DENVER • The NBA is more interested in appearing woke than actually doing the productive thing.

The latest sacrificial example is Nuggets unicorn Nikola Jokic, who unwittingly said “no homo” in reference to an opponent’s “length” and was fined $25,000. Whether that phrase is offensive to some folks isn’t debatable. (It is offensive to some, but that’s not why we’re here.) The issue is the NBA smearing a 23-year-old’s reputation for the sole purpose of upholding its own.

Jokic’s grasp of the English language and American culture is improving, at best. But instead of simply explaining you can’t say that, dude, the NBA created a scene by blasting out his sin ... when people in the Nuggets’ own organization didn’t even know it had happened.

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What followed were headlines that attached “anti-gay” with “Jokic” when there’s not a malicious bone in the man’s body. Call me crazy, but I tend to think a man-to-man chat would’ve helped a Serbian who’s still learning English understand why his word choice was less than ideal. This is a guy who once learned about America through a “Friends” boxed set.

Getting lost in translation is a real thing, and a league that employs common sense would know as much. Instead, the NBA aligned with social media culture and sentenced Jokic to the damned. Never mind that Nuggets coach Michael Malone often describes Jokic as “refreshing,” due to his commitment to team ball, or that Colorado high school coaches highlight his habit of praising everyone except himself as a model for their teenage athletes.

Having a real conversation with Jokic would have been the productive thing. Educate, enlighten, fine, whatever. The unintended slur never appeared in print — Did you know before the NBA’s announcement? — and I wouldn’t be writing this column to drum it all up again.

But here we are, because too many big businesses are more concerned with optics than common sense. So Jokic learned of the fine and ensuing public humiliation through a member of the organization, just a few hours before the Nuggets faced the Memphis Grizzlies.

My question: Who, exactly, did this episode help?

It helped the NBA, which can print up some more catchy slogans on T-shirts and appear woke. Didn’t help a young man finding his way in a strange land. Jokic went into a shell, taking just five, nine, three and one shot in the four games since.

The final straw was an 89-87 loss to the Grizzlies Wednesday, the day he learned of the punishment and took only the final shot.

See, leading scorers draw TV cameras, and the last thing Jokic wants to see these days is a TV camera. As you can probably tell, Jokic is a sensitive guy — the kind we’re supposed to need more of — and the notion he had offended anyone bothered him so severely he told at least one teammate he’ll never do media again.

Instead of trying to score, Jokic reverted to passing the ball at each opportunity and playing his you-know-what off on defense. That’s the guy the NBA wants to make an example of?

Jokic’s interactions with media are part interview and part comedic routine. Some of that stems from his youthful personality, some of it from English being a second language. Jokes are a crutch. The instance at Chicago’s United Center, where the unintended slur occurred, was a case of a joke falling flat.

We’ll learn plenty about Jokic and the future of the Nuggets through this episode. They host the Nets at Pepsi Center on Friday, and whether Jokic defers or dominates is entirely up to him.

The NBA loves to promote how it bridges cultural divides as an inclusive operation that welcomes all. But given a chance to bridge an actual cultural barrier, the league responded by putting an outsider on blast.

Welcome to ‘Merica, big fella. We’re No. 1 at shaming others to make ourselves feel better.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

Sports columnist

Denver sports columnist for The Gazette

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