Sports

The Jokić Files

My quest to understand the oddest player in the NBA.

Nikola Jokić, wearing a navy jersey, holds a basketball over his head and prepares to throw it.
Nikola Jokić warms up prior to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 qualifier game on Aug. 25 in Belgrade, Serbia.  Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Jokić’s Nose

Nikola Jokić is an NBA basketball player from Sombor, Serbia, whose nose turns the color of a ripe plum after a few minutes of exerting himself on the court. He has a heavy brow that sits low over piercing blue eyes. He often seems to be breathing heavily through his open mouth. His usual expression, when on the court, doesn’t suggest exhaustion so much as a kind of muted confusion and mortification, almost a feeling of embarrassment, as though he is not entirely sure what is happening on the court and what he is supposed to be doing. Although nearly seven feet tall, his body was, in the early years of his career, flabby. There was none of the muscle definition one associates with professional athletes. The overall effect was that of a large, chubby kid who was in some way overmatched by his situation. Over years of dedicated work on his body, the flab has abated but the expression remains the same, as does the nose. Organized basketball, let alone professional basketball, is in many ways so strictly choreographed that it is silly to compare it to the chaos of a playground, yet the same subterranean currents of menace and intimidation run through both.

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When I first saw Jokić’s inflamed-looking nose, I had a visceral sense of a kid on the playground who has been bullied. Not literally punched in the nose but teased to the point where he had gone off to a corner to grieve and recover and was now returning to the fray with only the red nose as evidence of his private ordeal. But this is a projection. I am the kid in this description.

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Jokić’s Arms

Jokic seems to get scratched on his upper arms more than any other player in the NBA. By the end of each game, his upper arms are covered in claw marks, some deep enough to draw blood. “I lead the league in scratches,” he told ESPN in 2019, the first year he made the playoffs with the Denver Nuggets, his longtime team, and his first year as an All-Star. “I’m always bleeding—I’m used to it.”

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I asked Miško Ražnatović, the Serbian basketball scout who first discovered Jokić, why this might be. He responded in his customary uppercase email style, “I HAVE NO REAL EXPLANATION, BESIDES THE FACT THAT HIS SKIN IS VERY SENSITIVE.”

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He often holds the ball over his head with one hand in a manner that suggests a seal balancing a ball on its nose. From this position he will shoot the ball or, more often, pass it. Ben Golliver of the Washington Post calls him Mr. Hypotenuse, because his passes often come from above. Sometimes he whips the ball like a pitcher in baseball, though without the windup. Sometimes he cradles the ball like a water polo player. Sometimes the passes are lofted like gentle soap bubbles in a direction no one expected. The effect is like that of a pickpocket. At times, he seems to have adopted the movement of Kareem’s sky hook and repurposed it for passing. His arms, in other words, are often doing unusual things.

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Jokić often seems to redirect the ball with a glancing touch. The effect is faintly reminiscent of Dennis Rodman’s habit of tipping the ball to himself, except that Rodman was a famously quick jumper who got rebounds, while Jokić famously never leaves the ground. When, after years of diligent training with the Nuggets’ strength coach Felipe Eichenberger, he began to dunk, the event was always noted with excitement because of its rarity.

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Jokić moves slowly but continuously, like a deep-sea creature. He moves with an amphibian’s dreamy grace, a kind of lumbering lightness, except for every now and then when the snap of a wrist sends the ball flying in an unexpected direction into the waiting hands of an open teammate. Perhaps he gets scratched, because even though he never seems to leave the ground—or because of this fact—his arms are often extended above his shoulders, bent at the elbow in the chicken-wing position, ready at all times to extend.

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In the summer of 2014, before his first NBA season, he made a pilgrimage to work out at the Peak Performance Project sports clinic in Santa Barbara, California. I had several conversations with P3’s founder, Marcus Elliott, about this seminal visit, which lasted for five weeks.

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“The first day I met him he said, ‘My basketball good. My body not so good,’ ” Elliott said. “He grabbed his little belly.”

One doesn’t need highly sophisticated computer equipment to observe that Jokić can’t jump, but his time at P3 provided a highly detailed set of data to underpin the less observable fact that his feet and his fingertips are connected to an unusual degree.

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My first conversations with Elliott took place after the start of the pandemic, when he had moved his family to the Alps. My sense of him on a secluded mountaintop, in the clear Alpine air, added to the already prevalent sense I had, when talking to him about his lab, of a nearly spiritual quest to get at a simple truth by using complex data. The simple truth of Jokić was that it doesn’t matter how far your feet get off the ground. What matters is how quickly you can get to the ball. Jokić had one of the lowest vertical jumps ever measured at P3.

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Elliott spoke of P3’s 10.6 drill, which measures how fast an athlete can get their hand to a spot 10.6 feet off the ground. This is about where a basketball would be as it bounces off the rim. “The idea is that getting there quickly is more important than how far off the ground you get with your feet. Nikola was in the top 10 of all time.”

