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The Pirate and His Pupil

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Internationally Known, Locally Respected

From Montenegro to Chicago, Nikola Mirotic is following a path first traced by the Bulls’ original super-Euro, Toni Kukoc. Will he find championships like his forerunner?

For almost a decade, Nikola Mirotic had been able to tell Jadran Vujacic anything. On this drowsy drive to Vujacic’s home across Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, where Mirotic was born and raised, he thought of their time together. Vujacic had been his personal coach for eight years. Mirotic was 13 when they met; he’d never shot a basketball. He was 21 now, the best prospect on the continent, and in that time, Vujacic had come to see him as a son. He was always there, a phone call away, whatever Niko needed, whenever he needed it. But this … this was different.

“I said, ‘Coach, I need to tell you something very important,’” Mirotic recalls. “And he said, ‘OK, what happened?’ Two days, I didn’t sleep, because I was thinking about what I was going to tell him.”

Finally, the words spilled out: Me and your daughter, we are together.

“He didn’t say anything for maybe five minutes,” Mirotic says, smiling.

Mirotic had met Vujacic’s daughter, Nina, more than a year earlier, when he stopped by his coach’s house for dinner. He fell hard, and fast. Vujacic needed some time — a father being a father — but eventually, he softened. “After a month, everything was normal,” Mirotic says. “We were together. Everybody was happy.”

As he tells the story, laughter stops Mirotic more than once. He’s sitting on a bench alongside the Bulls’ practice court, in the team’s sparkling new facility next to the United Center. From this seat, there’s a view of the six championship banners that hang in the windows facing Madison Street.

He married Nina in June 2012. Their son, Aleksandar, was born in May. The next month was marred by the same sleeplessness that plagued the nights before he confessed to Vujacic. Real Madrid, where he had starred for the past four seasons, ended its season in late June. Mirotic had only a few days to plan the next few years. He was drafted 23rd overall in 2011 by Houston, ending up in Chicago after a pair of draft-night deals. In the three years since he was drafted, Mirotic was twice named the best Euroleague player under 22 and was awarded the Spanish League MVP during Real’s championship run in 2013. Chicago finally had the roster and salary-cap space to entice Mirotic and his $3 million buyout to the U.S. The time was now.

Mirotic wavered over the next few days. “We were not sure about the decision, because I still had a contract, my baby was 1 month old,” he says. “The easy decision would have been to stay in Madrid one or two years more. My son was so young to change cities, to change everything.” His hesitance had nothing to do with basketball, with the hanging banners, with the ambitions that a championship-level Bulls team would take into the year. The basketball came easy. It always had. Mirotic had already started over, in his move to Madrid as a teenager. Now, he had a family, a $5.5 million salary, a life. The NBA was calling, but he had reason not to answer.

Podgorica sits in the south of Montenegro, near Albania, about an hour from the mountains and an hour from the Mediterranean Sea. Mirotic’s father ran a handful of businesses while mom raised Nikola and his brother. When he was young, Mirotic had a love affair with soccer. As he started to tower over his friends, he sought out the tallest soccer stars he could find, like Nikola Zigic, a 6-foot-7 striker then playing for Red Star Belgrade in Serbia.

He was 13 — and not far from catching Zigic — when his grandfather laid down a harsh reality. “I was growing every year, and he told me, “‘Nikola, you need to go play basketball.’ I said, ‘No, no, I don’t like basketball.’ He said, ‘You need to try.’ His grandfather knew of a school in Podgorica, a place with a renowned coach who had sent players to some of the best clubs in Europe. Reluctantly, Mirotic agreed.

The 6-foot-9 Jadran Vujacic had played professionally in what was then Yugoslavia for more than two decades. He established the Joker School after his retirement in 1998, and soon after Mirotic arrived, they began working together one-on-one. Before scrimmages or even crudely assembled pickup games, there were weeks — months — of basics. “Before I started to play basketball, I had never seen basketball before,” Mirotic says. “I didn’t like it. It was just soccer in my mind.” Within two years, Mirotic was standing eye-to-eye with Vujacic, armed with a deadly jump shot and handle not fit for someone his size. At 15, a Real Madrid scout coaxed him to Spain.

