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For the Slovenian school where Mavericks star Luka Doncic got his start, he's still a hometown hero

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — The laughter of schoolchildren at recess and basketballs ringing on the pavement echoed through the quiet streets of a residential district in Slovenia's capital, the place where Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic got his start.

The phenomenal guard has led his franchise to just its third appearance in the NBA Finals, where he has had two impressive performances though Dallas has come up short both times against the Boston Celtics. Doncic, playing with chest, ankle and knee injuries, finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists as Dallas lost Sunday night 105-98. The Mavericks lost the opening game despite 30 points from Doncic.

Game 3 is Wednesday night.

At 25 years old, Doncic has already racked up a raft of accolades that have him on track to be one of the greatest Europeans — or anyone else — to play the game.

But his road to a shot at an NBA championship started two decades and 5,500 miles from the bright lights of Dallas at the Miran Jarc primary school in Ljubljana, a city of around 300,000 nestled in a green valley of the Slovenian Alps.

“My first impression was that he was taller than all the guys at his age, and he really moved with the ball really great. You could feel that he’s really talented,” said Rok Dezman, who coached Doncic at the school from the age of 6.

Doncic’s precociousness on the court was evident from the first grade, Dezman said, so he immediately began competing with players several years older than him to even the playing field.

But that age disparity meant that Doncic, today standing at 6-foot-7 (2 meters), didn’t always have a height advantage, leading him to focus on sinking shots from a distance rather than measuring up against bigger players under the rim.

Still, Dezman said, Doncic sought ways to outsmart his age and size disadvantage.

“He took it as a challenge every time that he dealt with older guys,” Dezman said. “He was trying to find a way to finish also in the paint. The size didn’t matter to him.”

Hanging on a wall inside the school is a printed photo of Doncic with a quote attributed to him: “I never dreamed of success. I worked for it.”

According to Uros Rozman, Doncic’s gym teacher at Miran Jarc from fourth to seventh grade, that inspirational slogan truly reflects the single-mindedness Doncic always displayed for upping his game.

“Talent is important, but when you grow up and play with adults, talent is not enough. You must work hard, and he was a hard worker in our school already," said Rozman, who today is the principal of the school. "The basketball was in his hands all the time.”

Shortly after starting to play on his primary school team, Doncic joined the youth league of the Union Olimpija club in Ljubljana, where he continued to practice with players several years his senior. Once he finished the seventh grade, he left his country and family to play for the youth academy of Real Madrid in Spain.

Only five years later, he'd be drafted into the NBA.

The reverberations of Doncic's success are felt by all the students at Miran Jarc, said Aleksandar Drobnjak, a ninth grader at the school who plays for the same youth team, Olimpija, that Doncic did as a youngster.

Drobnjak said attending Doncic's alma mater is “an honor and a pleasure," and that he and other students have taken inspiration from his work ethic.

“Every single pupil at this school knows Luka Doncic went to our school and now is a world famous basketball star,” he said. “If we can do the same thing as him, we can be famous like him. With hard work, with focus, with listening, with honor.”

On the court, Doncic displays a swagger and confidence not typical of most European players, and is known for venting his emotions during games to both officials and opponents.

According to Dezman, Doncic's first coach, it's a competitiveness that he's showed since his earliest days in the gym at his primary school in Ljubljana.

“He’s stayed the same guy. The main thing with Luka is that he lives basketball,” Dezman said. “He’s a born winner. He has to win.”

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