Jokić’s Smile

Jokić’s nonchalance in his movements is mirrored in his facial expressions, which can seem, at times, goofy, sweet, or strangely detached, a deadpan approaching Buster Keaton’s. Clips of him interacting with children suggest he has a knack for making them laugh, playacting, being playful. In one, he insists to a group of kids who want him to dunk that he can’t do it. They refuse to believe this. At last he tries, and the ball gets wedged between the backboard and the rim. The clip ends there, like a scene from Charlie Chaplin or Keaton, but in color. The viewer cannot help but imagine what comes next: The gentle giant pretends to jump up and free the ball, but cannot. This penchant for drollery extends to his postgame media appearances. A clip from early on in his career fascinated me: He is asked about a remarkable pass he made to his teammate Kenneth Faried.

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Jokić, wearing a blue jersey, playfully picks up kids.
NBA/Giphy

“Kenneth jumps really high,” Jokić says. “All you have to do is throw the ball up high.” The desire to minimize, to avoid not only self-aggrandizement but any hyperbole of the self, doesn’t even feel like a wish or a desire with Jokić. It feels like a reflexive act of self-preservation.

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The interviewer, unsatisfied with this answer, rephrases the question—there must be more to it than that. How did he do it?

“Just throw the ball up,” says Jokić.

The interviewer tries again. For a moment, the scene takes on the uncomfortable feeling of a teacher in elementary school trying to nudge their not-terribly-bright student toward an epiphany. Jokić is like the student who will not be nudged. “Throw the ball up,” Jokić repeats in a tone of voice within which one can detect, like the flavor of almond lurking within marzipan, a hint of irony.

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At some point in his unlikely ascent, photographs began circulating of Jokić as a nearly obese teenager with dark-rimmed eyes. He looked troubled and even sad. Then there was the photograph of an even younger Jokić looking pudgy in a nice shirt, as though dressed for a special occasion. He turns to the camera and offers a sweetly mischievous smile. These images are important parts of the Jokić legend. They lend him an underdog aura, as though all his jerseys feature an invisible Chico’s Bail Bonds logo on the back. For me, Jokić offers the incredible example of someone who looks intimidated but is not intimidated. “Strong Faces” was a refrain among Gregg Popovich and his coaching staff as the 2020 American Olympic team was on their way to a gold medal. Jokić has the impassive, disinterested expression of a sweetheart who would rather get a pastry than a bucket, and I don’t mean this purely as a remark about weight—he has the leisurely, mit Schlag sense of tempo and pleasure I associate with the former countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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On another occasion, when he was crowded by reporters in the locker room after recording his first triple double, he was asked if it was his coach, Michael Malone, who gave him the game ball.

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“Yes,” says Jokić. “Then I hugged him.”

A benign and placid smile creeps over his face as some of the reporters laugh. “Yeah,” he continues. “I was naked and I hugged him.” The room erupts in laughter, and he feigns confusion, as though naked hugging happens all the time in NBA locker rooms. “It’s the truth!” he says.

Jokić has a broad, bland smile containing within it the hint of some inward-directed joke, which reminds me of Stan Laurel. Then there is my old high school and college classmate Michael Diamond. Something about Jokić—his physical appearance, his at-times twitchy mannerisms, his sense of humor—reminds me of Mike D as a young man. Once you picture Jokić dressed in a leather porkpie hat and sunglasses, with a giant car medallion hanging from his neck on a gold chain à la Mike D in the “Fight for Your Right to Party” video, you cannot unsee it.

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It is a bit overdetermined that Jokić’s nickname is “the Joker.” It is inappropriate precisely because it is too on the nose. He is a basketball player who in every way is confounding and surprising. This is true of his most subtle movements on the court and also of the larger trajectory of what can now be described, with a straight face, as the Jokić myth. But then, Jokić is a master of misdirection. Perhaps it is appropriate that I am talking about all these comedians when he is, in fact, a magician. His greatest trick has been to turn a fat, ungainly, confused-looking teenager whose nose turns dark red after running up and down the court a few times into one of the greatest basketball players in the world.

Jokić’s Hands and Feet

I have always thought that the phrase good hands in basketball understates the difficulty of the very tall. Imagine playing a piano concerto while sitting properly in front of the piano. Then imagine attempting the same piece while sitting as far away from the piano as possible, your arms completely outstretched. Everything you do with your hands is more difficult while in this unbalanced state of extension.