Mirotic and his parents packed up and moved to Madrid, where he enrolled in the club’s school system and basketball program. Imagine the first day of high school — geometry, biology, 19th-century literature — in a completely foreign language. Mirotic arrived with nothing but his jumper and a Spanish-Montenegrin dictionary that he pulled four or five words from every day. “It was all in Spanish!” he says of his classes. “I had no idea.” Not one to complain, it took months before his teachers realized he was falling behind because he couldn’t understand a word they said. “After that, they got an individual teacher for me,” he says. “Teammates, they helped me with the language. The most important thing was to play good basketball, and they really liked me.”

On the court, Mirotic has all the subtlety of a Kiss show. He’s full of pyro and theatrics, chest pounding and full-throated roars. “I don’t think Nikola thinks he’s better than anyone,” says Igor Crespo, Mirotic’s agent. “But I also don’t think he believes he’s worse than anyone.” The assuredness Mirotic has in excess on the floor is harder to mine off it. He’s cautious on most subjects, completely void of presumption. But when he starts rattling off the accomplishments from his Real Madrid résumé, with a matter-of-fact tone, one after the next, a glint of Nikola the superstar comes through.

“In the last 20 years, no young player who played on the juniors, the cadets, played on the first team,” Mirotic says. “It’s very difficult for the big teams in Europe, when you’re young, to play on the first team.

“I won six titles professionally with them, two Spanish League [championships],1 Super Cup. We lost two Euroleague Championships in the finals. I was MVP of the Spanish League. Two times, Rising Star in Europe. They were very good years.” By the time last season began, Mirotic had gone from a teenager who’d never held a basketball to the best player in all of Europe.

When he landed in Portland for the Nike Hoop Summit in 2010, Duje Dukan was an 18-year-old soon-to-be sophomore at the University of Wisconsin. Even though he’d grown up in Deerfield, Illinois, just outside Chicago, Dukan was born in Croatia, and that week, he was among the 10 players on the World Select team facing off against an American squad featuring Kyrie Irving, Harrison Barnes, and Jared Sullinger. One of the others was a quiet Montenegrin named Nikola Mirotic.

Croatian and Montenegrin are two branches of the Serbo-Croatian language spoken throughout the former Yugoslavia, and part of Dukan’s role was to translate for his English-speaking coaches. “For that whole trip I was kind of [Mirotic’s] personal communicator, because English wasn’t his strong suit,” Dukan says. They spent the entire week together — practice, meals, wasting time in hotel rooms — and in the course of conversation, Dukan mentioned that his father was an international scout for the Chicago Bulls.

On the final day of the tournament, Mirotic met Duje’s father, Ivica, for the first time. They shook hands and said hello. But for Ivica Dukan, it was far from an introduction. He’d known Nikola Mirotic for years.

Jerry Krause’s first Toni Kukoc crusade ended on May 10, 1991. The Bulls’ then–general manager was in Philadelphia — where Chicago was set to play Game 3 of its second-round series against the 76ers — when Kukoc called to tell him he would sign a multiyear deal with Benetton Treviso of the Italian league. “We wish Toni the best of luck in his career in Europe,” Krause said at the time. “It’s commendable that he thought of his family situation, and the volatile political situation in Yugoslavia was a major factor.”

Eleven months earlier, the Bulls had taken Kukoc with the 29th pick in the 1990 draft. That year, Kukoc’s hometown club team, Jugoplastika Split, won the Euroleague title in addition to the Yugoslav First Federal League championship. Kukoc was named the MVP of the Euroleague Final Four, and by draft time he was widely considered the world’s best player not in the NBA. Krause had spent the year telling anyone who would listen about what the Bulls had found halfway around the world, but to those on the outside, the news of Kukoc’s deal in Italy looked like the end for his future in Chicago.

