Born of a New Eastern Europe, Nikola Jokic Leads a Generation to NBA Stardom

Leo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorFebruary 15, 2017

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 26: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets boxes out against the Phoenix Suns on January 26, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bart Young/Getty Images

On the night he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic was home in Serbia, fast asleep. His older brother, Nemanja, called from New York to break the news while popping a bottle of champagne. Nikola answered groggily. Nemanja shouted into the receiver: "You got drafted in the NBA! How do you sleep right now?"

Nikola, now 21, is nearly 7' tall with a close buzz cut. It is a frigid December afternoon in Denver, and the NBA's most intriguing young center is happy to make this a lazy Sunday. Nikola wears a white Space Jam T-shirt and black basketball shorts. He lives with his two older brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja, and his girlfriend, Natalija Macesic, whom he met in his hometown of Sombor.

Their three-bedroom apartment is located on a quiet side street in downtown Denver and overlooks Coors Field. The brothers wear matching black Nike sandals (and guests are loaned a pair, too). Synchronized footwear is one of two house mandates. The other pertains to the small Nerf hoop installed atop the front door, for which there is a strict no dunking policy. Tackling is permitted (and accounts for most game action).

Throughout the apartment, surround-sound speakers typically hum with Serbian music, though lately Jokic is pushing for hip-hop. On the coffee table, a notebook is flipped open to display columns of wins in Mau Mau (think European Uno). No matter—the brothers discredit the standings, citing loopholes. Outside, snow covers the apartment's three large balconies. When weather allows, Nemanja likes to roast cevapi (Serbian sausage) out there. "Natalija cooks most, but I am the grill guy," he says.

During casual conversation, Jokic often sprawls out on his couch. He leans sideways across a few cushions, placing his weight on his right elbow. His head rests heavy on his shoulder, childlike, slightly pained but playful. "Every teacher in elementary school loved me because I was always goofing around," he says. "I was taller than most of the guys and girls, and fattest, too. I loved some classes—math, history, that's pretty much it. I didn't love physical activities. In high school, I couldn't do one pushup."

Hanging here, it is easy to admire the job Jokic has done to bring his life in Sombor to Denver. His brothers are here, his girlfriend is here, his cevapi is here. And yet, of course, it is not the same.

"I'm homesick," Jokic says. "I want to go home right now. I mean, I am the third kid, and I am a little closer with my parents than [my brothers] are."

From left, Strahinja, Nikola and Nemanja Jokic share a home in Denver, where Nikola has become a potential franchise player.
From left, Strahinja, Nikola and Nemanja Jokic share a home in Denver, where Nikola has become a potential franchise player.Photo courtesy of the Jokic family.

Nemanja interjects, "He's spoiled."

"I don't know what that means," Nikola says.

Nemanja, 32, is a former Division I player and the shortest of the brothers at 6'6". The largest is Strahinja, 34, who spent some time playing in Europe. His game, the brothers say, resembles that of Kendrick Perkins. "He's not that talented," Nikola jokes, "but he hates to lose."

Nikola's brothers are a regular presence at the Pepsi Center, screaming for the Nuggets in Serbian. When games tighten, Strahinja is known to punch chairs and move to sit separately. This is apparently a family tradition that goes back at least a generation. "Our dad is really passionate about watching the games," Nemanja says. Their parents recently visited Denver for about a month. "He screams, yells. Nobody sits around him."

The brothers' apartment came furnished; nobody knows how to play the half-dozen guitars that hang on a wall. Nobody can identify any of the artwork, either, except for one item—a small black and white photograph, tucked away behind a decorated Christmas tree in the living room. It is of the main street in Sombor, Kralja Petra (King Peter), where this group has spent many warm summer evenings. "That's your night out," Nemanja says. "Go to the main street, park the car and get ice cream. You can walk around for three minutes, and that's the end of the walk." Adds Nikola, "Best ice cream in Sombor."

"After my career is over, I'm gonna go back there," Jokic says. "It's super slow—not too much going on—but you have everything. You have a canal, nature; you can get peace of mind outside the city. I just like to be someplace where I know how to drive a car without navigation. How I say, no place like home? Something like that."

Typically, discussions here are contests: to be the wittiest, the loudest, to have the last word. Through a heavy Serbian accent, Nikola has mastered a sort of self-deprecating deadpan. When asked about his transformation from chunky adolescent to world-class athlete, he protests, "I am not athletic."

After averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game last season, Jokic was named to the NBA's All-Rookie first team.
After averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game last season, Jokic was named to the NBA's All-Rookie first team.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Game tape tells another story. The Nuggets offense increasingly runs through the second-year big man. Jokic is often fed the ball early in the shot clock, somewhere around the elbow, with his back to the basket. From there, he can work his way toward the rim to score in endless ways—he's got a turnaround, a hook shot, a sort of running floater and more—or he can distribute. His low-post passing can be mesmerizing; the night before our meeting, Jokic corralled a rebound along the baseline and flung an alley-oop over his head, beyond the Knicks defense, and into the hands of a leaping Kenneth Faried. Sometimes, Jokic will grab a defensive rebound and lug the ball up-court himself, amusing and amused as he plods. "I am really happy in that moment," he says.

Last season, Jokic earned first-team All-Rookie honors—he and Jordan Clarkson in 2014-15 were the only second-round picks from their draft class to do so. This season, Jokic is on pace to join Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley as the only players to average 16 points, eight rebounds and four assists per game while shooting at least 58 percent overall. During the month of January, he averaged 23.9, 11.1 and 4.8 while shooting better than 60 percent from the floor.

Jokic is the brightest star in an impressive first generation of post-war athletes from the former Yugoslavia. There are 17 formerly Yugoslavian players in the NBA—more players than North Carolina can claim.

Among this new group, Mario Hezonja (Croatia) and Dragan Bender (Bosnian and Croatian citizenship) were top-five picks. Dario Saric (Croatia) has delivered an excellent rookie season following much hype. Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro) is a double-double machine. Goran Dragic (Slovenia) is an All-NBA point guard. Jokic may be the league's most unique star.


Jokic's career began on a toy hoop. It hung on a door in his family's home, a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Sombor that housed three brothers, two parents and one grandmother. Nemanja and Strahinja, who for years towered over Nikola, would sit down when they played basketball with him to level the field. Nikola would charge toward the rim until the neighbors downstairs came knocking.

Nikola, in red shorts, says he still enjoys playing against locals on a court near his former school in Sombor.
Nikola, in red shorts, says he still enjoys playing against locals on a court near his former school in Sombor.Photo courtesy of the Jokic family.

At 16, Nikola left home to play with Mega Leks, a Serbian team in the Adriatic League. In his third year, he was named league MVP. By then, he had already been drafted by the Nuggets, in June 2014, but opted to remain in Eastern Europe for the extra season.

In 2015, Jokic finally arrived in Denver. He carried modest goals at first. "I didn't expect to play my first year," he says. "I just came here to work out."

Jokic lost 35 pounds ahead of his NBA debut, and it paid off. He saw immediate playing time as a rookie, a rarity for a second-round pick from Europe. In the Nuggets' 12th game, Jokic scored 23 points with 12 rebounds, the first of two double-doubles in five days. Today, those stat lines are the norm, and Jokic will toy with registering the occasional triple-double.

His game calls to mind Vlade Divac and the great generation of Yugoslavian basketball of the 1990s. Divac (Serbia) and Drazen Petrovic (Croatia) debuted in the NBA in 1989, Toni Kukoc (Croatia) arrived in '93, and Peja Stojakovic (Serbian, born in Croatia) in '98. Together, they helped to establish the selfless, spacious European style of play that is ubiquitous in American basketball today.

Yugoslavia won the silver medal in basketball at the 1988 Summer Olympics. By the 1992 Games, though, the country was no longer united.


Jokic was four years old when NATO troops bombed Serbia for 11 weeks in 1999. The attacks came at the tail end of a war among Yugoslavia's six neighboring states: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. "I remember things like sirens, bomb shelters, always turning off the lights," Jokic says. "We practically lived in the dark. Even at like 9 a.m., everything was turned off."

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, communism crumbled and nationalism ascended in Yugoslavia.

In the '90s, ethnic resentments in Yugoslavia gave way to a series of brutal wars, which lasted a decade. The timelines of the Yugoslav wars tangled as battles overlapped, borders were redrawn and neighbors slaughtered neighbors. At least 140,000 were killed. When the dust settled, 161 people were indicted for war crimes. (Each judgment is available here.)

As teammates until this week, when Nurkic was traded to Portland, Jusuf Nurkic and Jokic shared a knowledge of the violence that surrounded their homeland.
As teammates until this week, when Nurkic was traded to Portland, Jusuf Nurkic and Jokic shared a knowledge of the violence that surrounded their homeland.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

The worst of it came in 1995. That July, the Bosnian Serb army (comprising Bosnian residents with Serbian lineage) entered Srebrenica, a supposed United Nations safe zone in eastern Bosnia. As the New York Times reported, "What followed in the towns and fields around Srebrenica is described by Western officials and human rights groups as the worst war crime in Europe since World War II: the summary killing of perhaps 6,000 people." Later tallies fixed the death toll around 8,000.