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Miško Ražnatović, in response to my question about Jokić’s hands, wrote: “I EXPLAINED MANY TIMES TO THE PEOPLE, THAT HE HAS BIGGEST TALENT IN FINGERS THAT I HAVE EVER SEEN. ALSO, I SAID TO THE PEOPLE, THAT NOBODY CAN LEARN YOU THIS—YOU JUST GOT IT BY NATURE OR YOU DON’T GET IT. AND HE GOT IT REALLY ON OUTSTANDING WAY. I STILL REMEMBER COUPLE OF SITUATION WHERE HE PLAYED FOR MEGA AND WHAT KIND OF THE SOLUTION HE FOUND. OTHERS CAN NOT DO THIS, BECAUSE THEY JUST CAN NOT PERFORM WITH FINGERS, HANDS.”

Part of Jokić’s athletic genius is his sheer coordination. His facility extends to ping-pong, volleyball, soccer, and billiards, according to Jokić’s godfather, the Serbian basketball coach Nebojsa Vagic. “The sport he really likes playing,” Vagic told the Denver Post’s Mike Singer, “especially with me and his brothers, we call that tennis with your foot. It’s a net not even a meter high. … He always wants to play that. He’s really addicted to that.”

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We are used to thinking about hand-eye coordination in athletes, or foot-eye coordination. Jokić has excellent hand-foot coordination. Another of Marcus Elliott’s discoveries at P3 involved the connection between Jokić’s hands and feet. “The first thing he does is weigh his body. He free falls just a little bit, and then he extends,” Elliott said. “It takes such precise timing to apply force to the ground and have it apply to your hands. To have great footwork, everything has to be well connected. We call them kinematic movers. Guys that create a lot more power but are gentle on their feet.”

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Jokić, wearing a red jersey, blows into his cupped hands during a game.
Aaron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
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Jokić is in the habit, in the intervals of NBA games when he is not running, of cupping his hands together and blowing into them in the manner of someone who is cold. A lot of players do this, or have some similar tic with their hands. I had thought it might be for moisture purposes. Even though basketball players are drenched in their own sweat and that of others after just a few moments on the court, they seem to be on an eternal quest to moisten their hands. I can recall Steve Nash at the foul line sometime in the 2000s, during his run of back-to-back MVP seasons, his long hair drenched as though he had just stepped out of the shower, slapping hands with every single one of his teammates as he was about to receive the ball from the ref and then, like a puppy, profusely licking both his hands before taking his shot. A video of this sequence circulated at the time with commentary about hygiene. Its main importance, for me, is as a prime example of the NBA players’ eternal quest for hand moisture.

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A number of people who train or in some way work directly with NBA players have suggested to me that it is dryness, not moisture, that Jokić is seeking. Once I had this notion in mind, I noticed that he would sometimes wipe his hands on his jersey as he ran down the court. It is also possible that he is trying to warm his hands. Or cool them.

Jokić maintains no presence on social media. When he is asked about his individual accomplishments, he always claims to only be interested in the team accomplishments, a dynamic that has accelerated as he became an All-Star, then All-NBA, and then MVP. Perhaps he is constantly blowing on his cupped hands as a way of shielding his face. When I shared this theory with Singer, who has covered the Nuggets for the Denver Post since 2018, he replied, “I think moisture. He could not care less about hiding his face.”

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I recently reviewed the photographs I took of Jokić over the years. When I went to games as press, I would stand on the baseline while the players warmed up before the fans were let in. I often took slow-motion videos. I have a video of Jokić catching the ball on the baseline and starting to dribble while turning his back to the basket. He backed down an assistant coach over the course of several hard dribbles before turning and rising with his elbow cocked high above his head to release his awkward-looking shot.

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In real time it happened in a few seconds. In slow motion there seem to be a thousand distinct movements: a sense of force and weight in his upper body and waist when he turns his back to the basket, and all the while a skittering quickness to his feet down below. The overall effect is undulatory, as if, again, Jokić was a large sea creature capable of sudden movement.

The most recent of these observation sessions took place at the Smoothie King Center on January 30, 2019. Looking through the pictures, I found one of Jokić standing at the foul line dressed head to toe in the navy blue of the Nuggets warm-ups, with tangerine-colored sneakers, blowing into his cupped hands with the concentrated manner of someone who has just watched another person use a blade of grass to make their hands into a musical instrument and now wants to do it himself.

Jokić’s Bunnies

Jokić with the ball, in the post, or otherwise close to the basket, is prone to pump faking and pirouetting back and forth on his pivot foot like a confused ballerina until the defender is off balance, at which point he will loft the ball into the air. In some ways, his body movement when taking a three-point shot is similar to his body movement when shooting directly in front of the basket—in both cases the ball is high above his head in the hypotenuse position; his large hands release it like a cream puff; more often than not, it follows the high arc of a Moon Ball, traveling 22 feet—or two feet. In some ways it is the shots he takes at the rim that seem more remarkable when they plop through the net. For one thing, he is usually taking these shots against an opposing center, among them the league’s most formidable defenders. (A famous anecdote has Rudy Gobert waving away his teammates when they come to help with Jokić, yelling, “I got him.” Jokić chimes in, “Brother, I have 47.”)