Hope was restored the next summer. At the same Olympic Games where Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen tried to embarrass him, a retaliation for all of Krause’s talk, Kukoc told reporters that he’d still like to one day play for the Bulls.

Later that month,  Krause made the franchise’s most significant foray yet into the world of European basketball. Ivica Dukan had been working for the team as a part-time scout for the better part of two years, but on August 21, 1992, the Bulls named him their supervisor of European scouting. With a 10-month-old son in tow, Dukan moved his family from Croatia to the suburbs of Chicago. By hiring Dukan, Krause filled two holes in his front office: a steadying presence in Europe and a friendly ear for the prize he still had there. Dukan’s last season of professional basketball was in 1988, when he was the captain of the same Jugoplastika Split team that employed a rookie named Toni Kukoc.

Dukan wasn’t only a friend to Kukoc, but a mentor. And whenever his scouting trips overlapped with Benetton’s schedule during the 1992-93 season, Dukan took Kukoc to dinner and laid out the benefits of coming to Chicago. “He said it would be important to try to get out of that contract and come here as soon as possible, just because of the idea that the whole team is intact, that they’re winning a championship,” Kukoc says. “That appealed to me, and it was a very nice idea.” It was the last season Kukoc ever played in Italy. “I don’t want to go down in history as Toni Kukoc’s warden,” Treviso owner Gilberto Benetton said at the time.2 “If he will ask me to set him free, to let him go play with the Bulls, I will not say no just for the fun of it. We will sit down at a table together and we will talk, just me and Toni.” When they did, it ended with Kukoc leaving the team with three years left on his contract.

Kukoc says that even without Dukan’s influence, he would have ended up in Chicago. Above all, he wanted more as a basketball player. “The NBA was something kind of far away that we didn’t have a full grasp of,” Kukoc says. “We just wanted to come and try to see just how good we are.” It was after Kukoc arrived that Dukan became truly indispensable.

Dukan and his family became an outlet for the Kukocs for whatever they needed. They saw each other socially. Their wives and children became friends. And on the court, Dukan was there anytime Kukoc started to doubt his place in the NBA. “Once you get here, you’ve got to have a sense of having somebody to talk with if you really needed it — if things aren’t going right, if you’re not playing well, anything,” Kukoc says.

“He knew my game a lot, so he would tell me the things that I needed to work on. It was mainly to just relax, don’t listen to everybody, don’t be influenced by whatever the people are saying. Just play your game. You’re good enough to succeed. It was the comfort of an older brother.”

There was nowhere to watch the NBA draft in Bilbao. This was 2011, and the Spanish national team had arrived in the city two weeks early for the FIBA U20 European Championship. They’d just finished a practice when Mirotic returned to his room to scour the web. When he came up empty, he started calling his agent every 20 minutes.

Mirotic was 16 when he hired Crespo. The two were together for nearly every step of Mirotic’s career in Madrid, including his ascension the previous year in his first full-time stint with the senior team. He averaged 17.6 points per 40 minutes while shooting nearly 39 percent from 3.

No one saw it coming. Mirotic — who played the season on his original contract, the deal he signed with Real Madrid when the club found him at 15 — had become a steal. Crespo saw the opportunity of the NBA draft as twofold: It would provide some leverage in a renegotiation with Madrid while also getting the clock ticking should Nikola want to eventually leave for the NBA. By April, the first part of the plan was implemented. A week after submitting his name for the draft and five days after winning the Euroleague’s Rising Star award, Real Madrid handed Mirotic an extension that ran through the 2016 season. All that remained was the question of his NBA future.

Bulls general manager Gar Forman first saw Mirotic play in person at the Nike Hoop Summit the previous summer. He’d seen Dukan’s reports about Mirotic, but Forman makes a point to see priority players live. “Just so we’re comparing apples to apples,” he says. What he saw was a 6-foot-10 shooter with tantalizing skills: passing, ballhandling, scoring ability. The Bulls held a pair of first-round picks in 2011, 28th and 30th overall.3 Chicago was hopeful it could snag Mirotic at 28, but before the draft, Forman got a tip that Sam Presti and the Thunder, sitting at no. 24, were eyeing him. If the Bulls wanted him, they would have to do some dealing.