The violence in Bosnia may not have directly affected Jokic, but it did affect his former teammate, Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic spent his first two-and-a-half seasons in Denver before he was traded to Portland on Monday. He grew up in Tuzla, Bosnia, about 65 miles northwest of Srebrenica.

"You never can forget," Nurkic says. "So many parents and kids died in a couple days. In Srebrenica, 8,000-something people were killed in two days. But you need to keep going with your life, and to live with those people. Not the people who killed, but—the new generation, it's not their fault. Bosnian people, Serbian people, Croatian—we must live together."

We are sitting at a corner table at Crepes 'n Crepes in downtown Denver. Nurkic normally slicks back his dark hair for games, but it looks shaggier today, a couple hours before Nuggets practice.

Nurkic's hands, even by NBA standards, are humongous. His father, an endearingly massive police officer in Bosnia, gained instant fame last year when TV cameras found him in the stands at a Nuggets game. Jusuf's brother is a nine-year-old who wears a size-14 shoe.

Nurkic was awake for the 2014 NBA draft, which he attended. It was his first time in the United States, and the night was a whirlwind. Nurkic was selected by Chicago with the 16th overall pick and then flipped to Denver, with 19th overall pick Gary Harris and a 2015 second-round pick, in a draft-night deal for Doug McDermott and Anthony Randolph. "First, we were over there with our Chicago Bulls hats," Nurkic remembers. "Five minutes later, they gave us another hat. I was like, 'We get two hats?' Gary said, 'No, brother. We're going a different way.' Everything happened so quick."

Like Jokic, Nurkic was not expected to contribute to the Nuggets right away. "When I came for an interview before the draft, [Denver general manager] Tim Connelly said, 'You're not gonna play. We have five big guys before you.' I said, 'You're gonna see—give me the chance.' I just asked for that."

Nurkic made 27 starts at center as a rookie in '14-15 while Jokic was still abroad. Last season, Nurkic missed the first 33 games while recovering from offseason surgery to repair a patella tendon injury, which allowed Jokic to establish himself at center. Nurkic opened this year, his third, in the starting lineup, ahead of Jokic, and averaged 16 points, 12 boards, and 2.3 blocks per contest in the first three games. But the ascent of Jokic made Nurkic expendable. When we meet, the trade deadline is some two months away, but Nurkic has a good read on the predicament.

"I think [the Nuggets] are going to do moves sooner or later," he says. "It's business here. We have 15 guys who deserve minutes, so it's hard to develop everybody. But I'm not worried about that—I just do my thing."

Jokic, averaging 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists in less than 27 minutes per game, is, according to Nurkic, "a very smart kid with a really big IQ for basketball."
Jokic, averaging 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists in less than 27 minutes per game, is, according to Nurkic, "a very smart kid with a really big IQ for basketball."Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It might be fair to assume Nurkic had a tense relationship with Jokic, who has overshadowed him in Denver. Moreover, Nurkic's native Bosnia was once at war with Jokic's native Serbia.

But the two players seemed free of the ethnic resentments that once consumed their countries. They had adjacent lockers in the Nuggets' arena. Together, they teased Serbian assistant coach Ognjen Stojakovic in a common language, Serbo-Croatian.

Indeed, Nurkic spoke of Jokic with admiration.

"He's a very smart kid with a really big IQ for basketball," Nurkic says. "He has fun out there, and he's a funny guy, too."

Such camaraderie is common among the 17 active formerly Yugoslavian players.

"Most of the guys now who are playing in the NBA, we don't actually remember the war," Jokic says. "Is there hate between us? No. The players don't hate each other. I'm not sure if even the countries hate each other. It's just war, you know. It's nothing between people."

In the NBA, Nurkic has found basketball to be a bond among people, no matter their nationality.

"When you play sports it's nice because there's no religion, there's no nothing," Nurkic says. "It's just like, 'Who's better?'"

This season, no one in Denver has been better than Jokic. That is a modest sample weighed against modest competition, maybe. But, years from now, when Nikola returns home to Sombor, it may be that few players ever were.

    

Leo Sepkowitz is a freelance writer based in New York City. He mostly writes for Slam Magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at @LeoSepkowitz.

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