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These shots taken at or very near the basket have always terrified me; they are where my own greatest humiliations have taken place. A tall person shooting at close range is supposed to make the basket. Old basketball heads will often refer to such shots as bunnies. Hubie Brown, while calling a recent playoff game, watched a big man miss one of these close-range shots and exclaimed, “You can’t miss these bunnies!”

The remark caused me a moment of PTSD. Coaches get so exasperated by these unforced errors. And what could be less forgivable than a large man missing a shot on the basket when they are right there? But these shots are all risk and very little reward. A big man is no more likely to be congratulated on making them than he would be on having tied his sneakers. It is disorienting to shoot so close to the rim unless you can dunk the ball or have an angle that allows for use of the backboard. Then there is the fact that without the orienting distance from the hoop, it’s hard to know where you are. Yet Jokić has that Bill Bradley–esque awareness of where he and everyone else are, and he often finishes close to the basket with tiny arcing rainbows that plop into the net. Sometimes he goes straight up, and sometimes the shot comes at the end of a long session of flailing his arms around in conductorlike movements, a slow-motion dervish of spinning, pivoting, stepping through. In these moments, his lack of jumping becomes not a liability but a virtue—an uncanny ability to keep his pivot foot in one place.

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There are echoes of Kevin McHale in this strangely counterintuitive movement in which a very tall man brings his arm beneath the arms of his defenders; it looks like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook performed underhanded, at an altitude below the shoulder, which is to say it looks like Wilt Chamberlain’s big dipper.

Jokić’s Astronomy

Players who look like Jokić are often used as a kind of movable stanchion, deployed strategically around the court to set screens. Jokić is very good at this. Much of the Nuggets’ offense in the half-court involves Jokić setting picks over and over again, getting the ball, immediately handing it off, getting it back.

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To the act of setting picks, an essential but fairly mundane basketball gesture, he brings an almost canine expressiveness: his feet skitter to find their wide base, his shoulders hunch down, and, finally, his arms cross in front of him, his hands placed protectively over his crotch, as he lowers down into a slight squat. There is a feeling of dread and resignation in the gesture, as though he is resigned to being smashed into by another defender while his teammate springs free. The anxiety of the crash-test dummy before the moment of impact. When the ball is handed to him, he always seems eager to get rid of it, as if his hands and the ball were opposite magnetic poles.

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There is, to paraphrase J.D. Salinger in his story “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” an “After you, Alphonse” comedy to the Nuggets’ offense as it revolves around Jokić. They give him the ball, he gives it back, and so on, as if every player wants Jokić to have the ball and Jokić would prefer not to, a tension that creates a hothouse environment for one of basketball’s most aesthetically pleasing plays, the give and go.

The basketball writer Seth Partnow came up with the term heliocentrism to describe the way certain players dominate offenses. Derived from the Copernican concept of the heliocentric model of the universe—which proposed what was, in the 16th century, the novel idea that it was the planets that rotated around the sun and not vice versa—the basketball version of heliocentrism focuses on how one player can impact an entire offense and, by extension, an entire defense, which has to focus on that one player.

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Most players who achieve this impact do so by having the ball in their hands. Jokić’s innovation is to have an enormous impact on the Nuggets’ offense while touching the ball far less frequently than heliocentric peers such as Luka Dončić and Trae Young and, previously, Oscar Robertson.

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The usual emotional relationship between the player and the ball is a jealous one. The player wants to possess it completely and lives in horror at the possibility of turning it over or, worse, having it be stolen. They will dive for it, scrap for it. The slam-dunk’s catharsis is, in a sense, the closest you can come to letting go of something on your own terms.

Jokić, in contrast, exhibits no longing for possession. Quite the contrary: He seems to most enjoy redirecting the ball’s trajectory, often with just a wispy touch. What this looks like in practice has an echo of the old move one used to see in which a player such as Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Michael Jordan—and more recently Kawhi Leonard—would hold the ball in one hand, wave it around as though to taunt the defense, bait someone into reaching for it. In this scenario the hand has complete control of the ball. With Jokić it hardly has to enter his grasp before he has tossed it somewhere else. His willingness to give it up inspires his teammates, in turn, to cut to the basket.

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A defense could sag off a less talented offensive player, but Jokić’s three-point shooting percentage has reached nearly 40 percent. In the paint, he lofts floaters, hook shots, and, as I have said, strange little tippy-toe bloop shots that rainbow up and into the basket at a rate of 56 percent. You can’t leave him unguarded, and it is difficult to guard him one-on-one. But it’s his passing that is most disorienting to defenses.