It was creeping toward dawn in Bilbao as the first round wound down. Between calls to Crespo, Mirotic was convincing his teammates to stave off sleep. “It was long!” Mirotic says. “In Spain, it was three in the morning. Everyone was like, ‘Come on, Niko. Maybe you’ll go in the second round, so I go to sleep.’ I said, “No, no! Wait!’” They didn’t have to wait much longer. The Rockets selected Mirotic with the 23rd pick and quickly traded his rights to Minnesota. There, Forman found his partner in Timberwolves general manager David Kahn, who sent Mirotic — drafted one selection before the Thunder ­— to the Bulls for no. 28, no. 43, and cash. This time, Crespo was the one calling. “He said, ‘Nikola, you’re no. 23, with Chicago.’ I was with my teammates, and we were celebrating at the hotel. I was like a celebrity.”

The plan Crespo devised had worked better than Mirotic could have dreamed. Both his body and his game could use a few more seasons before a test in the NBA. “We couldn’t have been happier,” Crespo says. “It was a perfect match. The fact that the team didn’t need a player right away. The fact that they didn’t have the room for him at the time. The fact that they really wanted him. We were very lucky, and you have to be very lucky in the draft.”

Duje Dukan arrived in Bilbao later that week, as part of the U20 Croatian national team, and the old teammates spent much of the trip catching up. “It was funny,” Dukan says. “I had a Bulls shirt, and I kept wearing it around. At some point [Nikola] says, ‘Man, where did you get that?’ I said, ‘How am I not going to have it? I’ve been a Bulls fan my whole life.’” With a closet full of them back home, Dukan knew what he had to do. “The face that he had when I gave him that shirt … ” Dukan says. “He was so happy.”

Orlando Magic vs. Chicago BullsBarry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Ivica Dukan could play an action-movie fixer any day — a younger, Croatian Mike Ehrmantraut. “When you look at him, he looks very serious,” Mirotic says. “Like, ‘Be careful, this guy.’” Even his son knows how his father can seem to those who’ve never met him. “From afar,” Duje says, “he’s a very intimidating guy.”

Dukan declined an interview request for this story. He turns down a lot of them. One of the few times “Duke” has talked at length about Duke was in late 1997. It was a Q&A with BasketBull magazine, then a monthly perk for season-ticket holders. “It is hard when you have the family and kids and you spend a lot of time away from home,” Dukan said of all of his traveling. “That’s the job. I have a six-year-old son who is missing me a lot. He’s a basketball guy.” That son is now a redshirt senior at Wisconsin. “He’s the type that doesn’t like to do any sort of self-promotion,” Duje says. “He’s always kind of been that type, who’s done it his own way. He never wanted a lot of attention.”

When John Paxson took over the Bulls front office in 2003, he kept Dukan on as director of international scouting. “One of the great pieces of advice I got from [Jerry Krause] is to trust Ivica,” Paxson told the Chicago Sun-Times at the time. Forman was promoted to general manager in 2009, and trips to Europe have been a chance to see just how ingrained Dukan is in the continent’s basketball universe. “It was pretty seamless when I took over this job,” Forman says. “I think Duke is the best there is in the business. He’s got terrific contacts all over the world. He’s got so many contacts that as young guys are coming on the scene, he’s got people calling him all the time.”

In 2006, those contacts brought him to Turkey, where a 7-foot shot-blocking maniac named Omer Asik was playing his first year of professional basketball with Fenerbahce in the Turkish Basketball League. “I just remember him saying that not a lot of people knew about him,” Duje Dukan says, “and they were hoping they could get him in the second round before anyone found out about him.” Chicago did take Asik in the second round during the 2008 draft. He had two years remaining on his deal in Turkey, and the Bulls planned to bring him over before the 2010 season.

