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Paul Klee: Nikola Jokic goes from Serbia to the Denver Nuggets — with love

By: Paul Klee
January 10, 2017 Updated: January 12, 2017 at 11:38 am
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Nikola Jokic. (AP file)

DENVER — Nikola Jokic is swearing in Serbian at one of his brothers.

It's funny to hear Jokic swear, not solely because edgy, Eastern European accents from 6-foot-10 men make them excellent "Die Hard" villains; it's also funny because anger is not a quality often associated with the Nuggets' gentle giant and prodigal 21-year-old center, who reacts to an referee's whistle by aggressively... shaking his head and trudging to the bench. So it seems we can learn something from this outburst, even if Nikola wears a goofy smile as he swears: Nothing pushes our buttons quite like an older sibling who knows which buttons to push.

"I wanted to die on the mountain!" Nikola shouts.

His massive legs and arms spilled over a Lazy Boy in LoDo, Nikola is recounting his brother's idea to hike the 2,700 steps and 2,000-foot elevation climb of the Manitou Incline. "The worst thing since I come to America."

They forgot water, of all the things at 8,600 feet to forget. Sweating, panting, swearing in Serbian, and not a drop to drink. "Here is when Nikola really got mad at me," Nemanja Jokic says. He stifles a laugh, knowing he shouldn't. This is akin to a brother conducting tickle torture, except these brothers have backgrounds in MMA fighting and are the size of redwoods.

"We got to the top and I say to Nikola, 'I have a shortcut now.' So he follows me," Nemanja says. "Then we find there is no shortcut. We are lost on a mountain."

The future of the Nuggets is Nikola Jokic, a big man whose dizzying passing is unlike anything the Nuggets — and maybe the NBA — have ever seen. Jokic is coming into his own far away from his hometown of Somboro, Serbia. But he is not alone here. The Jokic brothers arrived in Colorado as a package deal: Nikola, the centerpiece; Nemanja, 32 and 6-6, who played forward at the University of Detroit Mercy; Strahinja, 34 and 6-9, licensed in Serbia as a bodyguard and a fighter in the mixed martial arts Muay Thai and Filipino boxing.

"It's basically any way you can hit a person while standing up - punching, kicks, sparring," says L.A. Jennings, who owns "Fight.Train.Win.," the Denver MMA gym that trains the Jokic brothers. "They're usually in here about five days a week."

Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari says of Nemanja and Strahinja, "You don't want to fight with them."

The brothers live together in a downtown condo near Coors Field. They hiked the Manitou Incline together ("Never again," Nikola says). They play tennis together at Wash Park. "We don't know the rules," Nemanja says. "We just make them up." They engage in the most competitive and violent games of living-room basketball known to mankind, on a hoop that Nikola hung over one doorway in their apartment. They take charges and there is no out-of-bounds. On their community billiards table or PlayStation, the losing brother endures a defeat more severe than picking up the bar tab: loss of pride.

"You lost. I beat you. I kicked your (butt). I'm better than you," as Nemanja explains.

There's no flying elbow or hip check that Nikola Jokic will see from DeMarcus Cousins or DeAndre Jordan that he hasn't seen from Nemanja or Strahinja. Likewise, no critique from Nuggets coach Michael Malone is too pointed. When Nikola arrived home after piling up 27 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists in a win against the Mavericks - one assist shy of a triple-double - the brothers offered praise before saying his body language still needs work.

"I think that is what family is for. They tell you what's wrong," Nikola says. "Some time it becomes (an) argument. But I think that's a good thing in life. Arguing (is) not bad. It helps me to get better. I want to be better."

Nikola is the youngest. He arrived last. His brothers are putting him first.

***

Here's a fun game to play at Pepsi Center: Name your favorite Nikola Jokic moment. Was it the unthinkable, spinning assist to Wilson Chandler in the open court? The no-look feed to Gary Harris from the post? The 25-point outburst against the U.S. national team in the Rio Olympics, a coming-out party that brought national celebrity to Nikola and a silver medal to Serbia? The player efficiency rating that ranks second — only to Cousins — among starting centers in the NBA? The three or four nightly highlights that beg for a player comparison?

