The Untold Truth Of Nikola Jokic

The NBA Finals of 2023 saw the Miami Heat going up against the Denver Nuggets in the kind of match-up that everyone couldn't wait for. Of course, people tried to guess how events were going to unfold, and when Nuggets' star Nikola Jokić was asked (via NBA TV) how it felt to be favored to win, he gave a reply that was sportsmanship in a nutshell.

"Who said that we are favorites? The media? ... I think we are not a favorite. I think in the Finals, there is no favorites. This is going to be the hardest games of our lives, and we know that, and we are prepared for that.

It's no secret that fans love the players that can dominate on the court (or the field, or the track), but fans also love the players that clearly have as much respect for the game as they do. And that? That's Jokić. The anchor of the Denver Nuggets, he's not only a force to be reckoned with on the court, but watching his almost supernatural ability to remain at least a few steps ahead of everyone else around him — even his own teammates — is the sort of thing that makes normal people start to wonder if elite athletes really do possess a kind of sixth sense. Do they? It turns out that the reason for Jokić's seemingly surreal abilities is just one of a number of fascinating yet little-known tidbits about this star player.

He was 4 when he lived through the bombing of his hometown

In the 1990s, things sort of went sideways in Yugoslavia when a complicated series of human rights abuses started to unfold. Boundaries changed, the Kosovo Liberation Army started hitting back hard at Serbian occupiers, Serbian forces killed countless civilians, and NATO ended up getting involved. What does that have to do with Nikola Jokić? The then 4-year-old was, at the time, growing up in a town called Sombor and living right in the middle of it.

When he spoke with the Bleacher Report, he recalled his earliest memories of it: "I remember things like sirens, bomb shelters, always turning off the lights. We practically lived in the dark. Even at like 9 a.m., everything was turned off." Thousands of people were killed over the course of the series of wars that unfolded.

Since then, Jokić has spoken out about other violent incidents that have shocked his native country. In 2023, a student identified only by the initials KK was arrested in connection with a school shooting that left nine dead and seven wounded at a school in Belgrade. Jokić told Denver 7, "It's something you don't want to hear about. When it hits... a little closer to you, it doesn't make sense. ... I would say, 'We don't have that [in Serbia], but maybe that's just a mindset, that's not true. People, kids, we all have problems. We need to take care of everybody."

The Aleksandar Nikolic school of basketball theory

Every star athlete has those characteristics that make them stand out from the rest of the crowd, and for Nikola Jokić, that's his uncanny ability to be able to keep track of what's going on everywhere on the court — even behind him — and seemingly predict where other players are going to be. According to Sports Illustrated, that's not supernatural. Instead, it's the result of a training method that's pretty unique to Serbia.

In the early 1960s, the University of Belgrade's Aleksandar Nikolic spent a good amount of time in the U.S., watching, learning, and recording not only plays, but the ridiculous number of other plays that those plays could lead to... and so on, and so on. The result was an almost chess-like stratagem that Serbian players are taught, and they're also taught the playbook in entirety, regardless of position.

The Denver Nuggets had another Serb on the team, and that was video coordinator Ognjen Stojakovic. He explained that it's an entirely different way of learning things that's almost overwhelming in completeness: "They need to know how to play face to the basket, side to the basket, back to the basket. You teach them technique and also tactic, which means you need to understand when to use different kinds of moves." Thorough? Grueling? Absolutely, but it works: And it's why Jokić is one of many incredibly successful players from that area of the world.

Coaches worried about a teenage Jokić hurting himself

While it's easy to assume that those who make it to the highest levels of professional sports were natural athletes when they were younger, it turns out there are always exceptions to the rule. For basketball, that exception is Nikola Jokić. He summed up his formative years to Bleacher Report like this: "I was taller than most of the guys and girls, and fattest, too. I loved some classes — math, history, that's pretty much it. I didn't love physical activities. In high school, I couldn't do one push-up."

It might sound like he's exaggerating, perhaps for the sake of modesty, but his teachers have agreed: one told AFP (via France 24) "he had problems with physical education... he really struggled." Even his first gym teachers recalled having to force him to do any kind of activity ... except, they say, one that involved throwing a ball around.

It didn't get better as he moved into his teenage years. His former coach Dejan Milojevic told Sports Illustrated he was in such bad physical condition when he joined a division of the Adriatic League that they were afraid he not only wasn't going to be able to keep up with other players but also that he'd get seriously hurt in the process. He was assigned a personal trainer who no doubt has his work cut out for him: The teenage Jokić was renowned for his tendency to drink multiple liters of Coke a day.