“That guy never left the gym,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau says of Asik’s first summer in Chicago. “I’d go at night, and he’d be there again. You could see how committed he was, and how hard he worked. Once we started practice, I could see how quickly he picked up things.” Asik played so well in the preseason that he remained a part of the rotation his entire rookie year for a Bulls team that won 62 games.

The Bulls couldn’t wait out Mirotic’s deal in the same way, but in the early days after he was drafted, he says the team respected his status in Madrid. They knew he had a contract and a job to do. But when Dukan passed through Spain, the two would regularly sit down for a meal. The conversations they shared mirrored those Dukan had with Kukoc in his days with Benetton. “We have a great relationship,” Mirotic says. “He met my wife. We spoke together. We went to dinner. We talked about Chicago, about the team, the organization, the city, everything. Because [my wife and I] didn’t know.”

Dukan’s commitment to basketball is trumped only by a commitment to his relationships. For 20 years, he and Kukoc have remained friends. Their sons — a year apart in school — grew up together and even faced off at rival high schools. Their families have spent Thanksgivings together, Christmases too. Kukoc regularly joins Dukan on trips to Madison to see Duje play. “I don’t think it’s changed at all,” Kukoc says. “He’s a terrific friend, a great person, and he really knows the game. [His time with the Bulls] is a testament to how good of a basketball person he is, his knowledge, his class. You don’t work for an organization this good for this long if you’re not as good as he is.”

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four Semi FinalRodolfo Molina/EB via Getty Images

During his last season in Madrid, a week never passed without Mirotic and Crespo meeting in person. The Bulls were a constant subject of conversation, especially as it became clear that a move to Chicago this season might be possible. Three years removed from the draft, July was the first time Chicago could negotiate with Mirotic outside the rookie scale. With two years left on his contract, Mirotic’s buyout was a $3.1 million toll on his way out of Madrid. For a move to be financially viable, he would need a salary in the range of the midlevel exception — about $5.3 million this year — an amount the Bulls could finally offer.

Still, when Madrid’s season ended on June 27, with a 98-86 loss in the Euroleague Finals, Mirotic hadn’t made a decision. “There were many things happening at the time,” Crespo says. “His son was born in May. It was only two days after losing in the Final Four. He loved the Bulls, but at the same time, he felt that he maybe had to stay one more year in Madrid.”

As the Bulls courted Carmelo Anthony, Mirotic looked to Duje for advice about how he would fit into the team’s plans. “He didn’t have a feel for some of the guys,” Duje says. “I told him, ‘The Bulls want you. I’m not even worried about who they bring in. You’re going to play great for them.’” The first week of July, Mirotic called Crespo to make it official. He was ready.

Like Kukoc before him, Mirotic had accomplished almost everything a player can outside the NBA. He says the move wasn’t about money. He had plenty of that. The NBA was a place where he could make his game something it could never be in Europe. “I just think I can grow more as a player here, in the U.S., in the NBA,” Mirotic says. “I think they work differently. They work harder. I was playing five, six years professionally in Madrid. I think it’s the best moment now. I want something different, a new life.”

Anthony’s spurning of the Bulls meant a chunk of available salary cap, even after Mirotic’s three-year, $17 million deal. That money ended up going to Pau Gasol, a longtime object of affection in the Chicago front office. Gasol turned down a two-year, $22 million deal from the Lakers to take just over $7 million a season from the Bulls.

As Mirotic finalized his plans to come to Chicago to take a physical and meet the media, he got a call from Forman. “[Gar] said, ‘The flight is Friday, and you and Pau are coming together,’” Mirotic says. “I said, ‘Are you serious?’” In his first season in a new country and a new league, the other player signing with the Bulls happened to be the greatest player in Spain’s history.

When the plane landed at O’Hare, two Town Cars were waiting to drive them to the facility, but Gasol suggested they ride together. Mirotic spent the hour drive peppering the Spanish legend with questions. “He was more concerned about the language than anything,” Gasol says. “More of learning the language. He’s pretty much bilingual, almost trilingual, but interviews are something he was a little more tense about.”

