(B/R Mag)

The Way of the Joker

Howard Beck

A few words of advice, should you ever spend an afternoon at House Jokic:

Do not play indoor basketball, unless you're OK with getting tackled.

If the game is cards, plan on cheating. Your opponents will be.

Look up occasionally, so you don't get hit by a drone.

Look down occasionally, so you don't break your ankle on the remote-controlled car.

Bring ice, in case you need to calm the swelling.

Bring a bold sense of humor, and you'll get along just fine.

Oh, and keep an eye out for the rubber dog poop.

The brothers Jokic—Nikola, the precocious 22-year-old Denver Nuggets star; Nemanja, 33; and Strahinja, 35—love a good laugh, especially if it's at each other's expense. They love to compete and will go to extreme lengths to win, no matter how trivial the game. They are loud and boisterous and mischievous, and they just might be molding a new kind of superstar, here in the Mile High City, a long way from home.

The fate of the Nuggets rests with Nikola—their pass-happy, self-deprecating and rapidly blossoming Serbian center. And Nikola's fortunes rest largely with his rambunctious roommates, who happen to be his siblings. They are his fiercest advocates and closest confidants, and they are the reason no one around here worries much that Nikola will lose perspective on the road to NBA stardom.

So much has come so quickly for the once-anonymous second-rounder, a former "project" who slept through his own draft in 2014 but whose breakout performance last season launched the Nuggets into relevancy and made Jokic an instant darling among the basketball intelligentsia.

"At home, around these guys," Jokic says of his brothers, "oh my god, they cannot listen anymore—I'm the 'best in the world' and all that, you know? 'Nobody can guard me.' But in the media, I'm 'grounded,' and I don't want to talk about nothing." (Getty Images)

Except, well: He is a project no more, and the basketball intelligentsia's conventional wisdom for landing a franchise star—via free agency, trade or a top-three draft pick—has been smashed by Jokic (the 41st pick), much as it was by Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th) in Milwaukee and Rudy Gobert (27th) in Utah.

"It will come," Nuggets coach Michael Malone says of stardom for Jokic. "As soon as he starts to feel comfortable in that role, it will come."

It will come—the comfort, the results, the stardom—even if Nikola himself is too self-effacing to proclaim it. The talent and commitment are there, along with the full support and affection of his teammates. Because, really, who doesn't love a bruising big man who can lead the break, pass like Magic and deliver dry one-liners in an Ivan Drago baritone? Who doesn't like a guy performing spot-on impressions of the head coach, breaking into dance at random moments and ambling through the locker room wearing only Skittles-themed underwear?

"A funny dude," says former teammate Jameer Nelson. "He likes everybody to smile."

Except, well: "I don't think I'm that funny," Jokic tells B/R Mag, over lunch in early October. "I'm kind of normal guy."

A kind of normal guy from a small town in northern Serbia whose face happens to be plastered across the Denver metropolitan area. Who gets mobbed by selfie-seeking hockey fans every time he goes to see his beloved Avalanche play.

Back home, he is Serbia's second-most famous athlete, after Novak Djokovic. But in Denver, the kid they call Joker—a nickname hatched by former teammate Mike Miller, who couldn't pronounce YO-kitch—is hope embodied. He is the Nuggets' best young prospect since Carmelo Anthony arrived 14 years ago, but his brothers—perpetually in his orbit, peppering him with put-downs—are hustling to keep the hype in check.

"They're not going to allow him to change," Malone says. "Not that he would. But they wouldn't allow it if he ever tried."

To find Nikola Jokic at his most comfortable, you have to follow him home to Sombor, a quiet, slow-paced town of 47,000 in northern Serbia. To find him at his most contented, you have to follow him to the stable. You have to meet Dream Catcher, the racehorse he purchased last winter, fulfilling a childhood dream.

"I buy a friend," Jokic says of Dream Catcher. "He don't talk, but we can talk, you know?"

Like any hoops prodigy, Jokic spends countless hours in the gym. But it's the local stable where he feels most at ease. "His happy place," says Nuggets assistant coach Ognjen Stojakovic, a fellow Serb. Jokic started working with horses in his early teens, through a family friend, and it became his greatest passion outside of basketball.

As soon as he starts to feel comfortable in that role, it will come,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone says. (AP Images)

When he's home in Sombor, Jokic still cleans the stalls at a friend's stable. When asked recently what he'd be doing if he weren't an NBA player, Jokic said, "I'd be a stable boy." And no one doubted his sincerity.

Malone is known for cultivating strong relationships with his players, and in late June he set out to see it all for himself, spending a week with Jokic and his family for the sort of journey a modern-day coach makes to bond with his young star. It proved an enlightening experience, though he was lucky to make it through the first night.

Nemanja, the middle Jokic brother, a former Division I basketball player and the most affable of the three, picked up Malone from the airport. Their first stop: a harness-racing track, to see Dream Catcher in action.

To that point, Nikola's pride and joy had only managed a couple of second-place finishes. So it was a profoundly thrilling moment for everyone when Dream Catcher burst through the pack to win that night.

