From PE struggler to superstar

Serbia’s Nikola Jokic was not exactly an obvious choice to make it in hoops, as his old teachers reveal

SOMBOR, Serbia – 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 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 in China.

So far Serbia has justified its tag as one of the tournament favorites and possibly the biggest threat to reigning champion the United States, by easing into the quarterfinals with four wins from four. The Serbs were due to face their toughest opponent yet on Sunday night against fellow quarterfinalist Spain in Wuhan.

In Jokic’s native Sombor, a sleepy northern city where he returns annually, teachers remember a boy who always had a special knack for ball sports, 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 old English teacher, remembers “little” Jokic as an “excellent” academic student.

As a heavier kid “he had problems with physical education… he really struggled”, she said.

“But he fought – and succeeded, as we can see,” she added with a smile.

Undisputed MVP

When Jokic arrived in Denver as a little-known second-round pick four years ago, the Serbian couldn’t hold an abdominal plank for more than 20 seconds, the Serbian told ESPN in a recent interview.

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 center and point guard.

In addition to averaging 10.8 rebounds per game last 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.

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 said.

Love of horses

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 No 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic.

Jokic prefers to keep a low profile when he returns to Sombor, a city of 40,000 people 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,” explained 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.”

Jokic still enjoys doing a few laps of the track “but only for training, he can’t afford to participate in a competition”, explained Branislav before walking over to one horse that matters more to Jokic than the rest.

“This is Dream Catcher, the first horse Nikola bought,” said Branislav.

“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.”

Agence France-Presse


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