Friday, June 21, 2024

The least famous best player the NBA has ever had: ‘I really wish nobody knows me’

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The greatest basketball player in the world has a vertical leap of a paltry 17 inches, often lumbers up and down the court like he’s carrying excess timber around the middle, and might just be the best passer in the history of the sport. He turned up for his first play-off game of the season last weekend dressed as Felonious Gru, the supervillain from the Despicable Me movies, goes by the nickname of The Joker, and would, all things being equal, prefer to be watching his horses harness racing around a hippodrome in his native Serbia rather than leading the Denver Nuggets’ defence of their NBA title.

His name is Nikola Jokic, he is 29 years old and playing at a preternatural level that has seen him compared to all-timers from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Magic Johnson to Larry Bird. He’s like all of them. And none of them. A potent amalgam of physical prowess and basketball IQ, he can hurt a team in so many ways he often leaves pundits fumbling for new rubrics to measure his greatness. Almost impossible to defend, he possesses all the usual weapons of a 6ft 11ins big man yet handles the ball like the silkiest point guard, each night randomly sampling an ever-increasing repertoire of improbable and visionary passes.

“He sees plays before they happen”, said LeBron James, whose Los Angeles Lakers look certain to lose to Jokic’s Nuggets in the play-offs for the second year in succession. “Maybe it’s not talked about because a lot of people don’t understand it, but I do. He’s special.”

When Jokic became the youngest player in league history to reach at least 13,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists earlier this season, he usurped that record from James. The haughty company he keeps. In February, he notched his 139th triple double, leapfrogging LeBron and moving into fourth on the all-time list in that category. That he managed it in 1,034 fewer games than the best of this generation captures the uniquely holistic nature of his impact. And even the consistently gaudy statistics – he torched the Lakers for 27 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a Game Two victory Monday night – can’t do true justice to the nature of his journey.

“They didn’t believe in the fat boy,” said Jokic of all the NBA teams that passed on him in the first round of the 2014 Draft. By the time the Nuggets selected him with the 41st pick that night, it was assumed the blue-chip prospects had already gone and the producers of the live television broadcast cut away to a Taco Bell commercial. Not their fault they missed a sliver of history. Very few people could have imagined the then 19-year-old from Sombor, a town of 47,000 near the border with Hungary, would evolve into what serious judges now call the most complete offensive player ever.

The Nuggets didn’t even bring Jokic to the United States until a year later, part of a carefully measured maturation process, allowing him to grow into a husky frame that in his formative stages sometimes prevented him from cashing the cheques his basketball brain was writing. It took a while. But, once he got body and mind, the twin engines of his genius, in sync, his ability to read the game, process plays, and recognise passing lanes where others saw none prompted one scout to label him “the algorithm”.

For all the myriad ways in which he improves those around him on court, he wasn’t voted an All-Star until his fifth campaign and didn’t win the first of his two league MVPs until a season later. The lowest-drafted player ever to receive that accolade, his slow-burning trajectory might explain his modesty.

“Joker looks like the most humblest motherf**ker I’ve ever seen”, said Kevin Garnett, the former Boston Celtic great, after witnessing the Nuggets’ victory celebrations last June. “He’s a one of one. I’ve never seen the championship picture being taken with your best player in the third row of the picture.”

Eschewing the spotlight is completely on brand. Jokic is the least famous best player the modern NBA has ever had. When the Nuggets surprised him by delivering his first MVP trophy to him at his Dream Catcher stables in Serbia, he rolled up on the visiting party at the helm of a horse and buggy, a Balkan Bull McCabe. His passion for all things equine explains why he hinted at maybe skipping the team’s title parade last summer because he just wanted to go home, where he could hang with his equally gargantuan older brothers and his beloved ponies.

Denver pays him $30 million a year but Nike never gave him his own signature shoe, a commercial slight to be rectified by his recent move to the Chinese sportswear giant, 361°. Aside from contractually obligated press conferences in and around games, he avoids media, and an appearance on team-mate Michael Porter Jr’s podcast last year was his most in-depth interview, a revealing conversation touching on his ongoing discomfort with the trappings of celebrity.

“It just feels sad,” he said. “Being famous, I think some people like it. I don’t, really. When I finish my career, I really wish nobody knows me, and I really wish my kid (he has a daughter) or kids in the future really remember me as a dad, not a basketball player.”

A burgeoning highlight reel ensures that will be easier said than done.

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