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Nikola Jokić of Serbia plays during the final of 2019 International Basketball Championship against France. (Imaginechina via AP Images); Illustration by Sean Parsons
Nikola Jokić Week: Unraveling Our Reluctant MVP

Nikola Jokić Week: Serbian Superfans

We spoke with the hosts of the Nuggets Serbia podcast about Jokić’s celebrity in his home country.

Nikola Jokić Week: To celebrate Nikola Jokić’s MVP award and the start of the Denver Nuggets’ regular season, 5280 is devoting the entire week (October 18 to October 22) to stories that explore the identity of the Mile High City’s most beautiful enigma. In short: Who is The Joker?

About four years ago, Miroslav Ćuk was desperate for any bit of information on Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets that he could get. His search led him to Denver Stiffs, a community of diehard fans.

As Ćuk, a field engineer who lives in Pančevo, Serbia, dove deeper into the world of niche NBA fan sites (including DNVR Nuggets) he noticed that plenty of other Serbs and Eastern Europeans were obsessively following Jokić and the Nuggets, too. So many, in fact, that some of them wanted a show in their own language. Enter the Nuggets Serbia podcast, which Ćuk and three others launched about 15 months ago.

“Two of us are currently living in Serbia,” Ćuk says. “We have a third guy who is living in the United States and another guy who is living in Croatia. We speak the same language, so that is how we are able to make it work. … We all love Nikola Jokić.”

To help us on our journey to better understand the reigning NBA MVP, we spoke with Ćuk and one of his Serbian co-hosts, Milan Mijalković, about how Jokić is perceived in his home country and the lengths they are willing to go to support the Nuggets center.

Editor’s note: This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

5280: Did you follow the NBA closely before Jokić came to the Nuggets?
Miroslav Ćuk: I’ve been watching the NBA since the late ‘80s when Vlade Divac was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. But the real deal happened in 1998, when Divac and [fellow Serb] Peja Stojakovic came to the Sacramento Kings together with Chris Webber and Mike Bibby. It was one of the most fun teams ever, and possibly the best team ever not to win an NBA championship. All of Serbia was watching Sacramento at that point. Well, we couldn’t see all the matches like we can today. It was just the satellite dishes and such things. But that was the first real NBA fever in Serbia.

How much did you know about Denver before you started obsessively following the Nuggets?
Ćuk: We didn’t know a lot of things about Denver. We knew the soap opera called Dynasty! back in the ‘80s that was set in Denver. It was the top-rated soap opera back in old Yugoslavia. We also had a circus in Yugoslavia called Circus Colorado. I think it was completely unrelated to Colorado, but it was the most famous circus back then. Now, we are crazy connected, and all kinds of new media has emerged. Sometimes, with how much I follow the Nuggets, I feel like I know more about what is going on in Denver than what is going on in my hometown.

Milan Mijalković: I didn’t know anything about Denver. The last game before the pandemic, I think it was in Dallas. I was supposed to come to the United States and Denver for the first time right after that. The pandemic happened, and my trip was canceled. I don’t know when it will happen, but I will come for sure. Maybe Miroslav and I hop on a plane together.

How difficult is it for you all to watch games? Most of them are on in the middle of the night, correct?
Mijalković: During the season, I think I missed maybe two, three games in real time. I need to watch live, so I can swear, have a few fights with my wife, and go and scream at 4 a.m. in the morning. Many games start at 2 a.m. Serbian time, and that’s the worst thing for me because I can go to sleep or I can stay awake. Both ways, I am really messed up that day on my work. But some games start at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., and I can go to bed, maybe 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., and wake up to watch the game.

Ćuk: I know local journalists [in Denver] hate the games that start at 8:30 p.m., but we love those games because they actually start close to 5 a.m. in Serbia. You can finish them and go straight to work after. I am not as crazy as Milan is. I probably watch something closer to half the games live during the regular season. And then I watch all the playoff games.

What does the local media coverage of Nikola look like? Is he on the news every night?
Ćuk: [During the season], we had at least one thing on the daily news about him, whether it was a game he’s playing, what he said, or what someone else said about him, which is pretty cool. He is in commercials for a betting site and a brand of beer in Serbia as well. You can see him on TV, on the billboards, on the buses. He is everywhere. That’s the same for [tennis player] Novak Djokovic, actually. After Nikola skipped the Olympics qualifying, it got a bit more rare. But it was the offseason, so probably not a huge surprise.

How upset were Serbian fans about him skipping qualifying for the Olympics this summer?
Ćuk: It was a big, big story. There are so many objective reasons why he didn’t play for the team. He played two seasons back to back with almost no rest in between. And he was also expecting a child. He didn’t want to say, “I will skip the qualifying tournament and show up for the Olympics, if you make it.” Our podcast was gaining a lot of momentum at the end of last season. We had an explosion of views when he was named MVP. And not just the guys that are watching every night at 4 a.m. We were getting a more mainstream audience, and then we got a big cold shower with the Olympic decision.

Mijalković: Devin Booker and Khris Middleton playing [for the United States] right after the NBA Finals didn’t help him much either.

Ćuk: And Jrue Holiday, as well. They got on a plane to Tokyo the next day. … We are really proud of our basketball team. We like to say basketball is number one sport in Serbia. It is probably actually football—what you call soccer—but basketball is a close second.

What do Serbs most appreciate about Nikola and the way he carries himself as a prominent figure?
Ćuk: We are glad that he is really polite and keeps a low profile. He is not making many of the mistakes young people with money make. … He is just living his life, his quiet life.

Mijalković: I think it is also his brothers, you know. One of his brothers was friends with [former number two overall pick] Darko Miličić. And he learned a lot about the NBA and what he doesn’t need to do. That’s probably one of the reasons Jokić is behaving like he behaves.

What are your predictions for the season?
Mijalković: I was optimistic to the roof before the preseason games were played. Now, I don’t know what to think. The defense is really troubling to me. Michael Porter Jr. is troubling to me. I don’t like his defense. I really don’t know, but we hope for the best. I still believe the Nuggets can go to the conference finals. After that, we’ll see. It could depend on how much Jamal [Murray] is still recovering.

Ćuk: Milan is a dedicated MPJ hater. All of us have our characters [on the podcast]. We have our feelings, and we bring them every day. But this is Nikola’s seventh season in the NBA, and it took Michael Jordan seven seasons to win a championship. So, yeah, my prophecy was always that the Denver Nuggets would be NBA champions in 2022.

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