The one I hear most in NBA circles: Vlade Divac. So I tracked down Vlade Divac.

"He's better," said Divac, the Sacramento Kings general manager, FIBA Hall of Famer and Serbian legend.

His passing?

"Everything."

Like, everything-everything?

"He's better than me. Just watch."

Yes, it's possible the NBA has never seen anything like Nikola Jokic. Even so, history is littered with names like Ronnie Fields and Nikoloz Tskitishvili, can't-miss stars who missed.

That's where his brothers come in. Nemanja and Strahinja have built a wall of deflection around Nikola — they pronounce it "NEE-kola," like a Serbian cough drop — to shield him from potential pitfalls. The brotherly umbrella includes making sure Nikola rarely comes home from a game to an empty apartment. They once drove from Denver to the Las Vegas summer league, turned around and drove to the NBA rookie symposium in New York City.

"When I was a baby I had a pacifier in my mouth and I watch them play," says Nikola, who admits he cried when his father dropped him off at his first basketball practice at the age of 10. "I wanted to be better than them. Actually, I want to be just like them."

Their bond began long before Nikola emerged as the cornerstone talent of an NBA franchise. When Nikola was 16 and moved away from home, a brother moved with him. They are building a new home in Serbia for their parents, complete with a basketball court for the brothers. Dad is 6-1 and a retired agricultural engineer, Nemanja says. Mom is 5-8, a nurse and "the rock of our whole family," Nikola says.

Nikola's ascension to future NBA All-Star unfolded so quickly and unexpectedly it might seem like an overnight success. (If so, the family would insist on bunk beds.) But they are not unprepared or naïve to what's coming: Nemanja completed his bachelor's degree and considers pursuing the license to become a sports agent.

"It's a company. We call it: the Jokic Brothers LLC," Nemanja says. "Nikola, all he needs to do is focus on basketball."

***

Nikola Jokic's idea of a cool Instagram post is not on a yacht or modeling new clothes. (Teammates joke he wears the same thing every day.) Rather, his favorites include him sitting in a dentist's chair, mouth agape, or posing at Red Rocks with his girlfriend, Natalia, who has enrolled as a student at Metro State, across the street from Pepsi Center.

"New York's Eve, Nikola is playing cards," Nemanja says. "He avoids big crowds."

What makes Nikola unique is also what should keep him in Colorado for a long time: Stardom's bright lights are more of a deterrent than an attraction. For decades the Nuggets have been hamstrung by free agents who view Colorado as NBA flyover country; now the franchise has budding star who reveres his Serbian hometown because Sombor is "quiet and small."

"But the people that I love are there and that's all I need," he says.

Just as he is loyal to family, Nikola goes out of his way to thank Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly and the front office, whose decision to use a second-round pick on a gangly, raw teenager from a foreign country looks like something the Spurs would do. Dripping sweat after a recent workout, Jokic nodded toward a series of plaques that decorate one wall of the team's practice gym. They show the top scorers and rebounders to roll through a city that never has won an NBA title.

"One day I want to be on those walls," he said.

"I think Denver can be the right fit for Nikola for many, many years. But that depends on the Nuggets themselves, how bad they want to keep him," Nemanja says. "Why wouldn't you keep somebody who looks like an All-Star in his second year? They bring him here. They draft him. When we talk about it, Denver can be a nice place for all of us for years to come."

What is the endgame of the Jokic family mission?

"The goal is to stay and play in the United States for the next 15 years," says Nemanja, the aspiring sports agent. "If you are going to be the franchise player that people are talking about, then be that player. Accept that role. This is the best league in the world. Why not play here for 15 years? I think Nikola has something in him that he is built for great things.

"But we will see. It's step-by-step."

If history is an indication, the Jokic Brothers LLC will be there each step, provided the steps are easy to navigate and there is water at the top.

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Twitter: @bypaulklee

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