"They're not going to allow him to change," Malone (left) says of his brothers. "Not that he would. But they wouldn't allow it if he ever tried." (Getty Images)

"Coach," Nemanja said, turning to the jet-lagged Malone, "this is not a good sign."

Malone responded with puzzlement.

"That means," Nemanja said, "we have to drink all night tonight."

They headed straight for a local "kafana," where cigarette smoke and song filled the air. The night began with Jelen (a local beer), but then came the rounds of rakija—a fruit brandy and a traditional drink of Serbia.

"And every time your cup is empty, it's filled up," Malone says, snapping his fingers, "like that."

During Malone's stay, the mayor of Sombor invited them all over for a visit. On evening strolls down the main pedestrian corridor, Nikola was frequently hit up for autographs and photos—so much so that he sometimes feigned a phone call to ward off the crowds.

"He likes to be left alone," Malone says. "But he was more than appreciative of all the little kids, boys and girls, that were coming up to him. Because that was him many years ago."

Celebrity is an ill-fitting suit for Jokic. He prefers the peace and relative solitude of the stable, grooming and feeding the horses, shoveling out their stalls. The routine is, for him, like raking a zen garden. "That's kind of my getaway," he says, "from the people."

The trophy from Dream Catcher's big victory resides at home in Sombor. The accompanying red ribbon hangs next to Jokic's locker, 5,600 miles west, back in Denver.

Russell Westbrook is strutting in reverse, like a boxer retreating to his corner after delivering a decisive blow—which he just has, with a violent shoulder check that sends Jokic sprawling backward and landing with a thud in the paint.

Six months ago, Westbrook had thrown up that buzzer-beater to knock the Nuggets out of playoff contention, ending a Denver season in which Jokic had six triple-doubles, finishing only behind Westbrook and two of his MVP runners-up, James Harden and LeBron James. "He single-handedly gave us an identity last year," says Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas.

But now it's mid-October, and Russ is delivering an early message, and perhaps repaying Jokic for an incident in that April game. Westbrook gets hit with a flagrant foul, but Nuggets officials were more interested in how Jokic responded. He didn't. Which is good.

"His greatest challenge is from the neck up," Malone tells reporters afterward, alluding to past concerns about Jokic's emotional control. "I'm just glad his big brother Strahinja wasn't in the building tonight."

Jokic's oldest brother, Strahinja, got into it with officials after Nikola got called for a flagrant on Westbrook. (Getty Images)

In April, it was Jokic who let loose with a flagrant foul of Westbrook, on an emotional night that saw Strahinja—furious with the officiating and ever protective of his baby brother—nearly rush the court.

There was no such excitement this night as Nikola shrugged off the retaliatory blow. He strolled through the locker room wearing nothing but a pair of Baywatch-themed boxer briefs, quickly dressed and then met the obvious question—"What happened with Russ?"—with a disarming reply.

"I don't know," Jokic said, allowing a pregnant pause before adding, "I flopped," which drew chuckles from the assembled media.

It's all still so new to him: the responsibility; the probing curiosity; the intense focus on every shot, pass and shove; and every quote. Most American-born NBA stars are identified as elite talents from their early teens, catered to and coddled through their AAU years, ranked by national outlets and stamped with outsize expectations and Instagram followers before they get their driver's licenses.

But Jokic was far off the radar in Sombor, a late bloomer with a bulging waistline and a poor diet. Still, scouts saw something special in his game. Stojakovic, the Nuggets assistant coach who was then coaching in Serbia, recalls seeing Jokic for the first time when Jokic was 16 or 17 years old, playing for Mega Vizura.

"Like mix of Marc Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki," Stojakovic says, citing Gasol's passing skills and Nowitzki's soft shooting touch.

The NBA has had its share of slick-passing big men, from Bill Walton to Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac and Gasol. But they were all stationary passers, operating out of the low post or the elbow, timing their passes to backdoor cutters or shooters.

Jokic is different.

His assists come off the dribble. "I don't remember many guys that can lead a break and find a guy at 6'11"," says Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly. "I think he's one of the best passers, period"—as in, at any position.

"He single-handedly gave us an identity last year," Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas says. (Getty Images)

He surveys the floor like a guard. And he was a point guard in his younger years. "A fat point guard," Jokic jokes.

Indeed, the skills and court vision were evident to NBA executives, but so was the lack of athleticism and mobility—the kinds of concerns that drop a prospect to the second round. The Nuggets tried viewing it all through another lens: They cued up old tapes of Gasol, Marcin Gortat and Nikola Pekovic at the same age, noticed the same deficiencies and decided it was too soon to write off this pudgy 19-year-old. Forty players were taken on draft night in 2014 before Connelly submitted Jokic's name.

"We knew we were getting a high-IQ guy from a basketball family," Connelly says. "Elite passer and a guy that was awkwardly effective." Plus, coaches and teammates "loved him."

Connelly, who had acquired the draft rights to Bosnian center Jusuf Nurkic earlier that evening, believed Jokic would eventually become "an effective backup."