Brothers and basketball

Anyone who watches the Nuggets on a regular basis is familiar with two particular faces that are in the crowd a lot. Nikola Jokić's brothers are invariably there cheering him on, but at times, they've also taken things a bit farther than a typical brotherly love. In 2021, they made headlines after Jokić and Miami Heat's Markieff Morris got into an on-the-court scrap, and it got kind of scary.

The brothers, it turns out, are full of extremes. On one hand, it was the pair — Strahinja, the eldest, and Nemanja, two years younger — who helped to introduce their baby brother to basketball, via a toy hoop in the apartment they shared with their parents and grandmother. On the other hand, it was Strahinja who, in 2021, submitted a guilty plea to several charges stemming from his arrest in connection with a woman who claimed he had imprisoned and threatened her after taking away her phone. (The charges he plead guilty to were felony trespassing and obstruction of phone service.) He was given a deferred sentence. 

Nemanja, meanwhile, played basketball long before his brother did: And then, he moved on to become an MMA fighter. The shift seems to have come in 2019, and although it's been reported that his first few fights ended with him coming out on top via knockouts, attempts at finding his win-loss record have failed.  

Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokić

The late 90s-era conflict that unfolded against the backdrop of Nikola Jokić's childhood was complicated, and when he made it to the NBA, he found himself teammates with another player who he could have understandably had a challenging relationship with. The Serbian Jokić spent a little over two seasons with the Bosnian Jusuf Nurkic as his teammate, and instead of conflict, they found solidarity in their shared connection.

Nurkic spoke with Bleacher Report and explained how even though their countries had been on opposite sides of a bloody war, they'd never taken it personally. "You can never forget. So many parents and kids died in a couple days. In Srebrenica, 8,000-something people were killed in two days. But you need to keep going with your life, and to live with those people. Not the people who killed, but — the new generation, it's not their fault. Bosnian people, Serbian people, Croatian — we must live together." Jokić shared similar sentiments: "Is there hate between us? No. ... It's just war, you know. It's nothing between people."

It might sound like the sort of sentiment that's just played for the sake of the team, but after Nurkic was traded to Portland, things didn't change. He'd later tell NBC News that he had nothing but fond memories of his time as Jokić's teammate, and although he knew that Portland was the very best place he could be, he still kept in touch with his old Serbian friend.

The MVPer doesn't believe in individual awards

Sure, team awards are great, but individual awards? What player doesn't want to stand out from the crowd, and be recognized for his contributions to the franchise's accomplishments? Apparently, Nikola Jokić. Let's start with the fact that, hilariously, when The Denver Post's Mike Singer asked him where his first MVP was kept, he responded that he didn't have the foggiest idea. (They were apparently in mid-move at the time.)

In an interview with ESPN, Jokić was asked why he wasn't center stage, pushing himself forward with all the reasons he was worthy of the MVP award. He had an incredibly thoughtful response, saying that thoughts of being MVP just never crossed his mind. "I didn't come here to want to be an MVP of the league, you know? I always think someone is better than me, you know, I want to compete to beat him. Just by that mentality, I'm going to be underdog, always."

Interestingly, Serbian sports writer Milos Jovanovic told Time that there's something else going on here, besides Jokić's modesty. He explained: "Socialist countries such as Yugoslavia would empower team sports as a way of promoting community. There was no better way to make people equal than by putting them into team sports." He suggests that Jokić's upbringing and the way he was taught to play had stressed teamwork from the very beginning, and that's why for him, it continues to be about the team.

He has no basketball-related goals whatsoever

Sports don't just come with a healthy helping of love for the game, there are also some big-time dreams usually involved, too. (Who hasn't played one-on-one and imagined they were in the NBA Finals, crowd going wild in the stands?) Listen to most stars, and they'll say that doesn't go away: They're hoping to win championships, take home awards, and get some recognition for their skills. Nikola Jokić? Not so much.

When Sports Illustrated asked him what his goals were, they were pretty shocked when he responded that not only did he not have any, but he never had. "Even when I came here, I didn't think about playing. I just came here to work out and be an NBA player in some way, so I never dream about it. I don't have goals in my life. I'm just going with the flow."

Well, that's definitely one way to take the pressure off and avoid some serious stress. He went on to talk a little more about his rather non-traditional view of a highly competitive sport, saying that since he always knew there were better players than him on the court, he wasn't too fussed about trying to be the best. Did he want to be a poster child for his nation, representative of what a dedicated individual could achieve? "It would be a really nice thing, yes. [But] I don't want that or need that."

