Noie: Notre Dame senior guard Nik Djogo savors hometown team's NBA title

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was quite the first impression on the first day of summer classes in a business school often ranked first in the nation for Notre Dame senior swingman Nik Djogo.

On a day when his mind should have been on macro-economics, Djogo sat in class wishing he were hundreds of miles away, back home in Canada participating in one of the country’s largest parties.

In a way, he was.

Djogo had his laptop open and running, but he wasn’t taking notes. He was watching live streaming video of the victory parade for the Toronto Raptors, who days earlier won their first NBA championship after beating a Golden State squad, albeit an injury-depleted one, few thought could be beat.

So it was time to party, and Djogo, who calls home Hamilton, Ontario about an hour southwest of Toronto, wasn’t going to miss it. He couldn’t. He divided his attention between books and basketball.

“The professor was talking, but I was watching the parade,” Djogo said. “I was like, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m not missing this.’”

Djogo was born in 1997, two years after the Raptors. He grew up a big NBA hoops guy. One of his prized possessions is a ticket stub for the floor seats his father, Djordje, secured for a game against the Seattle Sonics in the early 2000s. He’s been to plenty of games at Scotiabank Arena, but still can’t wrap his mind around the thought that that team — his team — are NBA champions.

“I mean, seriously, it’s hard to describe,” Djogo said late last week. “It was a long time coming. The city was ready to pop off when they won.”

Djogo watched Game 6 of the NBA finals — the clincher — with his sister, Anja, at a crowded bar in Hamilton. He toyed with making the 50-mile trek into Toronto to watch from Jurassic Park — the fan viewing area outside the downtown arena — but didn’t have enough time. Or patience. Djogo guessed that anyone wanting to watch the Raptors anywhere in town would have to stake their claim to a spot a good seven hours before tip-off.

“Getting in and out of the city was brutal,” he said. “It was absolutely nuts.”

Thanks to a former Irish teammate, Djogo was on hand to see some of the Raptors’ title ride. When Toronto met Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals, Bucks rookie power forward Bonzie Colson hooked Djogo up with his player-allotted tickets for games 3, 4 and 6. The Scotiabank seats were about 12 rows back just to the left of one of the baskets.

For a supposed starving student-athlete (aren’t they all in this day and age of pushing to pay players?) Djogo never was tempted to sell his tickets. The going rate, he said, could have fetched about $4,000 for the pair.

That would have come in handy, no?

No way.

“If I really needed the money, I could have sold them,” he said. “Deep down, I couldn’t do it. One-hundred percent, I was going.”

Seated next to Djogo at Game 6 were a pair of long-suffering Raptors fans who remembered the early years, the lean years, the losing years. They gave Djogo a crash course on what it was like back in the 1990s. By game’s end, Toronto was headed to its first NBA finals.

“They started tearing up and bawling,” Djogo said. “It was great.”

Djogo didn’t score tickets to Toronto’s three home Finals games, but was stunned when he turned on Game 5 — the night Kevin Durant ruptured his Achilles — and spotted Irish coach Mike Brey in a sweet courtside seat. Brey had texted Djogo that night to tell him that he had a seat thanks to Glenn Murphy, who endowed his head coaching position at Notre Dame.

Djogo didn’t know where Brey was sitting until he saw a sideline shot of Warriors coach Steve Kerr, with Brey sitting there right behind him.

Djogo fired off a text to Brey.

“Looking good, Coach!”

A hoops hotbed

As the Raptors have gotten better and ventured deeper through the NBA playoffs — they were in the draft lottery only six seasons ago — basketball has challenged hockey in some Canadian circles as the country’s sport of choice. For Djogo, it’s always been hoops. As a kid, some of his neighborhood buddies in Hamilton tried to coax him into street hockey, but pucks never did hook him like hoops.

It also helped that Djogo went from 5-foot-8 to 6-3 over one summer when he was barely a teenager.

“I wasn’t really that good,” Djogo said of hockey. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to stick with basketball.’”

More Canadian kids are doing the same. On Thursday, the NBA draft saw a record number of Canadians (six) selected. The North still loves its hockey, but hoops has closed that gap. Quickly.

Toronto’s postseason run gave Djogo bragging rights around Rolfs Hall. In the first round, Toronto beat Orlando, teammate John Mooney’s favorite team. Philadelphia, the favorite team of former guard Steve Vasturia, in town this weekend for former teammate Martin Geben’s wedding, was the next to fall in the semis. Then Colson and fellow former Irish Pat Connaughton and the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.

“We took down every one of their teams,” Djogo said.

As a result, Mooney owes Djogo a few meals. Not, say, a couple of steaks from Ruth’s Chris, but the next time Djogo’s hungry and he’s out with Mooney, his fellow senior will pick up the tab.

“I gotta remind him of that,” Djogo said.

In any other year, watching the Raptors make their playoff run would have inspired Djogo to get in the gym and work on his game. But their spring success was a bit bittersweet. Having suffered a torn labrum in his right (non-shooting) shoulder late last season, Djogo is restricted at least for the next couple of weeks from any activity that involves shooting, passing, dribbling and playing.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Until you can’t play, you don’t realize how much of your day is consumed with basketball. Now that I can’t play, there’s time for other stuff.”

Like schoolwork (when not preoccupied with parades) and binge watching Game of Thrones and The Office. House of Cards and Breaking Bad might be next. There’s also rehab, which includes daily exercise band work to loosen the shoulder and restore mobility. The shoulder was sore here and there at times last season. The labrum ultimately tore during the Feb. 23 home game against Virginia Tech. Djogo’s hand smacked the arm of a Hokie player while reaching for a rebound.

Djogo played through persistent pain and clicking in the shoulder the rest of the game. A week later, an MRI confirmed the tear and sidelined him the final six games.

“Once the adrenaline wore off, I was like, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “You just knew something wasn’t right.”

Djogo plans to accelerate his rehabilitation to be cleared by the end of August. It’s been a roller-coaster ride the last two years in terms of his minutes and his role, but he never seriously considered leaving to start over somewhere else. He wants to get back healthy, get back into the rotation and help get the Irish get back in the winning direction after a disaster of a season last year.

“We’re still a young team and have a lot to fight for,” said Djogo, who has two years of eligibility remaining. “The injury set me back, but I’m going to have a lot of opportunity to prove myself. I feel like I can be a solid contributor this year.”

Notre Dame guard Nik Djogo, who lives in Hamilton, Ontario, wasn’t going to miss watching anything and everything about the Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship celebration, even if that cut into his summer school class time.
Notre Dame’s Nikola Djogo (13), dunking against Duke, Jan. 28 at Purcell Pavilion, is recovering from a shoulder injury.