Once upon a time, in a land far away, a tall, pudgy young man shoveled manure from a horse stable, never dreaming he would one day become a basketball immortal recognized around the globe by a single name, in the same manner as Wilt, Magic and LeBron are revered.
“I can’t compare myself to those guys,” Nikola Jokic said Thursday, after being welcomed as a member of good standing in one of the NBA’s most elite clubs, celebrated as only the 13th player in league history to be named MVP in back-to-back seasons.
As Jokic basked in the sunshine of his beloved little town of Sombor, Serbia, I asked the ever-humble Nuggets center to contemplate the achievement of joining Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on a short list of legends that have won pro basketball’s top individual award in consecutive years.
Jokic rubbed his chin, as if the heft and responsibility of the honor dawned on him for the first time.
“One day,” Jokic declared, in a rare display of pride, “someone’s going to say my name with that group of guys.”
The meteoric rise of our little Joker in the pantheon of sports stars is as remarkable and unlikely as anything that anyone in the NBA or Denver has ever witnessed. When the Nuggets took a shot on an unrefined teenager with the 41st overall pick of the 2014 draft, Jokic was asleep in Europe, while a Taco Bell commercial played on the television broadcast of the selection show in the United States.
“Hopefully, I’m going to have some (sales) percentage from the Taco Bell,” quipped the Joker, picked by the Nuggets front-office executive Tim Connelly one slot ahead of Arizona guard Nick Johnson, who scored a grand total of 74 points in his NBA career.
In the prime of his career at age 27, is there any doubt Jokic already qualifies as the best player to ever wear a Nuggets uniform? And that’s no small praise, considering the Hall of Fame bona fides of Dan Issel and Alex English.
But let’s crank up the argument. I humbly submit this list of the top three players to ever work professionally in Colorado.
No. 1: Jokic
No. 2: Patrick Roy
No. 3: John Elway
Is it considered blasphemy in our dusty old cowtown not to put a Broncos quarterback atop the list? Have I given short shrift to Joe Sakic? Should Roy be downgraded because his legendary status as a goalie was originally built in Montreal?
The best argument against Jokic being No. 1 is obvious. Unlike Roy, Sakic and Elway, he has not delivered Colorado a single championship, much less two, as a player.
It’s not lost on Jokic that winning a championship should be a more cherished achievement than being voted as MVP in a highly competitive race against Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“All those individual awards,” Joker said, “people are picking who’s going to win it.”
Although grateful for the respect and appreciation shown him by MVP voters in back-to-back seasons, Jokic would take far more satisfaction with wrapping the Larry O’Brien Trophy in a big, happy hug after the NBA Finals.
“A championship,” Jokic explained, “is you winning it.”
While Jokic is a darling of advanced analytics, it should also be noted the combination of his lofty averages in the traditional metrics of points (27.1), rebounds (13.8) and assists (7.9) have never been matched in the 75-year history of the NBA.
Not too shabby, eh?
But in the mind of Jokic, making basketball history was not nearly the best thing he achieved during the past 12 months. Joker became a father for the first time on the eve of this remarkable season, when his wife blessed him with a daughter named Ognjena in September.
You could travel the earth between here and Serbia, but be hard pressed to find a kinder soul than Jokic. And here’s the crazy part: As far as Jokic has risen from the 41st player selected in the 2014 NBA draft, he’s more proud of his growth as a person during the past eight years.
“My daughter showed me that basketball isn’t the most important thing,” Jokic said. “Maybe my daughter made me a better person, but I don’t think so, as a better basketball player.”
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