Nikola Jokic, an Elusive Superstar, Has a Hold on Denver

About two miles from downtown Denver, the yellows, oranges and reds of a spray-painted mural fill the cracked, gray cement wall of a building that houses a temporary employment agency. The mural rises about 20 feet and depicts an expressionless Nikola Jokic next to a much more emotive Jamal Murray, his eyes narrowed and arms extended as though he is wielding a bow and arrow.

Thomas Evans, a 38-year-old artist, finished the mural of the two Denver Nuggets stars recently as the team prepared to begin the N.B.A. finals. On Thursday afternoon, hours before Game 1 of the championship series against the Miami Heat, Damien Lucero was blaring his song “It’s Nuthin” while recording a rap music video in front of the mural. Lucero, 21, goes by Dame$, pronounced “Dames” (not to be confused with Dame D.O.L.L.A., the rap name of Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard). He said the mural inspired him and some collaborators to write the song as a tribute to Jokic.

He rattled off some of his favorite lines:

“Clean sweep, yeah, it’s all me.

Had to smoke him out like I puff trees.

Four mo’ dubs then we pop rings.

Triple dub, ain’t no joke, he the new king.”

The old king — at least to those who want to describe him that way — is LeBron James, whose Los Angeles Lakers were swept by the Nuggets in the Western Conference finals. James is the biggest star in the N.B.A., with four championship rings, piles of endorsement deals and a constant presence on social media and television. Jokic has none of that.

“I see a lot of myself in him,” said Evans, who also goes by Detour.

“I’m in the studio all day working on my artwork, and I’m not really front-facing as much as other artists may be,” he said. “I don’t always want to be in front of the cameras. I don’t always want to be in magazines. I want to actually just do my work and let that speak for itself.”

In the N.B.A., stars often take on their city’s identity — or imbue the city with their own. Magic Johnson’s love of luxury and glamour made him a perfect fit for Los Angeles; James’s embrace of celebrity has made him the same. Patrick Ewing’s physicality screamed New York City. Jokic, a 28-year-old Serbian who may be the best player in the N.B.A., is a bit of an enigma, similar to Tim Duncan when he was in San Antonio. And that suits Denver and Colorado just fine, according to those who live here.

“The kind of talent that he is, you know, a modest talent, not somebody who is searching out the spotlight, a team player, somebody who’s down to earth,” said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado. “I think Denver and Colorado, we view ourselves as down to earth.”

On Thursday, Bennet wore a Nuggets warm-up jersey in Washington, D.C., on his way to vote to raise the debt ceiling.

Stars like Jokic, who has won two Most Valuable Player Awards, can be close to a one-man stimulus for a city. The mayor of Denver, Michael B. Hancock, estimated that the Nuggets’ playoff run alone this year could bring in a $25 million economic boost.

Even so, Jokic has almost no cultural footprint off the court as the Nuggets jockey for attention locally with the N.H.L.’s Avalanche and M.L.B.’s Rockies (all of which are overshadowed by the N.F.L.’s Broncos). But this obscurity is apparently by his own design. Talk of stardom appears to bore him. Asked whether he was the best player on the Nuggets, Jokic told reporters on Wednesday: “Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. I’m cool with that.”

Murray, whose nickname is Blue Arrow because of his basketball shooting skills, appears to be more comfortable in the spotlight than Jokic. He’s personable, expressive and active on social media. When Jokic is not Denver’s best player, Murray almost certainly is. He has promoted at least 10 brands over the past year, according to SponsorUnited, compared to just two for Jokic. It’s unusual for a top player like Jokic to be so elusive off the court.

“I don’t know how much influence he really has because he doesn’t put himself out there,” said Vic Lombardi, a Denver sports talk radio host.

Jokic rarely does interviews outside of mandatory news conferences, where he gives mostly anodyne answers. He has a deal with Nike but does not have a signature shoe. He doesn’t host a podcast, and his politics are a mystery. He has appeared in a handful of commercials in Serbia. Jokic said recently that basketball was “not the most important thing” in his life and probably never would be.

“I would think he would be more connected just because it’s required when you’re a player of that caliber,” said Andre Miller, who played for the Nuggets in the early 2000s and again a decade ago. He added: “I think he approaches it as, I’m just a basketball player. Mild-mannered. He goes and plays ball and he goes home. So it makes his job a little easier and it keeps all the distractions out.”

Nuggets forward Jeff Green said, “His job is to play basketball, not to meet everybody’s needs.”

