Nikola Mirotic, who celebrated his 24th birthday this week, plays Friday for the World Team in the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Nikola Mirotic, rising star

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By Sam Smith | 2.13.2015 | 2:00 p.m. CT

You don’t much hear players like the Bulls Nikola Mirotic talk about the games as being wars or some long shot being a bomb because they know about the reality of such things, of wars and bombs. They ran from them. Even for Mirotic, who celebrated his 24th birthday this week as he plays Friday for the World Team in the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge.

That’s the fun, and the Bulls talented rookie is thrilled with the invitation and opportunity in a basketball career that has sped through the basketball world like a meteor.

“A big honor to be to be part of this thing,” said Mirotic. “I really want to enjoy this game, this experience for my life and represent my team, Chicago Bulls. For me, means a lot. Especially because it’s first year; not easy to be there. So that means I really work hard this year, I do something good to be on this list. So I’m really happy and looking forward to play this game.”

Mirotic has done a lot. He is one of the early season candidates for NBA Rookie of the Year and was the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December when Mirotic averaged about 10 points and six rebounds and had a 27-point game in a victory at Memphis.

Mirotic is averaging 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds, actually similar to his averages with Real Madrid before he broke out to become one of the top players in Europe. Mirotic’s playing time has decreased lately with the emergence of Tony Snell and Mirotic moving back to a fourth front court spot. But when the Bulls opened their long Western trip late last month, Mirotic played a major role with 12 points and seven rebounds in the upset win over Golden State.

With his quality three-point shooting and confidence for a young player, Mirotic has fit in well with the team and promises to be a valuable player going forward with the growing emphasis in the NBA on big men who can shoot from long distance. Which continues a bright future for a young man who didn’t exactly come from hardship, but perhaps uncertainty.

Mirotic grew up in Podgorica, formerly Titograd, in Montenegro, which had been part of Yugoslavia. Montenegro, which means black mountain, finally gained its independence in 2006. But it was caught up in the so called ethnic cleansing battles of the 1990s that resulted in NATO bombing in which the United States played a part. Although Montenegro was not a primary battle field, there was bombing there and as a youngster Mirotic endured the effects.

On one occasion, during a bombing, young Nikola was hustled out of school to safety by an administrator, at least for a few hours his parents hunting desperately for him.

“The war started earlier,” Mirotic recalled. “I think (about) five years the war started again. I remember I was in the school when they drop couple of bombs in our city. One guy, I think he was director of our school, he take me, drive me not to my home, to his house. I remember my parents are trying to find me. They cannot find me. I was in this house trying to wait for everything to be safe. They could not find me. After a couple hours, I go home. I find they really worry about me. It is really bad memories.

“Of course, I was very scared,” Mirotic said. “I don’t know how to explain it; you don’t feel safe. You (get) away from all the emergency sound, where you can be safe. We had good place to be safe.

“I don’t like to talk a lot about that,” Mirotic acknowledged. “It’s not good, a lot of people, they support bad things. We are small country and it was really, really bad for us. We talk about it (at home when he was older) a couple of years after that. Of course, I ask why what happened with this war, why they attack us. They (parents) were always trying to protect me, to tell me it’s nothing serious, just happened and never going to happen again. But I know why this happened. It’s no good.”

I’ll interrupt the narrative a bit as I often do with Mirotic to note that I quote him precisely as he speaks. It’s not to mark him for unstructured English, but to show just how intelligent he is. When Mirotic went to Spain from Montenegro as a 15-year-old to begin his professional career, he spoke no Spanish. But he had to go to regular high school where they spoke only Spanish. He picked it up quickly. Similarly, I met him a few years ago for the first time when his Real Madrid team was playing a preseason tour in Memphis. He had a translator. Yet, he’s already comfortable doing interviews in English with the ability to use irony and sarcasm in a fourth language. It’s a remarkable level of intelligence we rarely see when Americans go to work abroad.

Obviously, nobody knew it at the time those bombs were dropping, but this was a special kid.

Like American kids who pursue basketball, football and baseball, youngsters in Europe and Asia take up soccer. Mirotic did and was very good. He had his soccer heroes and dreamed of being a pro like most kids do.

“I was really good soccer,” Mirotic said with pride. “Especially good in the foot. I was quick, too, tall. I was in school. Every kid practicing soccer. For us it was favorite. I was playing offense. Big time, the coaches told me. I started to grow a lot; 10, 11 years old.”

But his grandfather told him he should try basketball given his size as Mirotic, today about 6-10, was taller than the other kids. Nikola knew nothing about basketball.

“My grandfather said, ‘I have a great school for you to try to play basketball.’ I said, ‘No, I want to play soccer because I love soccer and I play all my life soccer,’” Mirotic recounted. ‘He said. ‘Go, just one time, try.’ He said you don’t have to say anything to your soccer coach, just go one day. So I go there to the Joker School. It was really amazing. My coach now (Jadran Vujacic, a former pro player), he makes me feel good. I really love that first practice. I didn’t have any idea about basketball, the traveling (violation); I didn’t know how to shoot.

