Nikola Jokić confirmed his status among NBA greats. Now he can embrace the limelight it brings

Nikola Jokić soaked up the love, felt the vibe and was unexpectedly happy to spend parade day in Denver.

The Finals MVP, for once, allowed himself to live in the moment these past few days, showing the world a glimpse of his personality while still staying true to his ethos — giving as little as possible.

But in it, he found that participating isn’t so bad, that it doesn’t always have to be “play ball, go home, leave me alone.”

And because of the newfound validation of becoming a champion, more will be asked of him. It would help everyone involved if he committed now and again. He doesn’t have to be a statesman, but almost every labeled superstar in the league has had some kind of footprint beyond the 48 minutes on the floor.

Being a foreigner in an Americanized world can be intimidating, if not daunting. We assume that players are comfortable in media settings when the language barrier and anxiety can often take over.

The awkward silence may draw uncomfortable laughs, but introverted types may go further into their shell in those moments.

But what, if anything, does he owe the game? Does he owe the game more than his performance on the floor?

Nikola Jokić celebrates with his daughter the Denver Nuggets’ NBA championship during a parade in downtown Denver on Thursday. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Jokić draws comparisons to Tim Duncan, and the Nuggets seem to almost mirror Duncan’s Spurs in terms of patient team building, sustainable expertise and international flavor. Nuggets coach Michael Malone is a bit more rambunctious than Gregg Popovich was in his early days as Spurs czar, and his bravado is refreshing, even if he seems to be standing against the lowest common denominator of grievances.

Jokić is following the Nuggets’ lead, and after years of being relatively nondescript on the NBA map, they’ve been thrust into the spotlight as champions: By default, every team will emulate and at the same time try to take down.

Duncan was noticeably reluctant to promote the game, if not exactly reluctant to do anything but play ball. But in his early years he was part of Nike campaigns and Sprite commercials, some really funny ones that played into his personality.

In one, the defensive wizard went around town knocking things away from unsuspecting citizens – even approaching a little girl with a lollipop and knocking it out of her hand before handing it back.

He didn’t say a single word in it, but the point got through. It was fun.

In a Sprite commercial, he battled the late Kobe Bryant — a rap battle — topped off by a playground game featuring the two with Missy Elliott ending the song.

Catchy, funny and even self-deprecating.

Although it was early, Duncan seemed to understand that he had a responsibility. Either that or he did it kicking and screaming. Either way, no one knew the better.

The NBA wasn’t quite where it is now, but its stars knew they were standing on the shoulders of giants who helped them accumulate the rising salaries of the time. Since then it has almost tripled.

Jokić could not recall his first memory of the NBA Finals he watched as a child, a product of being in Serbia. He just loved the game, dedicated his professional life to the craft and came to the US and has added to the lore – but wants no more of it.

It’s hard to say he understands the value of the relationship NBA players have with the public, a much more intimate relationship than other professional men’s sports, so he’s been given grace.

The new league in the 80s gained traction because of the equity built by Magic and Bird, Isiah and Michael, and of course Dr. J. It wasn’t a bankable commodity in the eyes of mainstream America, but these players used their personality quirks to their advantage to attract the public.

Magic and Isiah had these big smiles and charming personalities. Dr. J was stately and elegant. Jordan rarely said anything in his early commercials, letting his athletic prowess do the talking while Spike Lee did all the bragging.

Of course, Bird wasn’t anyone’s charming boyfriend, but he was a perfect foil for the smiling Magic – a white guy in a black league. Like it or not, the public loved it and Bird was up to the task.

Magic and Bird only appeared in one commercial together, but it was a memorable one, a Converse spot. Bird also appeared in one of the biggest Super Bowl promotions of all time, a McDonald’s commercial with Jordan in which they played a game of one-upmanship.

He didn’t go above and beyond because it wasn’t in his nature, and he didn’t have a lot of notable quotes, but when he spoke and discussed either Jordan or Magic after playoff games, it became part of NBA history.

“It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan,” after Jordan’s 63-point playoff game at the Boston Garden.

“Magic is just a great basketball player. He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” after the Magic’s junior-junior skyhook in the 1987 NBA Finals.

Perhaps if Jokić had a vocal foil, someone who could serve as an alter ego or the ultimate opposite, his silence and dry humor would play better — perhaps with his rival from Philadelphia, Joel Embiid. And of course he had to be willing.

The days of playing ball and going home or doing the bare minimum feel harder to justify, especially since someone just signed a max $272 million deal last summer.

It’s not pickpocketing, but there’s something about leaving the game in a better place than you found it to attract more fans because of who you are, not just how you play.

He doesn’t have to be some Madison Avenue boy; he doesn’t even have to fake it and be something he’s not.

It’s important to note that some players have outdone themselves by trading on their image and risking exposure, so Jokić could be protective for a reason — limiting us to basketball and his older brothers.

In a way, it’s damn near admirable how far he goes to deliver a little.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić celebrates with teammates after winning the 2023 NBA Finals on Monday at Ball Arena in Denver.  (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić celebrates with teammates after winning the 2023 NBA Finals on Monday at Ball Arena in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Nuggets have privately and publicly lamented the lack of respect they’ve received nationally, which is sure to change with their newfound jewelry. Rightfully bristled at every story focused on the Lakers during the conference finals, they were clearly annoyed that LeBron James took some of the spotlight away in the wake of the Nuggets’ sweep by bringing up the possibility of retirement.

They deserve to have the eyes of the world on them, and so does Jokić, even if he dodges the spotlight faster than he dodges defenders – well, actually, he doesn’t really dodge defenders, he lets them blow past him.

But he could certainly help the NBA, and most importantly, his franchise with some much-needed, earned exposure. The game was built by players who didn’t need to do more, but did. It benefited everyone.

Leave a Comment