He just might love horses more than basketball

Podcast host Harrison Wind tweeted this weirdly beautiful quote from Nikola Jokić that perhaps only animal lovers can truly understand: "I like the smell of [horses]. The best feeling ever is when you feed them. The sound of them eating in the stable is the best sound you can ever hear. It's just something that I think just a horseman can feel." Wind added that Jokić kept a quote from Winston Churchill in his locker: "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."

In 2022, Jokić made some serious NBA history when he signed a 5-year, $264 million contract — the biggest in the league. With that kind of cash, he could certainly choose to spend his downtime anywhere, doing anything. So, where does he go? Home, to his family and his horses. Telegraf spent some time with the family in 2019, when they headed to the city's track to spend Sunday there. Included was Jokić's father, Branislav, who was the caretaker of the family's stables — Dream Catcher — which shared a name with the NBA star's favorite horse.

The elder Jokić explained to the publication that when he was trackside, the horses were the only thing that mattered. "He is with them the entire day ... it is his love and something which fulfills him and charges his batteries. Only someone who loves horses can understand it."

Want to eat like Jokić? Try burek

When Slate did their deep dive into what made Nikola Jokić, well, Nikola Jokić, one of the people they reached out to was a sociology professor named Veljko Vujacic. Vujacic had echoed what many others have also said, that the unique way of teaching and learning the sport has led to an influx of players that end up doing really, really well for themselves. He also said that Jokić's fondness for a dish called burek was nothing out of the ordinary, either: "They sell it by weight and ... If you are an average person, you eat half a pound of it."

What, exactly, is it? Think of a pastry crust filled with cheese, onions, and meat — usually beef — that's such an important part of the national identity of nations throughout the Balkans that it's often said that before a woman is officially declared marriage material, she has to prove that she can make burek.

There's an interesting bit of trivia here, too. If there's anything that Americans might be able to compare burek to, it's the quesarito. It's not the same, but it's close — and when Jokić was first drafted, the announcement came alongside a Taco Bell commercial for that very thing. In typical Jokić style, he didn't see the announcement: He slept through the draft.

This is what he's homesick for

Even if someone heads off on grand adventures, fulfilling a lifetime of dreams, it's still inevitable that there will be some things that an adopted homeland just doesn't have. Sights and smells can bring things flooding back with a pang of nostalgia, and that's the case even for NBA stars.

When the Bleacher Report caught up with Nikola Jokić in the apartment he shared with his brothers and his then-girlfriend, they spoke with him about the things he missed. The family had been able to bring some things with them — like games and a traditional sausage called cevapi. Other things weren't so easy to bring, and in the pre-decorated apartment they'd rented, there was a single photo that they'd hung up. It showed the main street in the hometown, and when they were asked about it, they shared some wonderfully small-town memories.

Nikola's brother, Nemanja, explained that the street wasn't just a street, it was their night on the town. "Go to the main street, park the car, and get ice cream. You can walk around for three minutes, and that's the end of the walk." The important part for Nikola? "Best ice cream in Sombor." He continued, adding that he already had plans for his post-NBA life: "I'm gonna go back there. It's super slow — not too much going on — but you have everything. ... How I say, no place like home? Something like that."

Who does the idol idolize?

It's no secret that Nikola Jokić isn't just a favorite for Denver Nuggets coaches and teammates, he's a fan favorite, too. He's the sort of athlete that kids can look up to and aspire to be, and that doesn't happen by accident. So, who does he look up to? In a clip shared by Nuggets analyst Katy Winge, Jokić spoke on exactly that.

Who's at the top? LeBron James. Jokić lauded not only his skill but his consistency and longevity, and shared that it was about more than just him personally looking up to James. "If you want to have an idol or someone to look up to, because the guy is always leading and playing consistently for 20 years, winning championships, and MVPs, he's the guy you look up to."

Jokić has shared some seriously glowing praise for another athlete, though — his fellow Serbian, Novak Djokovic. Even as the tennis champ shared his respect for the Miami Heat players — especially Jimmy Butler — he clarified that he was backing the Nuggets to go all the way in part out of solidarity for his countryman. Meanwhile, Jokić had this to say about Djokovic (via Forbes): "He's the guy who represents Serbian in a much bigger sense. He's the Serbian ambassador. ... I want to be like him. He's doing something great for the kids, for Serbia, for everything. We cannot be compared."