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?
Nikola Jokić might shun social media. He may guard his privacy fiercely. He definitely hates fame. But if you pay close enough attention, celebrities will tell you plenty about themselves through their passions. (For example, did you know that Beyoncé, Queen B herself, makes her own honey?) Here’s what the loves of Jokić’s life say about Denver’s own Big Honey.
Dating back to at least the 14th century, Jokić’s hometown of Sombor, Serbia, has a population of less than 50,000 people. And while we know Serbia.com is a tourist site, the architecture of the town does nothing to disabuse the notion that visiting Sombor is like visiting a “fairy tale.” Life in the Jokić household, however, didn’t sound quite so tranquil.
Jokić was raised in a two-bedroom apartment with his two older brothers, parents, and grandmother. As the youngest, Jokić was often the victim of his siblings’ teasing—if that’s what you call throwing knives at someone’s head. Nevertheless, when Jokić first arrived in Denver, his brothers Strahinja and Nemanja became his constant companions—the latter helping his little brother stick to his diet, the former threatening officials, all three sharing an apartment. (Although Jokić has since grown up, Strahinja and Nemanja are still terrifying.)
Jokić’s longtime girlfriend, Natalija Macesic, also lived with the brothers. Together since they were 16 years old, Jokić and Natalija married in Sombor in October 2020, tying the knot with family, friends, and a sick fog machine. This past October, the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter called Ognjena, which means “fiery.”
Photos of Jokić crouched in a tiny carriage behind a horse (it’s called harness racing) got some yuks on the internet this summer. But when asked about his affection for the animals a few months later, Jokić wasn’t laughing:
“Since I started falling in love with horses, it puts me in some other dimension. It makes me feel really, really good. Because you can feel some connection, and there aren’t many people around you, and you can just relax in nature. When you spend a little bit more time with them, you can find a way to talk with them…The best feeling ever is when you feed them. The sound of how they’re eating in the stable is probably the best sound you can ever hear.”
In other words: Find someone who listens to you like Nikola Jokić listens to horses.
Jokić and Malone both arrived in Denver in 2015, and the new head coach wasted little time hitching his cart to his new thoroughbred, as we mentioned yesterday.
Sure, any coach who wants to remain employed is going to adore an unselfish MVP-caliber player whose main superpower is completing passes that make his teammates better—all while shunning personal attention. “I usually get a kick out of guys that love taking pictures of themselves and posting that,” Malone says. “Who does that? I’ve never seen Nikola Jokić once take a picture of himself and post it, and that’s what I love about him on top of being a great, great player.”
But Jokić seems to love Malone right back. Their relationship is playful. In 2017, for example, Malone presented Jokić the game ball after the then second-year player recorded a triple-double against the Milwaukee Bucks. Jokić says he responded by hugging his coach—while naked.
At the same time, there’s a definite father-son dynamic going on. Following the birth of his daughter this past summer, Jokić contacted Malone. “He says, ‘Coach, I feel really tired, but I didn’t do anything. Natalija did everything,’ ” Malone says. “I said, ‘No, you were there to love and support her, and it is emotional.’ ”
This isn’t the first time Jokić has formed a bond with one of his coaches. He remains close enough to Dejan Milojevic, his former coach in the Serbian professional league, that he returned to Serbia in June 2020 to attend an event honoring Milojevic—which is where Jokić may have contracted COVID-19. “Our relationship is more than coach-player,” Milojevic says. “I can say that we’re friends.”
Why is that important to Nuggets fans? The Golden State Warriors hired Milojevic as an assistant during this past offseason, spawning at least one “Will Jokić Join Him In California?” piece. And, honestly, Jokić whipping passes to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson would be a joy to behold—if we could even see through the torrent of tears.
To be clear: There is absolutely no danger of Jokić leaving Denver until after the 2022-‘23 season, when his current five-year, $148 million contract expires. Still, we’d feel a whole lot better if Nuggets President Tim Connelly went ahead and extended The Joker for, well, ever.
In 2014, Jokić’s agent tweeted that he was removing the then-19-year-old from the NBA Draft. Jokić had performed well the previous year for his Serbian pro team, but the NBA didn’t seem particularly interested in the doughy center. Connelly, however, had been transfixed by Jokić during the Nike Hoops Summit, a showcase of international and domestic prospects, and, along with other league execs, asked the agent to keep Jokić in the draft. “We change direction,” the agent tweeted a little while later, “and Nikola Jokić from Mega keeps his name on draft!”
Whenever first impressions—usually based on appearance and athleticism—threatened to derail Jokić’s path to the MVP, his passing ability proved too remarkable to ignore. Like the ability to jump out of the gym, however, Jokić’s vision and touch are innate gifts. He may look like you, talk like you, and act like you, but Jokić is as preternaturally gifted as LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
For proof, just look to the numbers: According to a Denver Post analysis, “Among five-man lineups with at least 100 minutes together [during the 2020-‘21] season, the Nuggets have five of the top nine offensive units in the NBA.” Jokić appeared in all of those lineups. “This is his biggest advantage. Yeah, he’s a great scorer,” Milojevic says. “But what makes him different is he’s probably the best passer ever out of the big man position.” Watch this if you need more proof. (You know what: Watch it even if you don’t. The dude is a joy to behold.)