Nikola Jokić seems to have done everything in his playing career with ease and spontaneity, even realizing the American dream. He has even succeeded in being declared this year’s Most Valuable Player of the NBA, becoming only the fourth player not born in the U.S. to earn this title. He set out from his native Sombor, where he had doubts over whether basketball was really for him, and then everything progressed at lightning speed. From Belgrade’s Mega club, he travelled straight to Colorado to join the Denver Nuggets. Many pundits thought he wouldn’t be able to handle the NBA, but he’s now ranked as the best of the best
Nikola Jokić recalls his beginnings, when he was still a boy. “There were certain problems with coaches back then. When I decided that I really wanted to play seriously, I went to the Sombor Basketball Club and coach Isidor Rudić.
I spent three years there. He played a very important role, because there was a period of around four months when I didn’t play or even train. That was initiated by my dad, because he saw that my euphoria around basketball had dissipated. Coach Rudić also said that I could do whatever I wanted, to enjoy myself. During that period, horses became very important in my life. We once went to the races and I really liked that. I played basketball together with the children of Vladimir Pribić, a man who works with horses, so we knew each other from earlier. I gradually entered that world, first cleaning the barn, then later sitting in the sulky cart to ride. Vladimir Pribić still looks after and trains my horses, and I can’t wait to go to Sombor and hang out with them. I’m primarily interested in trotting horses [harness racing]; gallopers aren’t so interesting to me because I’m very big and heavy for them. In this way I can sit and ride.”
Fortunately, it was his love for horses that brought him back to the court.
“I returned to basketball because my teammates started training at the horse track, so I ran with them and gradually became interested again. We played two seasons and were champions of Vojvodina. We entered the Second Division of the Serbian League. In the last game in the provincial league, we played against Duga, a team whose shirt was worn by Dušan Bulut, today the world’s number one ranked 3×3 basketball player. We lost, but the coach of Vojvodina came to watch me. He spoke to my brother and they agreed that I would move to Novi Sad, enroll in school and play for Vojvodina. Again, I didn’t like that idea much, but they insisted. In the first two rounds, we played against Hemofarm and Partizan, and I had exceptional statistics. The people from the Mega club already contacted me then. In that half-season, we only lost to Red Star and Žitko Basket, so we finished in second place. I transferred to Mega during the midseason break, and they immediately included me in the first team.”
I was lucky that, at Mega, I played with basketball players like Marjanović, Veličković, Dangubić, Varda, Musli, Radović… They all play for big clubs today. However, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, and I thank Milojević for that
Entering the world of professionals wasn’t easy. Due to his lack of physical preparedness, coach Dejan Milojević insisted that Jokić first worked to improve his strength, so he wouldn’t get injured.
“I couldn’t do any a single proper push-up. I worked with fitness trainer Marko Ćosić on strength exclusively. That lasted almost two months. I played for Mega’s juniors, and sat at the end of the bench for first team games.
“It was all a game for me, and I wasn’t interested in what my body looked like. I didn’t burden myself, nor was I afraid of injuries. I just enjoyed myself, carried away by the game. Then Dejan Milojević showed up and forced me to do sprints at training. I yelled that I couldn’t stand it, but he didn’t accept that. He always sought my maximum, and he was always right.”
Dejan Milojević was an elite power forward when he played basketball. He taught Nikola all the tricks of tall players, and Nikola would master them all at the first attempt. Jokić had entered the world of the big men.
“I was lucky that, at Mega, I played with basketball players like Marjanović, Veličković, Dangubić, Varda, Musli, Radović… They all play for big clubs today. However, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, and I thank Milojević for that. There were many times when he remained silent despite being annoyed by my moves. But I guess he saw that this would pass in the future, so he didn’t restrain me. The freedom I had with him, as well as his desire to help me, were huge.”
Nikola drew attention to himself. He almost transferred from Mega to Barcelona, but the stars had different ideas once again. Legendary Lithuanian player Artūras Karnišovas was assistant general manager in Denver and he insisted that Jokić must come to the NBA immediately. The Nuggets chose him as the 41st draft pick.
