Since Nikola Jokic (@jokicnikola15) came onto the scene with the Denver Nuggets a year ago, he’s made a habit of surpassing expectations. First with his coaches and team, quickly adding Nuggets fans and local media, with the national media following suit at a slow trickle. As Jokic enters his second season with the Nuggets, Denver Stiffs got a few moments to learn more about what makes the Serbian center tick, on and off the court. Today, part one of two.
Denver Stiffs: I was surprised to find that when you were young, you were more into horse racing than basketball.
Nikola Jokic: Yep, that’s true, that is true.
Stiffs: How were you introduced to horse racing, Nikola?
Jokic: By my family, when I was young. We’d go to see horse racing and harness racing. I just loved seeing the horses, being around the horses, loved their passion, the adrenaline, I just knew when I was young.
Then, the first time I got to go to the stables, I just had to learn everything about horses. So I became a stable boy, and learned to clean them, ride them, and even race them. I think riding horses is still one of my best loves.
Stiffs: Quite a passion. Do you spend any time around horses now?
Jokic: No, I don’t have much time for that now.
Stiffs: I’m sure that’s why you gave it up, for basketball…
Jokic: Yes, I ended up loving horses and basketball pretty equally, and came to the quick conclusion that my options were much better in basketball than in horse racing. (chuckles)
Stiffs: You do seem to have made a wise choice thus far. How old were you when you started playing basketball with a team?
Jokic: I played on my first organized team when I was 14 or 15, but that was still not serious basketball yet. That was like three-times-a-week practices. Something that was everyday, professionally, came a couple years later. I was near my hometown to play a bit when I was 17, for a half season, then I went to Mega Leks (his Serbian pro team). I moved to a couple more towns when I was playing for them.
Stiffs: So, you were still 17 when you signed with Mega. You start out with three years of organized ball, and suddenly you’re playing junior level pro ball at 17 and progressing up the ranks quickly, do I have that right?
Jokic: It was a really crazy path. I signed with Mega Leks when I was 17, had a really good year in junior league, I was the MVP of that. Then I got to go to the Nike Hoops Summit, and that’s the first time I met anyone in the NBA or the NBA staff.
Then I came back to Serbia, and was MVP of the Adriatic League the next year. Then I came to Denver the next year. Every season up until this year has been something new happening to me, including that this Summer, I won Olympic silver. My career keeps going forward and forward, and I don’t want it to stop any time soon.
Stiffs: Who could blame you? Kind of an amazing story, coming from where you have in seven years. So, after a year of pro ball, you’re 18, and you’re playing at the team’s main arena, in New Belgrade. That’s nearly a three hour drive from your hometown. When you moved that far away, did any of your family join you?
Jokic: That first year I was in a town closer to home than New Belgrade, so my family stayed home. Once I was three hours away, my brother moved along with me, so he was there. That made it pretty much easy for me, I was with him every day. But that first year before New Belgrade, before my brother was along, those were the first times that I was really alone, at 17. Luckily, I had good teammates with me, and I had good roommates, so it was easy adapting for me.
Stiffs: That’s fortunate, because that’s a young age to be out on your own for the first time. I’m sure it was good that you had family along to help when you moved even further away.
Jokic: My brother coming that second year - that really helped me. My family, and my girlfriend being able to come from time to time, every couple of weeks or every month, meant I wasn’t completely alone. Then, it was just adopting the life.
Stiffs: That’s a huge change at 17, Nikola…
Jokic: Yep, yep, it was a huge change, and I’m the third child, and I love my hometown, love my parents, so... It was a little bit, well… not sad, but… kind of sad, leaving family and my hometown.
Stiffs: I can only imagine. You’ve probably had some lonely moments, chasing this dream. So, fast forward to today, and you’ve now been primarily away from home for the last four years. Recently, you got to bring your Olympic silver medal back to your hometown, Sombor. Several Nuggets fans got to see video of that day, and it was obviously an emotional moment. Tell us a little bit more about that day, and what it was like to be able to bring that medal back home.
Jokic: Whenever I am back in the area, all I want to do is just to go back home, I love my hometown. When I finish my career, I want to go back there and live there. My parents are there, my family is there, even my girlfriend is there. Everybody I know is there. I don’t always like big cities that come with big teams. I like small cities, that I can see most everyone as I go to walk. That’s what I love. (note: Sombor has a population below 50,000 when last measured in 2011.)
That moment when I came back from the Olympic games, and they had that surprise ceremony… it was really emotional for me, because I didn’t know they were going to do it. Even when we won the silver in Rio, I didn’t know it was that much of a big thing back home in Serbia. It was really crazy.
First in Belgrade, there were thousands and thousands of people, just waiting for us. Not just for the men’s basketball team, but the water polo team, the volleyball team, the women’s basketball team, for the entire Olympic team. Then I came back to my home in Sombor, and they made a celebration just for me, and that was overwhelming. And awesome. You can see from the video that I couldn’t stop my emotions. I saw what seemed like thousands of familiar faces in the crowd. I was really really touched to know that my hometown has got my back, and everybody supports me. Everybody knew what I was going through, and it was just really an emotional day for me.