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Heliocentrism plays out in all sorts of ways when the object being orbited around is Nikola Jokić. While reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West’s classic examination of Yugoslavia past and present, written in the years just before the outbreak of World War II, I kept finding a resonance in passages that had no connection to Jokić and basketball beyond my desire to find one. When she writes of walking into a Yugoslavian street scene with its chestnut trees and toast-colored buildings and how the vista suggested the influence of the Hapsburgs and their taste for sweets and no exercise, I thought about Nikola Jokić. As I read through the brilliant thousand-page tome, I had to coach myself to let go of the hope that it would mention Sombor, the home and birthplace of Nikola Jokić, now used in the phrase Sombor Shuffle to describe Jokić’s highly unusual habit of launching shots with his right hand while jumping, in a manner of speaking, off his right foot.

Jokić’s Gait

When he is not running, Jokić walks with an ambling, almost ducklike gait. His head rolls back and forth on his shoulders. His walk, and his speech, possesses a comedic rhythm I have been trying to place since I first became interested in him. At first I thought it was Chaplin-esque, but Chaplin’s gestures are too dainty and precise; the tramp is not a giant. Jokić moves like a man in a bathrobe and slippers.

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There is, in his demeanor, the way his head rolls back and forth, a hint of Rodney Dangerfield, but Dangerfield’s shtick was to seem anxious and aggrieved while Jokić exists in a mostly placid mood which might be interrupted by the contemplation of a meal for himself or for his horses. Jokić’s great passion, other than basketball, is harness racing. He likes to be around horses and owns several. “I like the smell of them,” Jokić once said. “The best feeling ever is when you feed them. The sound of them eating in the stable is the best sound you can ever hear. It’s just something that I think just a horseman can feel.”

Jokic, in a navy jersey, walks with his teammates during a game.
NBA/Giphy

Burek and Quesarito

For a long time, whenever I took notes about Nikola Jokić on my phone, autocorrect would almost unfailingly change his name to jock itch. But then, around the time Jokić began to be mentioned as a possible candidate for the MVP Award, the algorithm began replacing his name with Djokovic. Is it possible, I wondered, that the algorithm had noticed that the name Jokić was being used more frequently in the context of athletic accomplishment, admiration, and even awe and was now replacing it with the name of Novak Djokovic, the number one tennis player in the world, who also happens to be from Serbia?

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Or perhaps it had detected my conversations with Veljko Vujačić, a professor of sociology at Oberlin and author of Nationalism, Myth, and the State in Russia and Serbia, whom I had called looking for stray insights into Jokić?

Vujačić, a cousin of former NBA player Sasha Vujačić, had swatted away the notion that there was some novelty in the idea of an MVP from Serbia. Never mind the preponderance of talent from the former Yugoslavia in the league now—Luka Dončić, Bojan Bogdanović, and Goran Dragić, among others—basketball, he said, had been a big deal in Yugoslavia since the country’s strong showing in the 1968 Olympics; the famous Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird was formed, in part, he said, in response to the success of Yugoslavia’s national team on the world stage. Being a sociologist, he located the cause of this success partly in the general tallness of the population and partly in the fact that “Communist states placed a premium on collective sports. Teamwork and cooperation were the priority, not so much individualism but group success.”

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He traced the Yugoslavian basketball boom to Krešimir Ćosić, who played basketball for Brigham Young University in the late 1960s. “He modernized the style of play. He was a center who played all the positions. A number of guys in Belgrade started playing on playgrounds, improvising like you see in the American inner cities, making the game faster and more dynamic.”

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I found a video of Ćosić and was surprised—and also not surprised— to see a tall guy throwing one-armed outlet passes the length of the court and finishing post moves with unorthodox releases that combined Kyrie Irving’s spin with something resembling Pete Maravich or the Harlem Globetrotters, an association heightened by the use—in the video—of a red-white-and-blue ball like the ones used by the Globetrotters and the old American Basketball Association. In fact, one way to explain both the delight and the cognitive dissonance of watching Jokić’s style of play is that he looks like he plays for the Washington Generals while playing like a member of the Harlem Globetrotters.

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“The success of Novak Djokovic was a much bigger surprise,” Vujačić said. “Completely unexpected. He would be the greatest athlete of all time for Serbia and Yugoslavia.”

Vujačić, a native of Belgrade, seemed most excited when I relayed the fact that Jokić had for many years been devoted to a Serbian dish called burek—“a cheap, greasy breakfast” is how he described it. “They sell it by weight and cut it in front of you from a round baking dish. [With burek], a pastry baked in the oven with tons of oil, the filling is usually white cheese or meat. If you are an average person, you eat half a pound of it. If you are really hungry you eat three hundred grams, and that keeps you full till the afternoon.”

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Burek’s Mexican American corollary is the quesarito.