It was already clear in his first season that Nikola had the prospect of becoming the best player in Denver. The team consciously opened a space for him, because Jokić’s unique talent quickly won over fans in Colorado
“I don’t even know what negotiations between Miško and Karnišovas looked like, I was focused on my game. I didn’t even follow the draft. My brother Nemanja was living in New York and he celebrated my draft pick at a nightclub.
He called me on the phone and woke me up during the night, and all I said to him was, “Man, let me sleep. I’ll call you in the morning”! He celebrated for both of us. Prior to joining the NBA, I had the experience of playing in the NIKE Hoop Summit. That entire generation now plays in the NBA. Trey Lyles and Jamal Murray are with me and on the team. It was there that I saw that I could show something different. During those years I tended to shoot more three-pointers, and I was very precise.”
It was already clear in his first season that Nikola had the prospect of becoming the best player in Denver. The team consciously opened a space for him, because Jokić’s unique talent quickly won over fans in Colorado.
“In the NBA league I also play and have fun. I try to play with teamwork, for everyone to be happy with the way we play. No individual can beat a good team. I think it’s nice for people to watch us, and we feel good on the floor. There is a lot of freedom in the way we play and that’s very important. Of course, the desire to win is always present, our goal will always be to reach the playoffs and do something in the finals.
“Having fun while playing basketball is a normal thing for me. We won’t die if we lose the match. The only defeat that left a big impression on me was at the Olympic Games in Rio, but realistically we didn’t have a chance, the guys from team U.S.A. smashed us. Everything else, victory or a defeat, is a game, that’s why it’s called that. My goal is to have fun and, if I can, to involve as many people in that as possible. For us all to be happy and cheerful, not only when it comes to basketball, because moments when a person can laugh and rejoice aren’t so frequent in today’s world.”
Nikola has spent six seasons with the Denver Nuggets. And it wouldn’t be unusual for him to spend his entire playing career there.
In the NBA league I also play and have fun. I try to play with teamwork, for everyone to be happy with the way we play. No individual can beat a good team
“When I came to Denver, it was very tough for me to get used to the high altitude. The air is also very dry. At the first training session, I felt a lack of oxygen after 10 minutes. I was in shape, but I had to take a break. However, you start feeling better when you spend a little longer here. That is also to our advantage, because having more air in our lungs means that we feel lighter when we travel somewhere else. That has often meant a lot to us when playing on the road, as we are faster and more aggressive than our opponents. All our opponents arrive in Denver a day early, in order to acclimatize. I think that one day is enough. I know that when I leave to go to Serbia and then come back, I need one strong training session to get reaccustomed to the conditions in Colorado.
“My brothers and I are in Denver together the whole time, as is my girlfriend, Natalija. Our parents come whenever they can. My brothers had a great influence on my career and it’s very important to me that they’re with me even now, so that I can discuss things with my own people. And they’ve been there for me in good and bad times. The support of the whole family means a lot in the upbringing of a young player. We have a real brotherly relationship, but we aren’t the only examples. New York Knicks star Kristaps Porziņģis also has two brothers supporting him. We have always had a relationship in which I’m against the two of them, no matter what we do. There was always a competitive spirit. They also played basketball very well, so we often gauged our strengths one-on-one. There were practically no fouls. Like most older brothers, they did everything they could to beat me: stealing, cheating, fighting… Now that we’re adults, we also sometimes play. During the All-Star break, I often played one-on-one against my middle brother, Nemanja. I beat him eight or nine times in a row. He doesn’t accept that easily, because he was considered the most talented in the family, until I turned up.”
Nikola Jokić is a simple guy. He loves basketball, horses and his family. And Denver and the NBA very quickly fell in love with him, thanks to his unique playing style and the great results he’s achieved with Denver. Jokić is living his American dream, and it seems that he still has many great, historic seasons ahead of him in Colorado.