Goran Dragić was already famous in Chicago long before he signed a contract with the Bulls.
Infamous might be more accurate.
Dragić co-starred in one of Derrick Rose’s top highlights of the 2009-10 season. It was one of those vicious, acrobatic, clutch-your-pearls dunks that raised both the hopes and blood pressure of fans throughout Chicago.
Rose caught a pass in transition, racing toward the basket. Dragić — then a second-year guard trying to find his place with the Phoenix Suns — threw himself in the way, but it was already too late. Rose floated toward the rim, pulled the ball behind his head with both hands and posterized Dragić, then 23.
“What are you doing, Dragic?” Bulls commentator Stacey King bellowed as Rose’s teammates watched the replay in awe on the sideline. “Did you not get the memo? Derrick Rose can go upstairs.”
That highlight has followed Dragić through the past 12 years of his career — and now to his new home in Chicago.
“This is my nightmare,” Dragić joked during Bulls media day Monday.
Dragić pointed out in his defense that Rose is the only NBA player to dunk on him throughout his 14-year career. But that dunk is everlasting, crystallized in Bull’s history.
Dragić has kept his humor about the play more than a decade later.
“I was young — that was my second year in the league — so I had to go for that play,” Dragić said. “Of course, if I knew I would never go, but it is what it is. At least I’m on TV all the time.”
Plenty has changed in the 12-plus years since that play. Now Dragić, 36, is embracing his role as the most experienced player on the Bulls roster while acclimating to his new team in training camp.
Coach Billy Donovan noted Dragić’s 14 seasons of NBA experience as a strength for the Bulls. The 6-foot-3 guard adds ballhandling and playmaking to the rotations, helping offset Lonzo Ball’s absence from the backcourt.
“I’ve got a lot of experience being (the) vocal guy in the locker room,” Dragić said. “If they need me, I can come from the bench and be their spark. I’m at that point of my career where whatever is needed from me, I’m glad to do it.”
Dragić isn’t likely to start this season. Donovan acknowledged the challenges of playing starter’s minutes at Dragić’s age, envisioning him instead as a complementary player off the bench. But Dragić proved this summer he still can carry a sizable load when he came out of a five-year international retirement to represent Slovenia in the Eurobasket tournament.
Dragić cited Luka Dončić and Rasho Nesterović as the driving forces in pulling him out of retirement from international play. The pair persuaded Dragić to participate in the tournament, in which he averaged 14.9 points, 3.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals in seven games.
Eurobasket is known for its grueling physicality, often striking fear in NBA fans and coaches as players compete aggressively only weeks before training camps open. But Dragić said the Bulls encouraged him to represent his country.
“As an international player, when you don’t play for your national team, it’s really tough to go back home,” Dragić joked. “When you walk on the street and the fans are yelling at you… it’s tough.”
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Despite the disappointment of an upset loss in the quarterfinals to Poland, Dragić said Eurobasket prepared him for the physical challenge of the 2022-23 season. Donovan didn’t feel the need to put Dragić on a minute limit for training camp, although the team will monitor the veteran guard for any rest needed throughout the preseason.
After facing Dragić in the 2020 NBA Finals, new teammate Alex Caruso said he’s well-versed with the physical endurance of the Bulls’ newest guard.
“You don’t have to worry about toughness with him,” said Caruso, whose Los Angeles Lakers beat Dragić’s Miami Heat in six games. “I know Goran’s tough. He’s not afraid of moments. I’m excited to be his teammate and not play against him.”
The 2020 Finals still weigh heavily on Dragić, fueling his desire to compete in his 15th season. He tore the plantar fascia in his left foot in Game 1 of the series but returned in Game 6 in a desperate attempt to help keep the Heat alive.
After being two wins from a trophy, Dragić said he feels as motivated as ever with his new team.
“Every athlete, every basketball player wants to win a championship,” he said. “It’s the same thing with me. I’ve already been close to Miami. Unfortunately I got hurt in the Finals, and still to this day I cannot sleep well because I want to be back.
“I still have that hunger and I feel good, I feel healthy. I’m not the youngest anymore, but I still have that passion and that is the most important.”