In a special edition of Weekly Pulse, Mackenzie Salmon is joined by USA TODAY Sports reporters Mark Medina, Jeff Zillgitt, Nancy Armour and Jarrett Bell for a roundtable discussion on the meteoric changes that could take place in America as a result of a historic week in sports.
It doesn’t matter when the Dallas Mavericks are playing. It could be prime time in Slovenia and Spain, or it could be the early morning hours, before the sun peaks out. It doesn’t matter; hardcore basketball fans and casual fans are tuning into to watch Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic.
“Everybody is buzzing right now,” Slovenian broadcaster and editor Luka Stucin of TV Arena Sport told USA TODAY Sports. “The time couldn’t be worse — 3 a.m. Slovenia time. But you don’t sleep. You watch Luka.”
It was a week ago when Doncic put together one of the most memorable individual playoff performances in NBA history with 43 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists — plus the winning 3-pointer in overtime at the buzzer, giving Dallas a 135-133 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 4.
He is just one of three players to have at least 40 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in a playoff game, joining Oscar Robertson and Charles Barkley. And he did it with a sore ankle. Michael Jordan had the flu game. In Slovenia, they’re calling it the Ankle Game.
Slovenian prime minster Janez Jansa retweeted the game-winning shot, and NBA Spain’s tweet of the buzzer-beater generated nearly two million video views.
Spanish broadcaster Antoni Daimiel had the call for Movistar Plus TV in Spain, and it was spectacular — the call in addition to the shot.
Though he is Slovenian, Doncic has the support of Spanish fans because he played for Real Madrid before joining the NBA.
“He is a special player,” Daimiel said. “We know him from when he was 16, playing like a professional. He is the owner of the full pack of basketball talents — IQ, bravery, daring.”
Game 6 is Sunday (3:30 ET, ESPN), and Doncic and the Mavericks need a victory to force a decisive Game 7.
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Doncic is just 21 years old and a star headed toward legend. During the regular season, he averaged 28.8 points (sixth), 9.4 rebounds (24th) and 8.8 assists (third) and led the league with 17 triple-doubles. He also helped the Mavericks make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and is making Dallas a team other talented players want to join.
“The ball is in his hands, and it’s his team,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “I told him that. His job is to play the game and make his teammates as good as they can be and give the players around them confidence. He did those things in Game 4.”
Doncic made his first All-Star team in 2020 and will make first- or second-team All-NBA and receive MVP votes this season.
“I think he is the league’s next transcendent star,” Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s my take on it. It’s just remarkable what he is doing right now at his age. And one of the most unique players ever to come into this league. So, I believe he is, if not the transcendent star, one of the transcendent stars.”
And becoming royalty in Slovenia, where he has a few nicknames: The Don, Luka Magic, Wonder Boy, Boom Shaka Luka.
“We thought in 2017 when our national team won the European championship, that was the peak of Slovenians caring about basketball,” Stucin said. “But week after week, day after day, Luka is just proving us wrong. It’s a frenzy here. In Slovenia, every media outlet, every person who maybe watched a game basketball or two is watching Luka, writing about it, sharing videos. It’s a crazy atmosphere. Arena Sports hasn’t seen that much interest in a long, long time.”
The impact on the court has translated to interest in Doncic, which has translated to an impact on NBA business.
“It’s not a surprise that he was really good coming into the NBA and winning Rookie of the Year,” said NBA senior vice president and managing director of NBA Europe and Middle East Ralph Rivera. “But to come into his first playoffs and play as dominantly as he has played against the Clippers with a great defensive team in Kawhi (Leonard) and to be able to do that in prime time here in Europe, which we don’t get to often because of the time zones.
“Games happening in the afternoon in the U.S. are prime time here. That confluence of excitement, his first playoffs, a tremendous performance and to have it in prime time just took it off the charts.”
In one year, Doncic jersey sales have risen from No. 17 in Europe to No. 3, and NBA League Pass in Europe had a 79% increase this season over last season.
“Our core fans in Europe obviously will be proud of and gravitate toward him, but it goes beyond that in terms of attracting new fans,” Rivera said. “Similar to a Tiger Woods in golf, who got non-golfers interested in golf because it was Tigers Woods, Luka as a persona in addition to the greatness of his game will bring more fans to the game in Europe — because people will identify with him, his background, his story, and him being a great player from Europe.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt. Contributing: Mark Medina.