Just a kid from Sombor

"I didn't think I'd play in the NBA when I started basketball," admits Jokic sheepishly in 2021, just named MVP. And for good reason... Born on February 19, 1995 in Sombor, a town in northern Serbia, the young Nikola likes the orange ball, but no more than water polo and volleyball, and much less than horses, his great passion. Or do the pitre in class.

"The teachers loved me because I was always doing stupid things. I enjoyed math, history, that's about it. On the other hand, I did not like physical activities. I was taller than the others and bigger too. I couldn't do a single push-up," he says.

It must be said that Nikola fuels soda, up to three liters a day. When he joined the 17-year-old KK Mega Basket in Belgrade, he weighed 135 kilos and was still far from reaching his adult height (2.11 m).

Serbian Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, MVP of the finals against the Miami Heat, celebrates the title with his daughter in his arms, on June 12, 2023 in Denver © MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP

Draft, Quesarito and Nuggets

Not to be confused with a fast-food menu, these three names sum up the new life that awaits Jokic when, on June 26, 2014, Denver selected him at No. 41. The moment is not even immortalized on television, his name having been called during an advertising page extolling the delights of a "quesarito", half-quesadilla half-burrito invention of a Tex-Mex channel.

Remaining in Serbia, Jokic is far from imagining what is happening. "I was sleeping. My brother had organized a party, he called me. I just said: +Man, I'm sleeping+. I heard the news the next day. I didn't think it was going to be anything important."

Nikola Jokic (#15), then a young player for the Denver Nuggets, loàrs of a game against the Golden State Warriors, on November 22, 2015 in Denver © DOUG PENSINGER / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/Archives

Family first

They kiss each other at the end of every game. This ritual is that of Nikola with his two older brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja, who followed him to the United States and live under his roof, with his wife Natalija Macesic, a former volleyball player, and their daughter Ognjena, soon to be two years old.

"When you're the youngest, you always want to be with your big brothers. I was happier staying close to them than going to the NBA."

Cut like cabinets, they are at once his bodyguards, his personal cooks and his groupies. Happy lurons, they kindly room Jack Nicholson and throw coach Michael Malone in the air, after the Lakers were eliminated in the playoffs. They are also ready to storm the floor to defend the youngest, when things heat up with opponents.

Nikola Jokic (C) receives accolades from his brothers after winning NBA regular season MVP on June 19, 2021 before a game in Denver © Dustin Bradford/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/Archives

"They look like serial killers, but they're actually very nice," Jokic said.

The art of slowness

Nikola does not jump, he runs with heavy steps, his nose reddens under the effort. But he knows how to make a place for himself where he wants, when he wants. "I'm patient because I'm not fast," he said, describing himself as "a point guard stuck in the body of a pivot."

He sees the game before it happens. "I let him come to me," says the "Joker" for whom "the only muscles that are used in basketball are those in the brain". Ball in hand, it is a pure talent, monster of simplicity, intelligence and efficiency, which has turned to almost a triple-double average this season.

His gestures are not orthodox, but confuse his opponents. "He puts the ball behind his head like Larry Bird, shoots 15 meters high and it goes in...", blew recently LeBron James. A signature shoot that disconcerts, and makes him laugh: "I've been out of balance all my life, so it's normal for me".

Nuggets star Nikola Jokic (#15) prepares to shoot against Miami Heat's Bam Adebayo during the 2022-23 NBA season finals on June 12, 2023 in Denver © MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP

Altruistic and selfless

MVP 2021 and 2022, NBA champion, best player of the finals... None of this makes Jokic's head spin. Make no mistake: his distanced phlegm does not alter his thirst for victories, nor his fighting spirit.

Preferring to pass than score, "because it makes two people happy rather than one", he takes pleasure in playing for others. "That's what makes him happiest," Malone said.

And to add, "success, money, fame have never changed this guy", who will return to live in Sombor, with his horses, once his career is over.

Nikola Jokic (#15) passes during the Denver Nuggets' Game 3 against the Heat, in the NBA Finals, on June 7, 2023 in Miami © Mike Ehrmann / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/Archives

"It's very quiet, there's not much going on, but there's everything you need. There is peace of mind. How do we say it already? +We're really only good at home+," dares the NBA magician.

© 2023 AFP