Stiffs: For whatever it’s worth, it was a really touching moment for many of us. I got choked up watching how much it meant to you and also how much it meant to your family, friends, and fans. You could tell how much you mean to your hometown as well.
Jokic: I agree, except for one part. In Sombor, those are not my fans. Those are my people. I was playing basketball with them. I was hanging around with them. I have spent time with them, in good and bad. I cannot say they are my fans. I can say they are my friends.
Stiffs: Well corrected, thank you. I like that a ton. As much as you are flourishing in the NBA, you briefly got to go back to the Euro game in the recent Olympics. Is there anything about playing the European style that you like better?
Jokic: To be honest, I feel the difference, but it’s not a big enough difference. It’s a difference of one more step, other small things. In Serbia, I don’t know how to describe it to you, but it was a little bit different by the rules. But I don’t feel it. Basketball is basketball. The principles are still easy. In any of them, sometimes you don’t even need to dribble to make a score, so… it makes a bigger difference to play with your teammates, learn the passing, their preferences. There’s no way some little rules changes can keep you and your teammates from making a score.
Stiffs: It’s exciting that you’ll be bringing those same principles back to Denver now that you have a year’s history with your teammates on the Nuggets. Speaking of your recent history, your brothers were in Denver for much of your first year of play. Will they be back with you for you second season?
Jokic: Of course, of course. Even my girlfriend was with me part of last year. I have really big support, and I know that they’ve all got my back. If I play good, if I play bad, I know that they will sit down and tell me the truth. I want to hear the truth, and they will support me, they will tell me things that will cause me to play harder, to play better, and I need them. So, they are back with me now, to help.
Stiffs: It’s true, sometimes as you start to get successful, suddenly most everyone around you in your inner circle only tells you the “good things” that they think you want to hear. It’s always better to have those voices that are also telling you when you’re messing up. You have your brothers there to keep you honest.
Jokic: Of course, that’s what family does. They’re encouraging, but when they know that you are not playing good, they are telling you about it. That’s family.
Stiffs: It also doesn’t hurt that they have some years of life experience on you. Your brothers are 11 and 13 years older than you. Sometimes kids born that far apart don’t end up being very close when they grow up. You three seem very close. When and how did that start?
Jokic: Before I can even remember. I remember when I was five, six, they would carry me everywhere. When they’d play basketball, when they’d go to the city, everywhere. I remember I was going to the city with them for a week when they would play, so that closeness all started long ago. It’s continuing like that because that’s a thing my parents do. We are all really close, we are taking care of each other, and we are really connected, so… I think it all comes from the good love of our parents.
Stiffs: That’s nice about your family. It makes a big difference. Was going to watch your brothers play basketball your introduction to the game, then?
Jokic: Yeah, that’s how I came to love basketball. My mom said even before I could remember, when I still had a pacifier, I would just sit and watch them play. They were kids too, but I just loved how they moved. I would just sit there for hours and watch them. I remember when I was five or six, they brought me to a court, and it’s the first time I remember playing with them. After I got older, I found out that the whole time we were on some special court in my hometown, and the whole time I just played basketball with my brothers. That memory is the first time I remember loving basketball.
Stiffs: What a great story. You have a reputation in your family, and also with the team and Nuggets staff, for being a bit of a joker. That obviously plays nicely into one of your nicknames, Joker. Is your whole family funny, or were you “that kid” in the family?
Jokic: That’s Mike’s fault (the nickname). “Joker” is Mike Miller’s fault.
I just like to have fun, I enjoy how everyone acts when we are keeping it light and having fun, at least off the court. I like when we have fun in the locker room, and that was true with every team clear back to my hometown. I want everybody to smile, I want everybody to be happy. I can say that that’s my job to do, to make everybody happy.
If off the court, you and your team can joke around, often on the court you play much better. My whole family does joke around. We tease each other a lot. I try not to tell anybody the whole story, but we tease a lot, trust me.
Stiffs: You can see the camraderie with the team, and it having on-court benefits. As to your family, I completely get it. I’ve seen bits and pieces, with yours. In the first few quotes I read from your brothers, one of them was recalling your early playing days, and called you a “fat little point guard”. You could tell it was all meant in good fun. That’s also the way my family teases each other, and I love it. It’s how we show our affection. But I’ve seen other people have a tough time with it, and I even saw a few fans taken aback by the comment until they better understood he was teasing with someone he cared about.
Jokic: Believe me, my brothers would give me a bad time when I was young. Teasing me, holding down my arms, they were both a lot older and bigger. But when I’d start crying, they’d say, “Well, if you’re going to cry, we don’t want to play with you any more.” There were a lot of crazy stories.
Stiffs: Wow. Love. But funny/tough love, huh?
Jokic: Absolutely. But it was amazing. You could always tell they cared about me.
Lots more to go, come back for part two tomorrow! Many thanks to the Joker, Nikola Jokic for taking the time to catch up with Denver Stiffs, and as always, to the Denver Nuggets and Tim Gelt for giving Stiffs this access.