CHICAGO — Security guards in the underbelly of the United Center are generally a stoic bunch. Over the years they’ve had to protect superstars like Michael Jordan, Patrick Kane and Derrick Rose, so they take their jobs pretty seriously. While passing by you’ll be lucky to get a pleasantry or even a subdued smile if you greet them.
They all drop the Royal-Guard-at-Buckingham-Palace routine when Wisconsin senior forward Duje Dukan walks by. The security guards perk up. They stand, smile, exchange warm words and look and act like the real people they are outside of the workplace.
Most role players on college basketball teams don’t elicit this kind of response in unfamiliar pro arenas, but not every college basketball player practically grew up in an arena like Dukan did.
The son of Chicago Bulls international scout Ivica Dukan, Duje has been a fixture in the United Center hallways for as long as he can remember. His father, known as “Duke” in the Bulls organization, has been with the team for 22 years.
As he enters the locker room following Wisconsin’s Friday afternoon Big Ten Tournament win over Michigan, a security guard jokingly says to Dukan, “Oh look at you, all big-time now!”
“I remember when he was this tall,” the security guard tells NBCSports.com, holding his hand near his waist. “Then he grew to about 6-foot-7 over the course of a few summers and all of the [Bulls] players were shocked.”
A former Chicago Bulls ballboy for “seven or eight seasons,” Dukan has been waiting to play in a meaningful game on the United Center floor his entire life.
The United Center is a special place for the redshirt senior, and you could see his comfort level with the arena as Dukan had two key 3-pointers and a rare dunk — all in the second half — to give the Badgers a big lift over the Wolverines to advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
“I basically grew up in this building, I consider it my backyard. I spent so much time shooting around here and everything. To be able to play here in games is unbelievable,” Dukan said.
Although Dukan took the United Center floor in sixth grade during a halftime exhibition at a Bulls game once, he had to miss the 2013 Big Ten Tournament — the last time it was held in the United Center — since he was redshirting after a bout with mono.
“I remember him telling me, ‘I can’t wait to play here when we’re seniors.’ I thought that was so far away. But that just shows how much playing here means to him; coming back to Chicago,” Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said of Dukan.
In high school, Dukan stopped being a Chicago Bulls ballboy after his growth spurt. His own playing career at suburban Deerfield High School was starting to blossom and it was time to move on from his childhood basketball haven.
“Right around sophomore year was when I stopped because I realized I was taller than half the guys [on the Bulls]. I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,'” Dukan said.
Since then, Dukan has focused on returning to play in the United Center, and now, he gets to close out his Big Ten career in the building where his basketball dreams began.
The significance of playing in the United Center also holds meaning to National Player of the Year candidate and teammate Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky’s aunt works in the Chicago Bulls team offices and works alongside Dukan’s dad.
Kaminsky and Dukan spent this offseason talking about how much they wanted to close out their Big Ten careers in an arena that meant a little bit more to them than a typical arena.
“Coming to Chicago and taking care of business; that’s something we talked about this summer,” Dukan said. “We wanted to win a Big Ten regular season title and we wanted to win a Big Ten conference title. So far, we’re one step closer to taking care of that.”
Family and friends get to see Dukan hoisting jumpers in front of crowds of roaring fans this week. It’s far different from when Dukan would shoot around in a near-empty arena when he was a kid and he’s savoring his return home.
“It’s just an unbelievable feeling being around here. Being so close to the game of basketball, seeing great players come through here, that’s definitely something I remember growing up. To be able to play here means so much.”