Sunday, August 14, 2022 Aug 14, 2022
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Basketball

From Slovenia, With Love

A countryman of Luka Dončić’s pays his first visit to Dallas. Of course brisket is involved.
By | |Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh
luka slovenia
Ryan Olbrysh

Loud music was pumping in the American Airlines Center, but I almost didn’t hear it anymore. I was tired as hell. The initial adrenaline of seeing my first Dallas Mavericks game in person had faded, and I felt like I was watching the game in slow motion from my couch in my hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia. The Friday evening game had just been stopped midway through the first period when one of the rims was determined to be crooked. By that time, I had been awake for 27 hours. 

My high school buddy Jan, who was in charge of logistics for our trip, messed up the game date. His Google Calendar showed it in our local time—which was a day later because of the seven-hour time difference and a late tipoff—so we arrived at the AAC directly from the airport. When the game started, it was 4 am on my Slovenian biological clock. Then came the 45-minute delay, as arena staff worked to replace the crooked rim. (Unfortunately, the spare was also equipped with the same annoyingly loud mics.)

The game resumed with Joel Embiid, the 7-foot, 280-pound giant center for the Philadelphia 76ers at the free-throw line. “Number 21, you’re soft! Joel, you suck! You’re soft,” a miniature chubby man with a Luka Dončić No. 77 jersey yelled from a seat a few rows below our press box desk. This is when I realized I had arrived. I was in the USA, the land of free speech. Even better, I was in Dallas, Texas, where our Slovenian “prodigy son” plays basketball. The rest of the game was amazing. The Mavericks won, and Luka finished with 33 points, 13 rebounds, and 15 assists. 

It was the first game during the best week of basketball in his career—which included a career-high 51 points against the Los Angeles Clippers four days later—and I was lucky to be there for all of it.

I was woken up the next morning by short blasts of a police siren and an officer talking to people over the PA system in his vehicle. I was lying in my bed in a spacious downtown apartment on Ross Avenue. I looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was 5 am—now I’m talking Texas time. I quickly realized why there was also a set of earplugs by the clock. Booking an Airbnb downtown was another blunder by Jan, one that became a never-​ending joke for me and Matej—our other colleague on this trip—through our 10-day stay in Dallas. My D Magazine sports editor, Mike Piellucci, recommended we book an apartment in Uptown, but Jan chose downtown because of price and proximity to the AAC, and Matej and I made sure he didn’t forget about it. 

Tired because of the short sleep but excited to start exploring a new city, we decided to take a stroll. Because this is what we Europeans and especially Slovenians do—we walk a lot. This is when our first expectation about Dallas was crushed. Downtown was a ghost town. Now, it didn’t help that we were there after a huge snowstorm that had hit Texas two days earlier, so everything was closed. Nevertheless, as I wandered around the Main Street District, Historic District [Editor’s note: we think he means the Harwood Historic District, which can’t seem all that historic to someone from a place that’s home to Ljubljasna Castle, believed to have been built in the 11th century], and all the way to the Farmers Market—which had a very European vibe to it—I realized that the Dallas city center is much different than what we expected. In Ljubljana, and most European capitals I’ve been to, the city center is typically full of people, a place where things happen. Not so much in Dallas. 

Later that day, to lift Jan’s spirits after downtown jokes started to get under his skin, Matej and I decided to accept advice from a local. We met Tim Cato (a beat writer for The Athletic who became our local guide) and a couple of his friends in the Rodeo Bar. The setup offered a miniature Texas experience amidst downtown’s high towers. Two rounds of bourbon-and-Lone Star combos later, Dallas finally felt like Texas for the first time. I’m a hyperactive person who has a problem with living in the moment, but shooting pool along with an excessive amount of food, great beer, live music, and, most of all, friendly local people made me relax and forget about time like few things do. This experience is something we repeated several times at different places on our trip, and it’s something that I’ll have the fondest memories of from my trip, apart from the “Luka Magic.”

