Those familiar with the BC high school basketball scene have likely heard of Darko Kulic. The head coach of the King George Dragons and his energetic style of coaching has made him a well known figure in the tightly knit community.
To some, his actions on the sideline come off as abrasive and negative. This author prefers the term unconventional. But perhaps it’s this unconventional style, this way of coaching where the passion seeps through the hoodie and oozes not on the court but off, that has gotten Darko Kulic perhaps better than any other coach in high school basketball to make his team truly love their fellow brother.
Kulic has been a self-professed “basketball junkie” his entire life. After immigrating to Canada from the former Yugoslavia in 1995, he settled just a block away from the school he now coaches at. He then attended King George from 2000 to 2005, playing basketball all five years. It was after this that Kulic decided to enter the coaching ranks, inspired by his coach during his playing days.
“Mr. Karmali, who’s my mentor and role model here, he showed us what it means to give back to the community. He taught us the love of the game but also taught us about community and building. After that I kind of bought in. [. . .] I love just giving back and volunteering and being with the kids and hopefully providing what Mr. Karmali and others did to me.”
Thus Kulic has emphasized not just what his players do on the court but what they do off it as well — he takes on a mentorship role that not many in the province can match in committment and intensity.
“I try to be somebody that can believe in them, kind of like Mr. Karmali believed in me” he explained. “One of my things is I try to integrate the [West End Community Centre, where Kulic works]. “I try to get them to volunteer, they do homework clubs, some of them work our day camps. Just making sure that at the end of the day, it’s not just about a ball and a hoop. We do homework clubs and we had about 11 or 12 make honour roll lists this year.”
Two examples illustrate how Kulic has gotten the players to embrace this at King George. The first is the phrase ‘1=18’, which means everyone from the 15 players to the three members of the coaching staff are equals and are to hold everyone accountable.
“If you’re the best guy on the team or the last guy off the bench it doesn’t matter, we’re all equals and we care about each other” said Mundadi on the meaning of the phrase. “That’s the biggest thing. Yeah we want to win the Brentwood and want the ring but at the end of the day it’s not about what we do on the court it’s about what we do off the court. We’ve got each other backs.”
The second is their team motto and slogan, Love Our Brothers. Inspired by the ‘Legion Of Boom’ nickname of the Seattle Seahawks defence a few years back, it has helped to build the family-like bond that King George clearly has.
“That’s [how] he has gotten us to buy into that family bond” explained Mundadi on the message behind L.O.B. We start early we start in the spring, we go through all the summer and fall until the start of the season we’re practicing and everything. So when we spend that much time together we go through all the tough losses, we go through all the punishment.
We wanted to make sure we were a family and that we could trust each other. So anytime anyone needed anything we were all there. Anytime anyone got an accomplishment we were all there to support him.”
Kulic is quick to explain however that he does not force this upon the players — he talks with them and works with them to come up with a guideline that everyone can buy into.
“At the beginning of the season we sit down and we build the culture” he elaborated. “We sit down and we say ‘what is L.O.B.’ [. . .] But there are the ones, the team, that goes L.O.B. means holding each other accountable, making sure you go to class, not snitching but telling an adult if a kid needs help in a way. The culture, instead of me telling them what it should be, I work together to make the culture that fits them and motivates them.”
No talk about King George would be complete without talking about Kulic’s animated style of coaching. The Dragons bench boss’ style may be abrasive to some. But once you dig a bit deeper than the surface level, you find out it comes from a place of love and passion for not only the game of basketball but maybe more so for the players themselves.
“For me, I always look at it out of love” he said. “I came from a war torn country and if [my parents] did what they did to give me a chance to live and breathe and everything, I kind of take that on the court and say ‘If I'm able to yell and cheer and support and love these kids, why be quiet and sit down?’
“People don’t see everything behind the scenes” explained Mundadi. “People only see him yelling during the games [. . .] but what people don’t see is all the hours he spends at practice, after practice, before and after games. There’s a whole side of him that’s not just yelling, surprisingly. He spends a lot of time caring about us off the court too. Our problems at home, at school.”
But as the saying goes, first impressions are often the most important. Thus it can be hard to switch someone over to appreciate Kulic’s unorthodox coaching style.
“There’s a lot of times where people will say ‘Oh he’s just being negative and this and this’" he explained. "But every time they go near my bench he’s saying oh i love you, good job, keep shooting. A lot of people are not use to having someone hit cartwheels when somebody hits a three.
I know it’s a bit different but one of the cool things specifically about this team is we embrace being different. We do it for each other and we say ‘We’re all we got, we’re all we need.’ We really cared about what the kids perceive than what somebody in the stands [perceive].”
“For us why not be different, why not be unique in your own way. And I know there has been some negative times where people say they’re being barbarians. And I say ‘no they’re saying who’s got my back, which means if I fall you pick me up and I’ll pick you up.’ It’s all for the positive.”
This season was the best in King George’s history. They won the City finals, won the Lower Mainland finals, and came within one game of a Provincial title — not bad for a school with a very small population tucked into Vancouver’s West End.
“Well obviously it was a tough loss, it’s not how we wanted to end the season” said Mundadi on the loss to Brentwood College. [But] I would rather lose with this squad than win with any other team. Even though it was a tough loss and it was emotional — and still is emotional — we lost as a team. In the locker room, we were crying as a team. Yeah we didn’t get the win like we wanted but we ended off on the same not as we always wanted which is family, L.O.B”.
“It showed me that all of the stuff we talked about is true” said Kulic on what he learned from the Provincial Final. “At the beginning of the year we said let’s go to the finals. And a lot of people we talked to said no no there’s no way. This team’s better, this team is this and this. But at the end we stuck together and we got there. It was really good to show these kids, the future kids, and myself hard work does pay off in a lot of ways, as well as sticking together and doing it the right way.”
Losses are tough, but a loss at the last hurdle is a bitter pill to swallow. Perhaps senior guard Seyoung Choi said it best on what this team has meant to each other and what they will mean in the future.
“I don’t think we will ever break up as a group of friends or family” Choi said. “We’re always going to see each other, guaranteed.”
Written by: Nick Bondi