The last stop of the day was a White Sox game, where they were scheduled to throw out the first pitch. All afternoon, Mirotic worried about that throw. The mound can be a lonely place. When his turn came, he not only hummed it in over the plate — he put a little extra on it too.

Houston Astros v Chicago White SoxBrian D. Kersey/Getty

The only person who thinks Nikola Mirotic struggles with English is Nikola Mirotic. He apologizes for being hard to understand, even when he isn’t. “He’s real sharp, and he probably doesn’t give himself enough credit,” Thibodeau says.

Miscues are inevitable, but overall, Mirotic has settled in comfortably. He shot 35 percent from 3 in the preseason, and Thibodeau has been effusive in praising his approach. “I think the physicality and the speed is different, but he’s a good player, so I think he’s adjusting,” Thibodeau says. “Each game, you can see he’s more comfortable. Each day in practice, I can see it. There’ll be some mistakes along the way, and we expected that. But he’s doing a good job.” Thibodeau has been reluctant about playing rookies in the past, but Asik was proof that with the right type of player, it can happen.

Mirotic’s most significant transition has been the change in schedule. In Europe, practices lasted about 90 minutes. For Thibodeau, they’re twice that. “I’ve never worked out like this, with this energy, two, three hours,” he says. “I’ve never done lifting like this. For me, everything is new. Every day, I learn something different. Here, we are learning a lot of defense.”

What hasn’t changed is the demeanor that defined Mirotic in Madrid. Never bashful about seeking out shots, Mirotic is rarely quiet when they go in. He poured in 17 points in his preseason debut, pounding his chest more than once after drilling a 3. Any meekness off the court disappears the moment he steps onto it.

Bulls PresserGary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

About 30 minutes after one of those three-hour Thibodeau sessions lets out, Mirotic and Joakim Noah are the only Bulls left on the Advocate Center court. Mirotic’s post-practice shooting routine starts outside the arc. When he’s finished going around, he starts to move inside, with Bulls assistant Ed Pinckney mocking defense and giving pointers.

The Bulls spent 22 years at the Berto Center in nearby Deerfield before moving into the brand-new facility last month. With his commute in mind, Mirotic and his family settled on a building in Streeterville, right next to Navy Pier and overlooking the lake. Gasol looked at two units in the same building before ending up elsewhere. “It’s OK,” Mirotic says. “Every day, I see him here.”

As part of his housing hunt, Mirotic went to Dukan, who’s also considering a move to the city after two decades on the outskirts. When the season starts, Dukan will hit the road, scouting college and NBA games before taking his initial trip to Europe in December. For now, he’s around, and he and Mirotic rarely go a day without sharing breakfast or lunch in the Bulls’ shimmering new kitchen.

Finding a house wasn’t on the long list of favors Dukan did for Kukoc during his first year. Kukoc’s wife took care of that. They’ve been in the same Highland Park home for 21 years. For everything that’s similar about how Kukoc and Mirotic got to Chicago, there are places where the stories diverge.

This year’s Bulls have championship aspirations, but the team Kukoc joined had championship expectations. “Obviously, when you come onto a team that’s playing in the Finals and the standards are so high that nothing but winning a championship is success, coming in new to that kind of environment, of course you’re going to put pressure on yourself,” Kukoc says.

Kukoc has yet to meet Mirotic. He’d like to, but he knows how frantic the first few months can be, with a young family in a foreign place. “I’m going to kind of let him settle in a little bit,” Kukoc says. “We’re going to find time once the season starts to sit down and talk a little bit.

“If he starts asking me about stuff, of course I’m going to try to be helpful. But I’m not going to be someone that’s going to go over there and start teaching him basketball.”

That part Mirotic already knows. 

Filed Under: NBA, 2014-15 NBA Preview, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol, Toni Kukoc, Chicago Bulls, Gar Forman, John Paxson, Omer Asik

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays