It truly did all start back in Las Vegas in 2015. The Nuggets descended into the valley from the Rocky Mountains for the annual NBApalooza, also known as Summer League. The buzz was significant. The Nuggets were bringing their highest draft pick in over a decade, the new face of the franchise and the player everyone expected to guide the franchise back to a perennial playoff team. Now, if you’re reading the lede and aren’t familiar on the Nuggets in the mid 2010s, you’d probably assume I’m talking about the now three -time MVP Nikola Jokic, and I am, but he was not that player I mentioned. That player was Emmanuel Mudiay. Jokic was the 41st pick in the draft the year prior making his summer league debut in addition to Mudiay after spending one final season in Europe after the Nuggets drafted him. If you were to just look at the stats, you’d be confused as to why Jokic’s stint in Summer League is something of legend. He finished fifth on Denver in assists, fourth in rebounds and didn’t even register on the leaderboard for points or minutes per game. Unlike Mudiay, Denver didn’t say they’d seen enough and rest him for the second half of the tournament. Jokic played all five games of the summer league, the only other player who could say the same that actually made the roster was Erick Green…who was on the roster for three games. Jokic is incredibly unexpected.

However, despite not putting up a ton of points, or even assists, the flashes were there. Guys would cut into the lane and Jokic would toss these soft lobs into traffic that seemed like they were guaranteed to be stolen only they weren’t. They dropped perfectly into the arms of the guy he was passing to. He flashed his footwork in the post, his ability to stretch and run the floor. From there we know the story. Joker establishes himself in the rotation by the end of his rookie year, by the middle of his second season he was inserted into the starting lineup and by his third season Mudiay was traded for a Devin Harris rental and Nikola was the engine that ran everything the Nuggets did. From there its been a consistent ascent to becoming the best basketball player on earth. That ascent continued right up to Wednesday night when it was announced Jokic won his third MVP award, something now only nine players have ever accomplished. Each one a hall of famer and many spoken about in the greatest of all time conversation. Think about that. Thousands upon thousands of players have come into the league and Jokic accomplished something only eight others did before him. It’s stunning and the fact that it’s happening in Denver, a “flyover” franchise that never won anything more than a division title before Nikola’s arrival, makes it incredibly special for all of us who rock the blue and gold. Jokic is incredibly remarkable.

It’s not that the Nuggets haven’t had great players. After this year’s induction ceremony there will be a baker’s dozen players who played for the Nuggets at some point in their career and are in the hall of fame. However many were here for less storied portions of their career (Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups, Bobby Jones, George McGinnis, Walter Davis, Charlie Scott, Spencer Haywood) and others still were really only here for a cup of coffee and their time as Nuggets had nothing to do with their hall of fame consideration (Sarunas Marciulionis, Tim Hardaway). Of the thirteen, there are four who you can argue are truly Nuggets hall of famers: Alex English, David Thompson, Dan Issel and Dikembe Mutombo and honestly Issel’s career peak was with the Kentucky Colonels and Mutombo’s was with the Atlanta Hawks. English and Thompson really are the only two who through and through are Denver players. English is also Denver’s only first ballot hall of famer. Think about that, a franchise that has existed for over half a century has one first ballot hall of famer and while Carmelo Anthony has a good shot to go in first ballot as well, he has shown that his loyalty lies with the New York Knicks and not the Nuggets. Jokic has long stated he wants to end his career in Denver and he could retire tomorrow and be a lock to go into the HOF on his first try. This is not normal, particularly in Denver. Jokic is incredibly special.

What makes it even more special is Nikola is the first Nugget to ever reach even close to the heights he has accomplished. When he won his first MVP back in 2021 he became the first ever Denver player to do it in the NBA (shoutout to Haywood and his remarkable single ABA season with the Denver Rockets in 1970). Two years later he led the Nuggets to the franchise’s first championship during a dominant run that saw him crowned Finals MVP. No one has even come close to what Nikola has accomplished in Denver and he’s doing it all while pronouncing love for the city and the franchise. That makes it the most special of all. This is a franchise that is often overlooked, that goes into free agency knowing there is almost no chance of landing the biggest names. A place that we’ve been told is boring and lacks the appeal of a Los Angeles, Miami or New York. Hell, people would talk about Dallas as a marquee destination over Denver and no offense meant for Dallas, fine city, but I won’t be convinced it’s demonstrably better than the city that sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Nikola gives two shits about developing a brand or spending every night in the action out on the town. In fact he seems to loathe things like attention and outward admiration. His personality is perfectly suited for Denver and the beautiful, but oft maligned in NBA circles, city is perfectly suited for him. Given the way Melo left, having the greatest player in franchise history confess his love and loyalty for the city puts Nikola in a league of his own when it comes to Nuggets lore. Jokic is incredibly loyal.

Jun 12, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) with his wife and daughter as they sit next to the Larry O Brien Trophy and the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award trophy after the Nuggets won the NBA championship by defeating the Miami Heat in game five of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s more than just what he does on the court or even his loyalty off it though. Jokic is simply extremely easy to root for. First and foremost he is a family man and puts his loved ones above all else. When he came to Denver he brought his two brothers to live with him. He married his high school (or whatever they call it in Serbia) sweetheart and ties his wedding ring into his shoelaces. He is a girl dad and damn proud of it, showing constant love and connection with his young daughter. There’s something incredibly beautiful about a man who has reached the peak of his profession, who has all the money and attention anyone could ever ask for, and yet his very first instinct after every game is to look to the crowd, find his daughter and share a special gesture so that she knows he is thinking of her and that in an arena of thousands of people she is the most important one to him. Sometimes it can be easy to forget that players are humans and so often when we do remember that fact its in the light of a mistake they made or criticism they received. For Nikola, we see his humanity in the way he loves the people closest to him. Jokic is incredibly loving.

We also see his love of his teammates and his respect for the game. He’s famous for saying he prefers to assist over scoring because an assist makes two people happy. He is the epitome of always making the right play, completely selfless with only an interest in winning. Opposing team’s fans will cope by saying he doesn’t care about the game, that he doesn’t love the game of basketball and that’s bad for the NBA, but that’s just what they tell themselves while they search for a reason to dislike a player who just thoroughly dismantled their team. Fact of the matter is Nikola would prefer for his teammates to be the ones showered with admiration and credit for the team’s accomplishments. Look no farther than the picture of the team after they won the championship. Jamal Murray is sitting front and center holding the Larry O’Brien trophy, next to him is coach Michael Malone…holding Nikola’s finals MVP trophy, and waaaaay off to the left in the top row, practically out of the picture, with his daughter on his shoulders, is the best player on earth and the star of the championship team. I’m not going to do the research but I’d take a guess that you could go back through every championship team photo for the past thirty years and not see something like that. Jokic is incredibly selfless.

Jun 12, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; The Denver Nuggets celebrate after winning the 2023 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As Nuggets fans we can’t take this for granted. It’s easy to do when we are in the middle of Joker putting up amazing performances night in and night out. It’s also easy to forget how amazing he is when he only puts up sixteen points and sixteen rebounds in a tough loss in the playoffs, but his greatness is something Nuggets fans will likely never see again in their lifetime. Of the other eight players to win three MVPS, only three franchises saw multiple members on that list play for them, and realistically it’s just two (the Philadelphia 76ers snuck in with Wilt Chamberlin and one season of Moses Malone) and they’re the two franchises who consistently get the most attention from free agents to MVP voters alike: the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Jokic also turns thirty next season, a stark reminder that there is a time limit on his greatness and we are in all likelihood already halfway through it. We can’t waste these moments as Nuggets fans. We were gifted a basketball savant that no one saw coming because he doesn’t jump high or run very fast. We were gifted the most uniquely talented player in the NBA, perhaps ever, who is simply better than everyone else because he’s the most fundamentally sound player in the league. He’s remarkable to watch and we are ridiculously lucky to call him ours. Jokic is incredibly unique.