Jokić was chosen as the 41st pick of the 2014 Draft, which he elected not to attend. He got the news of his selection from his older brother, Nemanja, who called him from New York. He had been sleeping. Had he chosen to stay awake, in Sombor, Serbia, and watch the draft in real time, he would have seen, at the exact moment his name was called, a commercial for Taco Bell. The product being advertised was something called a quesarito. The story line of the commercial is a kind of Freudian comedy enacted with Mexican food: A man and a woman sit at opposite ends of a park bench. In her hand is a round, floppy quesadilla. In his hand, held like an ice cream cone, is a small, pale baton-shaped object, a burrito. He looks at her and a daydream of their future together plays out in scenes: wedding, children, old age. She, in turn, only has eyes for what is in his hand. She takes her quesadilla and wraps it around his burrito. The screen fills with a close-up of what this mating looks like, a kind of cardiological horror film with greasy meat and oozing cheese. In the middle of all this, Jokić’s name appears in a sidebar on the screen.

Jokić’s Skeptics

As the end of the 2020–21 season approached, the impossible-to-imagine idea of Nikola Jokić as MVP began to gain currency. But there was resistance to the idea of Jokić as the MVP.

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I put the question of why this was to Jalen Rose and Kendrick Perkins, two savvy and experienced former players who now work as commentators for ESPN.

“The topic I want to address is Nikola Jokić,” I began, saying the name slowly, as though breaking bad news. A slight pall came over Rose’s face; Perkins maintained his poker face. “It seems to me the whole NBA community has had to go through stages of grief before coming to terms with the idea that Nikola Jokić might win the MVP,” I continued. “Why do you think this is? And what is most unusual about Jokić’s game out on the floor?”

Rose spoke in his customary declarative mode, like someone giving a deposition. “I believe that the NBA community and the media definitely accept the Joker”—a Jokić nickname—“because he legitimately has game and he’s unselfish,” he began. “It’s just that he plays for Denver. And he is also in a league that has LeBron, Kawhi, KD [Kevin Durant], and a lot of other big-name players. To go to your second point, his game is unorthodox. If you are looking for quote-unquote ‘highlights,’ unless it’s a pass or a dime he has dropped, his game is unorthodox. They are the only team in the league that will give the ball to the center, who is also their primary ball handler, and have him bring it up to initiate the offense. Then they will throw it to him at the top of the key, they will throw it to him at the elbow, they will throw it to him in the post.”

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Jokić, he said, was not “an explosive athlete above the rim. It’s almost like you are asking people to pay attention. To think, to watch, to look.” The effort he seemed to be making to generate a mood of enthusiasm about Jokić mostly testified to its absence. The point at which he finally warmed up was when he told a fat joke. “Previously, when he wasn’t in the kind of shape he’s in now, we used to call him a stretch-mark five.”

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Perkins began in a similarly philosophical mode, saying he thought Jokic would win the MVP, and that his earlier skepticism—he had expressed his support for Chris Paul—was because Jokić had been crowned “too soon.” There were too many other players “still in the conversation.” He evoked Steve Nash winning it over Kobe in a year when Kobe averaged 35 points per game and went to the playoffs with less talent than Nash’s Suns.

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“I am not saying Jokić is not deserving,” he said. “I am just saying let the season finish out before we crown someone. When I think about Jokić,” he continued, “[Gregg] Popovich called him the modern-day Larry Bird. When he first said that, I thought, Pop is trippin’! But you have to watch his game. We are talking about an NBA that plays at an up-tempo pace, that is a guard- and wing-driven league. When you play the Denver Nuggets, all that fast pace goes out the window. He controls the game so much he makes you play at his pace: slow!” He went on to list all the things Jokić does well—but he was not radiating joy.

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The point at which he finally warmed up was when he told a fat joke. “People are used to having guys that are ripped up like Giannis and LeBron. He has a wack body, OK? And people are not attracted to wack bodies. I had one. Could never get a six-pack. You always had a four-pack, and then the pudge at the bottom.”

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What is at issue here? The issue of Jokić’s body. This fascination with his body is twofold. For one thing, there is the interest in what his body is able to accomplish—the meat-and-potatoes statistics: 26 PPG, 11 rebounds, 8 assists in the 2020–21 season. He is the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain with multiple 25-point triple doubles while shooting 80 percent from the field. His 2020–21 player efficiency rating of 31.28 was the highest in the NBA and 10th highest of all time. The names ahead of him include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry, all of whom have won multiple MVPs. With the possible exception of Curry, so slight and undersized, with fragile ankles when he came into the league, these are athletic specimens out of classical Greek sculpture. A kind of NBA Hall of Emperors. To ponder the bodies of this group of players is to be presented with a kind of SAT question: Which one does not belong?

Jokić’s Brothers

Jokić has two older brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja. They moved with him to America and live with him and his girlfriend—now wife—functioning as chaperones, personal cooks, cheerleaders, and most of all, bodyguards. They are large, tattooed men who seem to have anger issues. “They’ll try to come out on the court and fight every other game,” Jokić’s teammate Michael Porter Jr. said in an interview.* “They’re like mobsters.”