After spending our first few days walking around Dallas, we learned it the hard way: we needed a car badly. Everybody I met—apart from Tim, who I think is a bit of a hipster—lives in a town at least a half-hour drive away from the city center. I was under the impression that Dallas and Fort Worth are one city, but we needed almost an hour to get from one to the other. In a Slovenian world, a one-hour drive typically equals a short vacation. From Ljubljana, drive one hour north and you are skiing in the Austrian mountains. One hour to the west and you’re drinking Italian coffee in Trieste. One hour to the southwest, Croatia and the seaside. You get the point. So we rented a car. 

We wanted one to blend with the locals, so we got a 4.6-liter V-8 Ford Explorer. Seeing the three of us in a huge SUV, and watching all the other huge trucks stuck in traffic, driving hundreds of miles every day, reminded me of how my trip had begun: Jan and I trying to fit two big suitcases in an electric two-seater mini-car to get to the airport. 

The Dallas city center is much different than what we expected. In Ljubljana, and most European capitals I’ve been to, the city center is typically full of people, a place where things happen. Not so much in Dallas.

While cars are still predominant modes of transportation in Slovenia, especially in Ljubljana, many people bike to work and around the city. It’s a hip thing to do. Go green. I walked along a huge bike lane from my apartment to the AAC several times but never saw any cyclists (the only bicycle I saw was used by a homeless person for transporting his possessions). It made me wonder how much sense it makes for people in tiny Slovenia—a friend from Norway once called it Hobbiton—to bike 20 minutes to get to work, while millions of Texans drive 5-liter diesel trucks hundreds of miles every day. I’m pretty sure Slovenian cyclists won’t prevent global warming, but at least we have the best one in the world—2021 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar—to show for that.

The cool part of being able to drive around was that we managed to see many different places. Like typical tourists, the first trip we took was to the Fort Worth Stockyards. As cheesy as it sounds, it helped me better understand Texas heritage and the obsession with meat and barbecue. Before you ask: yes, I tried it all. From Whataburger—apparently a nonnegotiable for my Twitter followers—and different steakhouses to Terry Black’s Barbecue. The latter ruined my first Super Bowl experience on American soil. Because of the excessive ribs and brisket, I watched it semiconsciously in the bed of my hotel room. 

Ironic or not, driving around enabled me to get a much better sense of Dallas’ vibe. Going beyond the boundaries of the soulless city center, marked by things that a typical European associates with metropolitan America—glamorous skyscrapers, homeless people, and a lot of police—I got to explore places that felt much more “cosmopolitan.” A street with three bars all playing live music on a random Monday evening in Deep Ellum is the kind of thing you can’t find in my hometown. Drinking coffee in the Bishop Arts District gave me the urban feel I get in a European capital. I even saw some bicycles parked there. 

Most of all, I was able to meet different people at places they love. Getting to know my D Magazine colleagues over a beer on a terrace at Loro. Talking to Mavericks’ assistant coach Igor Kokoškov at “his” breakfast spot, Fount Board & Table. Spending hours drinking coffee at Ascension in the Design District. This was a place Mavericks radio play-by-play guy Chuck Cooperstein recommended to me and became my favorite spot, where I wrote my D Magazine Mavericks story (seeing D stickers on the entrances of most of these places also made me feel like I belong there in a strange way). It seemed to me that everybody I got to know has a spot they love, and getting to know Dallas through their lenses was how my bond with the city strengthened. Knowing this city was a much more complex and subtle process than what I envisioned when I walked on the deserted frozen sidewalks in downtown for the first time. 

But all places aside, and as cliche as it might sound, the people I’ve met—and I hope I can call some of them friends—are what made the biggest impression on me. There are many stereotypes about Americans, even more about conservative Texas, here in my part of the world. But the people I’ve met were all open minded, progressive—cosmopolitan. People with a sense of humor that I could joke with from the get-go. People I could not only discuss basketball with but talk about culture, politics, education, and life in general. Or just kill time playing pool and sharing a Lone Star. Maybe it’s the circle I was in; maybe Dallas is just different. To be honest, I don’t really care. They are the reason that will make Dallas a special place in my heart. And a place where I’ll definitely return. Next time, it just won’t be downtown. Sorry, Jan. 

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Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…