Nikola Jokic was always tall — as a teenager he had to lie down in school photos to fit inside the frame. Now the 24-year-old Serbian basketball standout is bigger than ever, spanning a huge mural on his former elementary school and living the dream of every youngster as an NBA All-Star with the Denver Nuggets.
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With a slightly doughy and lumbering physique, the seven-footer (2.13m) has entranced fans and sports analysts with his uncanny precision, especially laser-sharp passes that have seen him likened to an NFL quarterback on court.
Serbs are hoping that their homegrown hero — who did not play in the 2014 World Cup — can fire the country at the latest edition, which starts on Saturday in China. Beaten in the final last time, Serbia are again among the favourites to challenge holders the United States.
In Jokic’s native Sombor, a sleepy northern city where Jokic returns annually, teachers remember a boy who always had a special knack with balls, even if physical exercise was not his strong suit.
“He loved playing with the ball more than anything. On the other hand, gym and athletics, he did not love… I always had to push him to do gymnastics,” remembers his first physical education teacher, Robert Katona, from the humble court where Jokic honed his skills.
Gordana Ralevic, his English teacher, remembers “little” Jokic as an “excellent” academic student.
As a heavier kid “he had problems with physical education… he really struggled. But he fought — and succeeded, as we can see,” she said.
When the Serbian arrived in Denver as a little-known second-round pick four years ago he couldn’t hold an abdominal plank for more than 20 seconds, Jokic told ESPN in a recent interview.
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He has since been whipped into shape by trainers, shedding some pounds while still maintaining a bulkier physique.
The work has paid off. Today, Jokic is the Nuggets’ undisputed MVP, drawing praise for his creativity and exceptional statistics, blending the role of centre and point guard.
In addition to averaging 10.8 rebounds per game this season, he averaged 7.3 decisive passes and 20.1 points. He further excelled in the playoffs. According to his father, basketball was love at first sight.
“As a child, with his pacifier in his mouth, he would watch his brothers play (basketball) without moving, without making a sound, sitting on my lap,” remembers Branislav Jokic, 61, a retired agricultural engineer.
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His gym teacher Katona says Jokic’s talent for passing — the subject of many YouTube highlight reels — was also evident at a young age.
“Above all he had a tendency to look for the decisive pass, he liked it more than scoring,” he says. With a contract worth nearly $150 million, Jokic is the highest paid Serbian player in history.
His popularity is beginning to match that of Serbia’s other sporting king, world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic.
Jokic prefers to keep a low profile when he returns to Sombor, a city of 40,000 near the border with Hungary. He is still dating his high school sweetheart and will often stop by his former school to talk to young players on the small court, beneath his mural.
But most of Jokic’s free time in Serbia is spent indulging his other passion: horses.
“He inherited this from me,” explains his father while reaching a hand out to horses in the small stable their family owns, nearby a track where they compete in harness racing.
“As a child, he would clean the stables before going to school.”
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Jokic still enjoys doing a few laps of the track “but only for training, he can’t afford to participate in a competition”, explains Branislav.
He walks over to a brown horse behind a fence.
“This is Dream Catcher, the first horse Nikola bought. He survived a severe tick bite and returned to competition, pursuing his dreams. Kind of like Nikola when he went to play in the States,” he says.