Vlatko Cancar, another teammate, chuckled when asked about Jokic as a public figure.

When you’re a star at that level it’s just so hard to please everybody,” he said. “I feel like he would like to sign autographs for everybody and shake their hands and take pictures with everybody. But it’s just too hard because it’s one of him and it’s millions of others.”

Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado called Jokic “a rarity in the modern sports age.” He said people in Colorado “admire him all the more for not being an off-court distraction like other so-called stars are, you know, too often in both basketball and other sports.”

Senator John Hickenlooper, Democrat of Colorado, said that Jokic was like a “large bear that can do ballet.”

“And that is a great look for Colorado, because we’re a former cow town — a mining town,” Hickenlooper said. “We come from honest, hardworking roots. Denver now is pretty athletic, and I’m not sure we’re quite up to ballet yet, but we’re getting there.”

White N.B.A. stars are often described in positive terms that are less frequently applied to Black players, such as gritty and unselfish. Still, discussions with those who know and follow Jokic suggest his reputation as a willing passer is deserved. Jokic has said he prefers to pass rather than score.

His approach to stardom creates a challenge for the N.B.A., which is constantly looking to expand its reach. But the league doesn’t always help itself: The Nuggets, even with a two-time M.V.P., were not on national television during the regular season as much as some less-talented teams.

In addition, a portion of Colorado residents have not been able to watch Nuggets games for the last four years because of a dispute over carriage fees between Altitude, the regional sports network, and Comcast. N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said Thursday that it was a “terrible situation.”

Hancock, the mayor, called it “really unfortunate.”

“That robs these great young players of the notoriety they deserve and particularly in this season where they have done just phenomenal things,” he said.

Stan Kroenke, who owns the Nuggets and the Avalanche, also owns Altitude. Polis, the governor, said he had “called upon both sides to work it out.”

In Serbia, Jokic’s home country, the N.B.A. is popular. When he is home for the off-season, he lives as he does in Denver: away from the public, according to Christopher R. Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia. But Jokic is someone “everyone is talking about right now,” he said.

“The games tend to be at 2 o’clock in the morning,” said Hill, who lived in Denver for a decade before leaving for his post in 2020. “People stay up for those. It’s incredible. I’ll be talking to somebody in the Serbian government and they’ll start yawning — ‘Sorry, I was watching Jokic last night.’”

The Serbian journalists Nenad Kostic and Edin Avdic have reported on Jokic since he was a teenager and now consider him a friend. They traveled to Denver to cover him in the finals, and had dinner with him the night before Game 1. They said celebrity makes him uncomfortable.

“It’s not about money,” Avdic said. “It’s not about fame. It’s — I think — too much hassle for him. No, it’s too much of a burden for him.”

Kostic said that Belgrade, Serbia’s big-city capital with nightlife, often becomes home for famous Serbian athletes, even if, like Jokic, they are from smaller towns.

“Nikola is not like that,” Kostic said. “He likes to spend his days in Sombor, in the small city where he was born, where everybody knows him and they leave him alone.”

Twenty years ago, the Nuggets drafted a player who was almost the polar opposite of Jokic: Carmelo Anthony. He was a more traditional franchise star, doing commercials, selling jerseys and putting out signature shoes. Starting when he was at Syracuse University, he made waves in popular culture, with his style and confidence. He spent more than seven seasons in Denver, coincidentally wearing No. 15, which Jokic wears now.

Kiki Vandeweghe, the Nuggets executive who drafted Anthony, said both players’ approaches to stardom worked just fine for the franchise from a business perspective because of how well they performed on the court. He said Jokic “makes his team better.”

“He comes with it every night,” said Vandeweghe, who played for the Nuggets in the 1980s. “He represents in many ways what the city’s all about and his team wins. And that’s a successful franchise.”

Evans, the muralist, said he typically doesn’t paint celebrities, but found Jokic’s growing relevance worth the art. He finished his first mural of Jokic in February in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver. He added Murray in his second, the one finished just before the N.B.A. finals.

Caroline Simonson, a 22-year-old Nuggets fan from Boulder, said she paid $810 to attend Thursday’s game and sit in the bleachers. She said Jokic’s public persona “limits his connection to maybe N.B.A. fans across the country, but not to the city of Denver.”

“We’re prideful. We know what Colorado is,” she said. “If other people don’t know what it’s worth, we know what we’ve got here. It’s special to us. Sometimes we want to keep it to ourselves. We get to keep Jokic to ourselves.”

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