For pure pandemic entertainment, it was hard to beat. The performance combined Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver (“You talking to me?”), Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (“You think I’m funny, funny how; how the ‘eff’ do you think I’m funny?”) and the late Heath Ledger’s Joker (“They laugh at me because I’m different. I laugh at them because they’re all the same.”)
But this was not the movies; it was the NBA on TNT, live from Denver last Tuesday.
No one was getting killed in Tuesday’s drama unless you count Enes Kanter, the Portland Trailblazers’ center. Nikola Jokic made Kanter look like Uwe Blab at Effingham High.
On one memorable first-half play, Kanter could only muster a forceful hip-check into the small of the Nuggets’ center’s whirling back. Denver’s sturdy Joker absorbed the blow, made his fadeaway 10-footer anyway, then signaled the referee a foul should be called.
The ref snickered. That rankled the normally affable Nuggets’ seven-footer. “Why are you laughing at me?” shouted Colorado’s biggest sports star as he ran back on defense.
The referee was apparently further amused. But the Joker was not joking. He demanded an answer, going full Pesci and yelling, “Why the ‘eff’ are you laughing at me?” A technical was called. Both men had made their points. Denver’s superstar center went on to score 41 and lead the Nuggets to a five-point victory.
What happened there was intensity. It was the heat of competition. No love is lost between the Nuggets and Trailblazers since Portland won Game 7 in Denver on May 12, 2019, advancing to the Western Conference Finals. That bitter memory needs constant erasing. In 2020, in the Orlando bubble, the Nuggets memorably made it to the Western Conference Finals, but lost to LeBron James and his LA Lakers.
Our Joker is an international superstar. People all over the world compete in this U.S.-originated sport. While overall American exceptionalism is currently dubious, there is no league on Earth close in talent to America’s (and Toronto’s) NBA. In 50 years of Denver pro hoops, we’ve had great players, but none with the size and skills of Nikola Jokic.
Three key statistics — points, rebounds and assists — reflect ways to help teams win. Double figures in all three categories in a single game constitute a triple-double, which is an outstanding accomplishment. By age 25, Denver’s three-time all-star Jokic had already entered the NBA’s all-time top 10 for triple-doubles. In Denver’s blowout win Saturday night in Oklahoma City, the Joker nearly had a triple-double by halftime.
A pro since age 17 in his native Serbia, the Joker’s American home is Denver. His colorful older, and tougher, brothers came with him to Denver. So did Nikola’s high school sweetheart, Natalija Macesic.
Ms. Macesic has since graduated with a psychology degree from Metro State University in Denver. She became Mrs. Joker on Oct. 24, 2020, in Sombor, Serbia. Their marriage seems fantastic. Nikola slimmed down for the wedding and is sneaky fast now. The Joker is happy and funny as he proved post-game last Tuesday, joking with Shaquille O’Neal.
Nikola Jokic may be Denver’s first-ever NBA Most Valuable Player, but he will have to get past LeBron. King James has won many MVP awards and gets mad when he finishes second. Other superstars are playing great, but none have Nikola’s unusual set of skills.
The Joker “is fun to watch because there’s just no one else like him in the league,” said awestruck OKC Thunder TV announcer Chris Fisher on Saturday.
Bill Walton won the NBA MVP in 1978 back when his Trailblazers regularly ruined the Nuggets’ title dreams. Walton, still a prominent sports and social commentator, expressed his Jokic delight: “He’s just a very interesting player and super fun to watch. He looks like a great teammate and a spectacularly skilled player who plays to win. He’s big, strong, powerful, mobile, skilled, intelligent, creative, collaborative. Empty the thesaurus. He’s got a lot of things going for him.”
Let’s demonstrate dedication to this Denverite. We must show our home-state superstars they are valued here.
Just over 50 years ago, Denver Rocket fans witnessed 21-year-old Spencer Haywood win MVP of the American Basketball Association. Then he left. Haywood told me he’d have happily remained, but ownership blew it with bigotry, fraud and stinginess.
If Colorado can keep Nikola Jokic and his family happy, future NBA crowns are possible. Denver’s center just turned 26 and is hitting his prime as a person and player. He’s fascinating to watch. This Joker is not a wild card anymore. Nikola Jokic is the real deal.
Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA who also has worked in the media for decades. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun. He practices law at the Denver law firm of Springer & Steinberg, P.C. and is host of The Craig Silverman Show podcast.
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