“Iconoclast” is an overused word, don’t use it. Nikola Jokic ain’t one. Jokic is the very image of an NBA superstar. He’d rather be somewhere else until May.
It’s an ironic pose for a player recently characterized as an October-through-April wonder, a two-time regular season MVP, as if the Nuggets had a title shot in hell in 2021 or 2022 as Jamal Murray recovered from ACL surgery.
Jokic’s approach breaks no ground. His difference is greatness, the game’s greatest passing big man is also sport’s most lovable horse enthusiast. When he does answer honestly about NBA indifference, especially in October, he walks the same walk of any pro …
… asked to gird for battling 7-footers after the NBA’s shortest vacation. Playing NBA basketball into mid-June is as absurd as it is exhausting. Lottery chumps get six months off, Jokic’s champs claimed 107 days between the victory parade and NBA media day.
What refreshes about Jokic — and what is unfair to every other pro center we demand stick in the gym 22 hours a day — is the way he traipses atop our expectations. We won’t wander lost into the typical fan-to-professional relationship with Jokic, where the pro loves the game a little and we love it a lot. It isn’t quite a parasocial interaction because Nikola knows fandom, he understands the way we love NBA basketball, and him. He’s on YouTube like the rest of us, skipping past Jokic highlights to watch horse videos.
There’s a reason the rest of us land on Jokic highlights, he is the best player in the NBA, at minimum locked into a pinkie swear with Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the title. He is the most entertaining player in the NBA because his singular gift has no precedence in this league. The pivot has never seen a passer like Nikola Jokic, our assiduity is deserved, we’re supposed to pay attention to this guy.
Jokic’s averaged 8.6 assists since 2020, centers don’t do this. Johnny “Red” Kerr swung arms like a ticket-taker but never went this far. Wilt Chamberlain led the NBA in assists one season assuredly in a bid to annoy sportswriters. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar considered passing an art best suited for the left-hand lane, Vlade Divac only dished when he couldn’t outwit opponents with a hook, Bill Walton handled the position like he was playing his sons, holding the ball through its wait for daylight.
Jokic is different, bolder, he cares less about what we think and most about what gives his team that 18-point lead, and Nikola his merited seat on the pine through garbage time.
The NBA is a one-on-one or, at best, pick-and-roll league. When serious, when the NBA requires an assured score and begins performing as rigid, professional grown-ups, the NBA waits, as with NFL football, for the Big Play. American sports love stopping and settling and chattering, Nikola Jokic doesn’t even pause for cameras cutting back from our obsession with what went wrong before launching into what’s alright.
They were showing a Taco Bell commercial when he was drafted & they were showing a replay of an illegal screen when he threw one of the greatest passes of all time. pic.twitter.com/xCwapnWcqE
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) October 28, 2023
Jokic doesn’t treat each possession critically, like we’re slowly roiling up to a tennis serve. It’s probably why we haven’t seen him with a tennis racquet since the time he put on that Denver Nuggets sweatshirt.
Darko Milicic, the NBA’s other big hopeful from northern Serbia, was a NBA punchline by the time Nikola was 10. Jokic saw Darko’s heartbreak in real time, its bitter aftermath and shrugging acceptance: Milicic never wanted to play the game, later telling ESPN he “wasn’t the one who asked to play basketball.” Meanwhile we watch youth league video of Jokic dominating the court, loving this gig.
Jokic grew up in Sombor, northwest of where Milicic pushed himself to embrace the game. The only other sporting figure of note from Sombor was also a professional basketball player, Basketball Hall of Famer Radivoj Korać, a 6-8 center whose training regimen “bordered on obsession.” Korać scored the most (99) and second-most (71) points in a Eurobasket contest. He died in a car accident at age 30, driving to a game.
Korać once hit 100 out of 100 free throws during a live Belgian television broadcast. Jokic is the guy who told reporters “no” when asked if he’d discovered joy losing the last of his extra offseason weight early in the 2019-20 season. Actually, Jokic didn’t say “no,” he said, “nobody likes to work on the planet, so, no.”
Jokic subscribes to hard-won NBA truths, we don’t want our big man skipping rope all summer with all those tiny bones in each those big feet. The regular season should be spent sweating off beer weight, not obsessed with playing up to the standards of social media stat hawks or whatever Michael Jordan said in a .gif. You know how hard Bill Russell worked in practice? Bill Russell never practiced! No way Red Auerbach was gonna waste his franchise player on practice.
Nikola Jokic reminds us we don’t have to be the best at our job to deserve the right to leave the job at the office. Every person is allowed a little time with their horses.