NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets holds the MVP trophy in one hand and his daughter Ognjena in the other on stage after defeating the Miami Heat at Ball Arena on June 12, 2023. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post )
Nothing about Nikola Jokic is ever contrived.
Not his palpable disappointment that Thursday’s championship parade delayed his return to Serbia, or his raw honesty about where basketball fits into his life.
“I think it’s still not the most important thing in the world,” Jokic said shortly after guiding the Nuggets to their first championship Monday night. “There are a lot of things that I like, that I like to do. It’s probably a normal thing. Nobody likes his job, or maybe they do. … They’re lying.”
His unique skill set sets him apart on the field, but who he is as a person may be even more extraordinary. Confident, content, quiet and private, Jokic is unlike any other NBA superstar. He would rather enjoy the sunshine by his pool than bask in any kind of limelight.
Amid the championship afterglow late Monday night, The Post polled a handful of characters in Jokic’s circle, seeking their favorite stories with the revered Serbian.
They gave examples of diligence and loyalty, spontaneity and courage. As evidenced by how he feels about his job, there is no singular way to describe Jokic, and it would be foolish to distill him into one story.
The Nuggets’ proud Canadian was in the middle of the celebration Monday night, dousing and drenching anyone in his radius. Jokic, his preferred pick-and-roll partner, was less central to the festivities.
But somewhere in the middle of the party, Jokic wrapped his battered arms around Murray and dragged him to the back ducts of the locker room. With a champagne bottle tucked in Murray’s right hand, Jokic wrestled his point guard into the pool. Murray wouldn’t go down without his dance partner.
“He just dunked me in the pool,” Murray said, proud of the fact that he had dragged Jokic in with him.
Jokic throws Jamal Murray in the pool
— NBA (@NBA) 13 June 2023
The tandem made NBA history by becoming the first pair of teammates to each average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists during a postseason.
“I think it was a pretty cool moment,” Murray said. “It was our little party together.”
Even early in his Nuggets career, there were glimpses of who Jokic could become. As a rookie in 2015, Kroenke said Jokic would be in the gym every day with his two brothers, Strahinja and Nemanja, working on his game. Josh’s father, Stan, would also be there.
“You saw this guy come off the ground and how hard he worked,” Kroenke said. “He was driven, he was focused and you knew he had a chance to be a special player.”
Jokic made the first team All-Rookie. A season later, the Nuggets selected him as their starting center. Little by little, the moments of brilliance increased until the Nuggets committed to a max deal in the summer of 2018.
“A few people raised their eyebrows that you’re maxing out a guy who’s not a household name,” Kroenke said.
There was a signing ceremony with Jokic and Will Barton before the crew flew to Las Vegas to celebrate the partnership.
“Nikola went to bed, but his two brothers came out,” Kroenke said. The Nikola-less crew, led by Strahinja and Nemanja, were at a night club in Vegas.
“Let’s just say nightclub bouncers have never been more scared in their lives,” Kroenke said.
It was a touchstone moment for the family and the organization, Kroenke said. After that night, a fund had been established.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown
Even in a jubilant state of champagne bottles and cigar wafts, Caldwell-Pope, the two-time NBA champion, was too savvy to say anything too revealing about Jokic.
“I don’t think I can say the one I’m thinking of,” Caldwell-Pope said with a laugh. “… Jokic is a player who knows how to have fun.”
Brown, on the other hand, offered a highlight of their pregame routine that was trivial yet enlightening.
The Nuggets’ super-sub is Jokic’s type of player: Tough, malleable and egoless. He has been a staunch advocate for Brown ever since he signed with the Nuggets in free agency last season. The two sit close to each other in the home’s dressing room, each occupying stalls on the right side of the room.
While eating his pregame snack, Brown got used to Jokic interrupting him.
“Our ritual before every game, he throws his gum wrapper at me,” Brown said. “It’s just our game ritual.”
Jokic’s backup was an integral piece in the Nuggets’ locker room, even as his place in the rotation fluctuated. When asked about a favorite Jokic story, Jordan seemed to go through a catalog of them.
“Just him telling stories about crazy (things),” Jordan said.
When pressed, Jordan settled on a key moment in their relationship.
“I had a conversation with Joker around the All-Star break about him being more vocal with guys,” Jordan said. “His thing was, ‘No, bro. It’s not me, I don’t. I’d rather just let my game lead the way.’
“I was very honest with him,” he said. “I told him in a very grown-up way, ‘Forget it. We need you to be vocal because your voice is very powerful in our locker room.’ He said, ‘If I do it and it doesn’t work, it’s your fault’.”
Jordan was ok with the deal. He went back to the well during Game 5 of the Finals when he pleaded with Jokic to speak up during the closing play.
“Yeah, I need you to talk tonight,” he told him.
In the third quarter, when the Nuggets settled for 3-pointers instead of attacking, cameras caught Jokic shouting animatedly to his teammates during a timeout.
“Sometimes I yell at them, sometimes I cheer them on — but it’s part of the family, part of the team,” Jokic said.
Jordan smiled at the progress he had made on his student.
“He was a leader tonight.”
Denver’s Brazilian strength coach was the first person to truly believe in Jokic’s potential. He told him he could win the MVP. He promised that behind his growth, the Nuggets could become champions.
Eichenberger has had Jokic’s ear ever since he entered the NBA as a raw, undrafted prospect. But what he told Jokic was no different than what he told other young players.
“I believe in everybody,” Eichenberger said, citing current developmental prospects Peyton Watson and Jack White.
So how did he get to Jokic? Eichenberger said it was trust.
“I always tell him when we work, ‘I’m not here to be your friend.'”
Jokic understood that everything Eichenberger insisted on, from dieting to postgame lifting to stretching, was to his advantage. That trust was established after Jokic learned Eichenberger was invested.
“Going to his spot from Year 1, where he’s not Nikola Jokic,” Eichenberger said. “In Year 1, when we drive a red car that only seats three people, we have six people in it. … He had a little buggy car. It’s little things that mean a lot to him. Like being family. He likes everything to be family.”
In the moment, Eichenberger said, Jokic probably wouldn’t appreciate what they had just accomplished. But later that night, when the celebration ended, he would.
“When he puts his head on the pillow, he’ll think, ‘Wow, I came from Serbia, from Sombor, a little place,'” Eichenberger said. “What I’ve done, what we’ve done as a team,’ … I think will mean a lot.”
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