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Then, at the end of the 2021 season, Jokić was ejected for a flagrant foul in Game 4 of the Suns series, as the Nuggets were about to be dispatched. An abrupt end. Jokić had swiped down hard, so to speak, on Cameron Payne, trying to foul him and stop a fast break. Not unusual in itself, but the gesture contained the frustration of losing, and Payne fell to the ground. Devin Booker charged Jokić. What followed was a highly uncharacteristic confrontation, chest to chest, that pained me—Jokić’s face was no longer goofy and amiable but instead had narrowed to a beaky point of anger as he muttered threats to Booker in a face-to-face confrontation. As disturbing as this was, it was even more disturbing when the camera cut to the two enraged brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja, in the stands, just a few rows off the court, their necks red as they shouted and gesticulated violently while security guards stood with their hands up, almost beseeching them to calm down. They seemed to be on the verge of charging the court. There was something touching and even cathartic in the brothers’ rage on behalf of Nikola, their desire to intervene. But it was also disturbing—it forced me to acknowledge that in my enthusiasm for Jokić, I had made him into a goofy, benign teddy bear and the brothers into a kind of id on an external hard drive. But these were his brothers. Their shouting and scene making was, it turned out, a trait inherited from their father, who behaved in just such a bellicose way when he came to their basketball games in Serbia. To say that Jokić is ferociously competitive seems innocent enough, but it has been said that he has a killer instinct. This is also an approved attitude in sports, but less so when related, literally, to deranged violence.

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A famous riff in Lee Jenkins’ Sports Illustrated profile of Jokić in 2017 summons the image of Nikola as a small child being terrorized by his much older brothers, who toss him “from one bed to another in the family’s small apartment, often during heated games on a plastic mini hoop. ‘He once held down my arms and threw knives all around my head,’ ” Nikola adds, punishment for refusing to climb a tree during a picnic. “ ‘That was a little crazy.’ ”

This side of Jokić and his brothers was given a much broader airing in the 2021–22 season, when Markieff Morris of the Miami Heat delivered a violent cheap shot to Jokić on a fast break. A moment later, Jokić retaliated with a cheap shot of his own, shoving Morris from behind with such force that Morris didn’t play for three months. As of this writing, he has not returned to the court.

As a friend who pays close attention to the Nuggets put it, “There is a deep burning desire to win buried beneath the surface [of Jokić].”

Jokić is intensely loyal to the Nuggets, a small-market team that, because of a dispute between the team and a local cable provider, has not been seen by many people, even in his home town in Serbia. There is a selflessness to Jokić, a lack of worldly desires around fame and luxury that, combined with his unbelievable skill, has earned him comparisons to Tim Duncan. But there was never an aura of violence around Duncan as there is around Jokić and his brothers. For a moment, in response to taunts from Morris’ twin brother, Marcus, the Jokić brothers started a Twitter account and made one menacing tweet. Then they deleted the account. The tweet lives on, as does this unpleasant myth of the Jokić gangsters; its one positive result was the appearance, at a Nuggets game, of a pair of enterprising young women wearing T-shirts that read “Jokić’s Sisters.”

Jokić’s Lips

The Nuggets versus Pelicans game on March 26, 2021, was an opportunity to see Zion Williamson and Nikola Jokić, two of the most idiosyncratic and talented players in the NBA, match up. Williamson seems at home in the air and ungainly on the ground. Jokić never seems to leave the ground. Williamson never seems to return.

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It was a close game. The Pelicans were still in the playoff hunt at the time, and the small, Covid-restricted crowd was animated. Among them sat me and my 9-year-old son. I had been taking him to these games ever since they opened to fans, buying nosebleed seats for the price of a movie ticket. The kid, in previous years, had tolerated or mildly enjoyed the spectacle of these games without paying much attention to the narratives around the team or its players. He was not particularly keen about sports in general. But for whatever reason, maybe his getting older or maybe something to do with the previous Covid year or with Zion Williamson, I found myself sitting next to a rabid Pelicans fan the night of the Nuggets game. Every Pelicans basket brought huge cheers from him. When he spotted someone in a Nuggets jersey nearby, he yelled out, “Go wear your Nuggets jersey in your living room!”

“That’s right, baby,” came the voice of a woman seated nearby.

I had always approached these games with some distance. Being a fan of the NBA is an agnostic experience now; there is so much to appreciate across the league. Then there was the legacy of being a Knicks fan, which teaches a certain emotional remove, lest you get burned again. And, finally, my role as an occasional journalist at these games. Normally I would have come as a member of the press, to get a closer look at Jokić. Now I have signed up for a Zoom call after the game. My son’s intense fandom got much more complicated when a whole row of college-age Nuggets fans showed up and began to loudly cheer for their team. They were wearing some gear from Tulane, the university where I teach. My son kept booing loudly whenever the Nuggets did something good and cheering madly when the Pelicans scored, in both cases glaring at these guys. I kept telling him to focus on the game. Forget about these guys. I was worried I would have to have words with them.

