Nikola Jokic took a deep breath and paused. He was standing at center court, drenched in sweat, every set of eyes in the Pepsi Center fixated on him. This was nothing new for the Nuggets best player. Countless times he has stood in that same spot, bestowed with the customary post game questions from Altitude—his face stuck somewhere between annoyed and amused.
Jokic never craves attention, at least when it comes to his individual performance on the court. He’s disinterested in any narratives involving his greatness. Any statistical accomplishments, to him, are meaningless. There was a particular irony to that dynamic on Saturday night. He was the only one who seemed unaware that this night was different.
Jokic had just been informed that he hadn’t missed a single shot in his 35 point, triple-double performance against the Phoenix Suns in the home opener. The Serbian raised his massive shoulders, and let them drop to their natural position.
“I just wanted to win the game.”
Athletes are groomed to handle the spotlight. They’re taught at a young age what types of answers endear themselves to the fans and the media. They know exactly how to protect their image—to manicure it. That’s not the case with Jokic. There’s a remarkable candidness to everything he does. He doesn’t seem to care how he’s perceived. He doesn’t understand why that’s relevant. He speaks with with an endearing naiveté about his own talents.
When Jokic said he just wanted to win the game, he meant it. He was likely unaware of his stat line in that moment, let alone its significance. This isn’t the kind of star we’re used to. He’s not a flashy athlete, he’s not self-obsessed, and he fails to garner the same national attention as some of his peers. His performance on Saturday night was one of the single most impressive performances by a center in the history of this league. It was overshadowed on SportsCenter by fight between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers.
There’s something that’s oddly comforting about that. The spotlight, the cameras, the national audience, they’re as disinterested in Jokic as he is in them. It’s almost as if no matter how good he gets, his game, and the joy that comes from watching him play, are reserved only for Nuggets fans. They’re used to this in Denver. The significance of anything that might happen here being lost on everyone but them.
It’s part of what makes Jokic the perfect poster child for this new era of Nuggets basketball. He belongs here, perhaps more so than any other star in the team’s history. On Saturday night, Big Honey was the catalyst for a scene that the Pepsi Center hasn’t seen in a long time.
As Jokic stepped to the free throw line with 3:53 remaining in the fourth quarter, a particularly strong crowd erupted into a goose-bump inducing chant. For the first time in years, the Pepsi Center echoed with cries of “M-V-P!” so loudly, that one was actually convinced the home crowd meant it. Jokic had certainly earned it. He was about to put the finishing touches on a 35 point, 12 rebound, 11 assist performance in which he made all of his 11 shots from the floor, and did not turn the ball over once.
The crowd knew what they had just seen. Jokic himself may not think much of it, but they were determined to let him know that they appreciated it for what it was: a historic performance.
Jokic is not the first player in this organization’s history to earn such praise from the fans, but never before has such an important piece of the puzzle fell into place the way he has. Not in Denver.
He has the talent to alter the course of this franchise, but unlike his predecessor, Carmelo Anthony, there’s no reason to doubt that he wants to be here. There is no reason to believe that he belongs anywhere but here. Jokic has not only captured the heart of a beaten, yet fiercely loyal fan base, he now represents them. He’s theirs.
“I was just waiting for it to stop,” Jokic said sheepishly, when asked what he thought of the love from the crowd. “I mean, thank you, but I thought it was a little silly. It’s early.”
It very well may have been lost on Jokic—not just the rarity of such performances, but that the crowd meant more than just “Most Valuable Player” when they showered him with adoration. To Nuggets fans, Jokic represents hope. Hope that the ceiling of the NuggLife can be shattered. This city is embracing him now. They wanted him to know—they don’t just appreciate him, they believe in him.
That faith will undoubtedly be tested this season. As awesome as Jokic’s performance was, it was also bittersweet. Towards the end of the third quarter, Will Barton went up for a layup when he felt something in his right hip pop. He crumpled to the ground and stayed there for several minutes before being carted back to the locker room. There is no official diagnosis for Barton yet, but it’s hard to imagine any encouraging set of circumstances.
It appears, at least for now, that the Nuggets will be without Thrill for significant time this season. The arduous task of making the playoffs out West just got that much tougher, and there’s no longer any doubt whose shoulders this added responsibility will fall on.
Jokic is the team’s best player. He is the one who will be tasked with elevating his teammates following such a significant blow. Jobs are on the line. The positive trajectory of this team is at stake. It is up to the Serbian to keep this train on the tracks.
That’s a lot of pressure for a 23 year-old. It’s enough pressure to make just about anyone crack. But what we learned on Saturday night is that Jokic isn’t just anyone. He’s capable of truly remarkable things on the basketball court, and he’s immune to the pressure that might affect him off of it.
As Jokic exited the showers and walked towards his locker, he whistled loudly, donning just his beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle underpants, blissfully unaware of how much is riding on him now.
He stopped, stretched, and yelled, to no one in particular, “Ooh! I’m going to eat some ice cream tonight!!”
That’s Denver’s franchise player. And these fans wouldn’t have it any other way.