The first hint of something more came the following season when Jokic, playing for Mega Leks, won MVP of the Adriatic League. If that breakout had come just one year earlier, Jokic would have been a certain first-round pick—and quite likely in a different NBA city. Connelly's gamble, taking Jokic a year early and leaving him overseas, paid off.

"We knew we were getting a high-IQ guy from a basketball family," Nuggets president Tim Connelly says. "Elite passer and a guy that was awkwardly effective." Plus, coaches and teammates "loved him." (Getty Images)

In the summer of 2015, the Nuggets brought their promising young prospect to the famed training center in Santa Barbara, California, to begin working on that doughy frame. After their first dinner, Nikola took out a gallon of ice cream and asked if anyone wanted some. When they declined, he sat down with the tub and spoon and ate it himself.

"I'm like, Are you kidding me?" recalls Karnisovas, the GM, chuckling at the memory. "I was like, You're gonna have to make a lot of adjustments when you come."

That visit was also team officials' first introduction to Nemanja and Strahinja, and their rather wicked sense of humor. An hour after dispatching scouting director Jim Clibanoff to meet with the brothers, a photo popped into Connelly's phone. The brothers Jokic had stuffed "Clib" in a shopping cart.

After returning from Serbia this summer, Nikola saw the casually dressed Connelly and cracked, "This is what a president looks like?"

Connelly, newly promoted to team president, in turn surveyed Jokic's off-day sweats and fired back, "This is what a superstar looks like?"

They both laughed, because the comedy here never stops. But it's true: Jokic doesn't spend his money on fancy clothes, the 6'10", 250-pound center says, "because I cannot fit into the fancy clothes." He did, of course, gift his 2016 Olympics jersey to Connelly last year, while advising his boss, "Here, don't sell this yet, it's gonna be worth a lot of money."

There is no outward ego in Nikola Jokic—his brothers knocked it out of him long ago—but there is a quiet self-assuredness and subtle signs of a more profound belief.

It's not that he lacks personal ambition—his competitive intensity is palpable, and his commitment evident from the day he arrived—but his basketball education came in Eastern Europe, where principles of team play and team success were primary. The selflessness that endears Jokic to teammates and coaches might also keep him from dominating the box score.

Jokic (right) playing for the Serbian national basketball team in the 2016 Olympics. (Getty Images)

"I mean, if I could score 40 every game, then I would score 40 every game," Jokic says. "But I think I cannot score 40 every game, so I'm gonna pass a little bit, too."

On off days, Jokic and his brothers might ride rental bikes to Washington Park, or play Mario Kart at the Dave & Buster's, or play tennis with the Nuggets' front-office executives. But Connelly and other team staffers occasionally play three-on-three with the older Jokic brothers, too, while Nikola watches from the sideline.

Nikola delights in every hard foul, including the time Strahinja—the "bully" (says Connelly) who is a "serial killer" on the court (says Nikola) but a jester in and out of House Jokic—upended Connelly in midair, sending him crashing to the floor.

"He literally couldn't stop laughing," Connelly says.

"Tim got knocked down five times," Nikola says later, delighting at the memory.

It's much the same at the Jokic residence, a modest three-bedroom apartment in downtown Denver where the competition and hijinks go hand in hand.

The brothers claim to have ceased the rugby-style indoor basketball games (and the indoor drone flying), but they still go hard at 2K, Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat.

It can get intense. Strahinja has been known to crush PS4 controllers with his bare hands. "I gotta change my shirt when we play video games," says Nemanja.

It's worse when they play Uno.

"You have to watch the cards," Nikola says. "You have to watch everybody at the table, because everybody is cheating. You don't know who is the worst."

"I don't cheat," interjects Natalija Macesic, his girlfriend and the brothers' third roommate.

"I want her to cheat," he says, because it's the only way to beat Nemanja and Strahinja—who, according to Nikola, "are cheating all the time."

Natalija sighs. "They don't know how to lose."

Say this for the brothers Jokic: They always leave a lasting impression, whether they're conversing, cheering, competing or just making a simple introduction.

"I don't remember many guys that can lead a break and find a guy at 6'11"," Nuggets president Tim Connelly says. "I think he's one of the best passers, period"—as in, at any position. (Getty Images)

For Nikola's summer-league debut in 2015, the brothers drove to Las Vegas (to save money) and stayed at the Hooters Casino and Hotel. They spent their days hanging out at the Bellagio, where the Nuggets were staying. And they had a surprise waiting for Connelly on the day he visited Nikola's room to finalize his first NBA contract, a three-year, $4.1 million deal.

Connelly eagerly strolled over to the hotel-room desk…and recoiled at the glossy brown swirl sitting next to the contract. Was it? Could it be? Nah. Just a piece of molded brown rubber, a well-placed novelty item, a playful offering to consummate the partnership between the bright-eyed young team exec and his impish new Serbian friends.

The culprit? "Probably Nikola," says Connelly.

No, a chuckling Nikola tells B/R Mag the next day over lunch. It was Strahinja—the serial killer, the senior member of the tag team that keeps Denver's great Serbian hope grounded and steadily guides him through these big life moments with a simple ethos.

"We just thought," says Nemanja, of House Jokic, "it was funny."

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck.

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