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Jokic, wearing a white jersey, shoots a three-pointer.
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Attendance was restricted to under 5,000 fans. But they were loud. Zion would rise up on his jetpack, bounce off a defender, and finish with a basket, an old-fashioned three-point play.

Jokić seemed much less remarkable. As different as they are as players, there are also similarities— both are big guys who score efficiently in the paint, and both have been entrusted to bring the ball up court, a point forward and point center. Jokić scored 37 points, with nine assists and six rebounds. Williamson had a career-high night with 39 points.

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Jokić took over on the game’s last plays. Leading by one point with a minute and eight seconds to go, he caught the ball at the right elbow, near the free-throw line. Right away he looks this way and that in his casual, befuddled way, as if wanting to ask someone for directions. He glances over his right shoulder, leans that way, and Steven Adams leans ever so slightly with him. Then Jokić spins in the opposite direction and drives toward the baseline. Now he is lumbering toward the basket. He does a Euro step at a speed most people would use to demonstrate a Euro step and scores with what I guess is a finger roll, though it looks like one of those artless little underhand tosses one might use to throw a beanbag at a hole at a state fair. A player who likes to play tennis with his feet, and is good at it, can reliably make such a shot. For everyone else, proper form is advised.

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And that’s it. That is the game. The Nuggets win. On the way out, my son, somber, calmly asks if I can arrange to have the row of Nuggets fans expelled from Tulane.

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Later I tune in to the Jokić postgame Zoom call. His face fills the screen, bordered on top by his crew cut and on the bottom by the black medical mask that is now positioned as a chin strap. Most of the screen is filled with his eyes, nose, lips. As on all Zoom calls, the sense of remoteness is paired with an unusual proximity and access to a person’s facial expressions. Jokić makes his remarks about his just-traded teammate, Gary Harris, at the top. He offers a sober-minded assessment of the other two players who were traded, how they may have better luck getting playing time with Orlando. He wishes them well. He answers questions about the just-completed game. He makes faces.

The old debate within me stirs: Which old-time comedian does he remind me of? I recorded the press conference. The eyebrows, the lips, the chewing of the lips, the scratching of the nose, the way the forehead crinkles when the eyebrows are raised. I return to my Stan Laurel idea. He looks like Stan Laurel. The comedic deadpan of someone who doesn’t really understand. A sensitive person. But something else is going on, and the fact that it’s a Zoom, and I have it recorded on my phone, allows for greater scrutiny.

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He is asked why the Nuggets took so few free throws. He is asked about the next game in Denver, which will be the first one in front of fans this season. “What have you missed?”

“My family,” he answers. Also the fans. “The last couple of years they have been our sixth player, and hopefully they are going to continue to do that and help us win some games.” A textbook answer delivered impassively, as though a textbook could speak. Is this the deadpan expression of a diplomat or of a comedian?

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“Mike Singer,” comes the disembodied voice of a Nuggets PR staffer, indicating who will be given the floor to ask the next question. Singer, of the Denver Post, has covered the team longer than any of the other 10 or so press members on that Zoom call, who include someone from Serbia and someone from Peru. His question is about how Aaron Gordon, not yet with the team, is going to fit with Jokić as “an off-ball, cutting-type guy.” Jokić surmises he will fit well.

But in the interval between questions, around the time the disembodied voice says “Mike Singer,” Jokić starts doing funny things with his lips. He had them pressed tightly together, but now he parts them and brings them together rapidly, as though he were mouthing “Pap pap pap pap pap pap.” Then he makes them vanish, chews on them, sticks out first his top lip and then his bottom lip. He raises his eyebrows. For much of Singer’s question, all six or seven seconds of it, the lower lip protrudes. And then it occurs to me that the comedian Jokić most resembles is Bill Murray. Specifically, the character Murray played in Caddyshack.

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“We will see,” Jokić says in answer to the question. “We will see. The fact that he is athletic, catching the lobs, he can play off of me. We will see. It’s not going to happen overnight. We are going to work on it. We will see.”

Because I have this on my phone as a video, I have been able to watch it many times, and the Bill Murray association feels solid. Jokić makes funny faces that render his sports talk absurd while somehow remaining sincere about his interest and engagement with the sports talk, which is the classic Bill Murray position. Sincerity and absurdity intermingled and indistinguishable. Jokić winning the MVP is the equivalent of Bill Murray’s character going out and winning the Masters. Winning the entire PGA Tour.

Amazingly, the tenor of his facial expressions, the wildly expressive deadpan ambiguity of it, doesn’t really change once he begins to answer the question. “We will see,” he says, and then the press conference is over. The chin strap again becomes a mask covering his face, and the screen fills with his frame rising from the seat. Then he is gone, and for a long time the camera rolls on the empty chair.

Excerpted from Lost in the Game: A Book About Basketball. Copyright © 2022 Thomas Beller. Reprinted with permission from Duke University Press.