back dimes. He even dribbles through a defender’s legs in his own backcourt.

“What is truly amazing is that he scored this 54 with the same ease that he did the 60,” Smolnikar says. “If you look, Luka was playing very, very similar to the way he is now.”

When Dončić moved to Madrid soon after, he returned to facing players older than him. He began practicing with the senior team at age 15, made his Real Madrid debut one year later and started receiving attention from international scouts and, eventually, front-office higher-ups.

“(He had) a short youth career,” says Robert Carmenati, an Italian whom the Mavericks have long employed for Europe-based scouting. “Luka really played few (youth) games as a teenager.”

What seemed impossible — that Dončić had never before scored 60 — makes sense in this context. As Dončić puts it himself: “I was always playing with the older kids.” This Italian tournament, one that occurred more than a decade ago, might have been the only time in Dončić’s career where he actually faced his age players.


Matteo Garzia remembers this tournament he played in for another reason.

When Dončić was named MVP, Garzia was awarded the tournament’s most distinguished player. There was a photo taken of him and Dončić, each wearing their medals, the Slovenian towering over the 13-year-old Italian. Several years ago, Garzia stumbled across this very photo and posted it online with an ironic comparison of their respective careers. He wrote, in part:

Luka Doncic: 1 European Championship gold, 1 Euroleague, 3 Spain titles, 1 NBA rookie of the year, play for the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 29.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9 assists per game, his throwing percentage is 48%, just before he signs a 50 million deal with Jordan, he has 3.5 million followers on Instagram and is still a modest guy.

Matteo Garzia: 1 call to the regional team, 1 MVP of the Livor tournament, I play for the Alvisian youth team in Venice in the Serie D, averaging 10 points and 0 rebounds per game.. I get no pay, I paid $50 for a medical examination, I have a pair of Jordan shoes for which I paid $160. I have 732 followers on Instagram and I am still a humble guy.

Dončić didn’t remember Garzia when shown the photo. He’s grown taller and won far more prominent awards since they posed together. He’s old enough to tell television cameras that he needed a “recovery beer” — “An IPA,” he tells me, “Just one, and then I went to sleep” — after his 60-point performance last month.

Garzia says he still smiles whenever he’s asked about that photo. The highlight of his basketball journey might just be another almost forgotten record for Dončić in a career filled with them. But even though Garzia now cheers for Dončić through television screens and online streams, he likes to remember as the 13-year-old competitor he stood next as a peer.

“We were just two kids who loved playing basketball,” he writes in a text message. “I think that’s the real beauty of this incredible sport, these sliding doors that happen once or twice in a lifetime that will give you a memory that’ll last forever.”

(Photo illustration: Sam Richardson / The Athletic; original photo by Francesco Richieri / Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)


More Luka Doncic coverage from Tim Cato

Jan. 4, 2023: How the NBA has tried — and mostly failed — to stop Luka Dončić

Dec 28, 2022: Luka Dončić, NBA history and trying to make sense of greatness

Oct. 19, 2022: Luka Doncic the MVP? Here’s how he can do it, and why the Mavericks need him to

May 20, 2022: Luka Dončić’s legend in Slovenia reached new heights in 2022 playoffs

May 16, 2022: Luka Dončić and the Mavericks aren’t just the NBA’s future. They’ve arrived

August 25, 2020: ‘The son of Slovenia’: How Luka Doncic’s homeland celebrates his playoff debut

March 11, 2020: ‘Luka’s doing magic’: How Dallas discovered its next superstar a world away

Oct. 23, 2019: Slovenia’s enormous passion is willing Luka Doncic to superstardom

Feb. 19, 2019: Luka Doncic’s stepback isn’t just his signature shot, but a glimpse into his unique athleticism

Dec 24, 2018: ‘These are shots he shoots every day:’ How Luka Doncic learned to make impossible shots

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