“I really don’t know why (I liked it) but I really feel good about the practice, the atmosphere in this small school and I decide to come back again and stop with soccer,” Mirotic said. “I start to learn everything. After first practice, the coach he told me, ‘Come 30-40 minutes earlier before the group, I want to show you something.’ He really start to show me all the simple stuff about basketball, how you need to shoot, how you need to go to the basket, don’t do the traveling. All the simple stuff and I really picked up fast all these things. I remember after one month my first game I made 20 points.”

Even today, Mirotic speaks with pride about those early days, his speedy transformation. In a sense, it’s no surprise he learned languages so quickly, adjusted to the NBA in a seamless sort of way. He was a prodigy, but they don’t celebrate them the way they do in the look-at-me United States.

“In my country; they don’t let you know you are really good,” Mirotic said with a laugh. “They want you to practice hard. They know you are young and have to go through a lot. So he was just trying to push me every single day, try to show me a lot. That year I grow a lot. I was the most important player in my school. This team and really great memories. After that, second year I (start) for Real Madrid.”

Talk about your traveling league; kids tend to mature, or are asked to, more quickly in Europe. The barriers between countries are so much smaller with more and easier access to different cultures and customs. Kids tend to be sheltered more in the United States, much less worldly and generally less sophisticated.

Mirotic isn’t one of those super athletes, not with the so called explosion of the American high jumpers. But he had unusual skills for such a young player, size and shooting ability, toughness and a lack of fear about playing against superior opponents or taking a big shot. He could put the ball on the floor a bit and pass somewhat. He also displayed a sort of Joakim Noah-esque infectious enthusiasm which he wasn’t hesitant to show, chest pounding and bumping that we’ve only seen sporadically with the Bulls given his limited playing time.

At 15, he was recruited to play for a top professional team in Spain, Real Madrid.

Sure, a lot of American players go to prep schools and faraway high schools to begin their quest to a career. For Mirotic, it was to a faraway part of the continent in a different country with another language and customs to become a pro at 15. Who is ready for that?

His mother was at home with he and his brother, who is three years old, and his father worked with many businesses. They decided to pack up and stay with Nikola in Spain for that first year.

“They went with me first year; they knew it was important for me to not be alone, to be with them,” Mirotic explained. “I was youngest child in our house and they decided to be first year with me because it was the most important year, that they need to be there to support me. They didn’t work there, they trying to be all the time with me, cook, take care of me. I was really young kid, 15 years. My brother working in Montenegro, 18, staying there. Second year, they leave. I stayed there with Real Madrid, all the kids.”

So at 16, in a different country, now on his own, a professional athlete with a nine-year contract, though that was redone as he developed in an attempt to retain him in Spain. Heady stuff.

“Paying me, my house, salary,” Mirotic said. “Not big money; big for me, first salary 15 years old was big money for me. I was really feeling good. Phone, everything.”

But a serious kid, doing his studies and coming off the bench playing a limited role.

Mirotic with his size, mature offensive game, quickness and enthusiasm became a favorite. It helped he excelled in playoff series and soon was a phenomenon, winning the Rising Star award twice as the best young player in Europe. He would be part of six title winning teams, losing twice in the Euroleague championship game, MVP of the league, Rising Star. Mirotic reworked a larger contract to go through 2016 and wasn’t really thinking much about the NBA when the Bulls acquired him in 2011. The Rockets initially picked Mirotic at No. 23 (the Bulls had No. 28), traded him to Minnesota, where the Bulls got him with their first, a second and cash. They didn’t push, figuring they’d get Mirotic, in effect, minor league work like in baseball, but which so few NBA rookies receive.

For Mirotic’s part, he liked playing in Spain, was successful and popular. The NBA wasn’t any big dream or need.

“I made first team (Euroleague), just wanted to be one of the players, win championships there; I did not think of the NBA,” Mirotic said.

The Bulls would make casual visits to watch Mirotic play, meet with him. No pressure, no questions about when he might come. It didn’t make sense, anyway, for Mirotic with a $3 million buyout in his contract. For his first three years after being drafted under NBA rules, Mirotic could only be paid the rookie scale, about $1 million for a player selected in the 20s. NBA teams are only allowed to contribute a few hundred thousand dollars to buyouts. The Bulls weren’t even sure about attracting Mirotic last summer. If they had signed Carmelo Anthony, they would not have the salary cap room for a Mirotic salary that exceeded his buyout. And Mirotic still was undecided. He was recently married with a young son and wasn’t sure about uprooting the family.

“Just trying to be focused to be one of the best players on my team,” Mirotic said about his thought process even last season. “It was not really easy, big goal for me, big challenge to be a good player (in Spain), especially if you are not Spanish guy, more difficult to be that player.”

The rules in the league allow for five players from Spain and five more from Europe. But under rules Mirotic said Montenegro did not qualify in the Europe exception. So he had to come from the pool of just two players from anywhere, including the U.S. and NBA. Thus more pressure and expectations.

“I start to think about the NBA 2011 when Chicago drafted me,” Mirotic said. “Follow some NBA games. Start to think about it, but nothing crazy. All those games they play.”

There were no 82-game schedules in Europe. It didn’t sound so appealing, initially. But the more he thought about it, the NBA, testing yourself against the best. It was time. The Bulls had the money once the free agency changed from Anthony to Pau Gasol. Mirotic signed a three-year deal for about $16 million.

“A big moment, big change for me,” said Mirotic. “I did not think it would happen. An honor.”

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