About two miles from downtown Denver, yellow, orange and red murals fill the cracked gray cement wall of a building that houses a temporary employment agency. The mural stands about 20 feet tall and depicts an expressionless Nikola Jokic next to a much more emotional Jamal Murray, his eyes narrowed and arms outstretched as if wielding a bow and arrow.
Thomas Evans, a 38-year-old artist, recently completed a mural of two Denver Nuggets stars as the team prepared for the NBA Finals. On Thursday afternoon, hours before the first game of the championship series against the Miami Heat, Damien Lucero sang his song “It’s Nuthin” while recording a rap clip in front of the mural. Lucero, 21, is known as Dame$, pronounced “Ladies” (not to be confused with Dame DOLLA, the rap alias of Portland Trail Blazers defenseman Damian Lillard). He said that the mural inspired him and some of the staff to write a song in honor of Jokic.
He rattled off a few of his favorite lines:
“A clean sweep, yes, that’s all me.
Had to smoke it out like I puff trees.
Four months of dubs and then we snap rings.
Triple dub, this is no joke, he’s the new king.”
The old king – at least for those who want to describe him that way – is LeBron James, whose Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. James is the biggest star in the NBA, with four championship rings, multiple promotional deals and a consistent 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 the stage name Detour.
“I’m in the studio all day working on my artwork and I’m not really as frontal as other artists,” he said. “I don’t always want to be in front of the cameras. I don’t always want to be in magazines. I just want to do my job and let that speak for itself.”
In the NBA, stars often take on their city’s identity or infuse the city with their own. Magic Johnson’s love of luxury and glamour, made him a perfect fit for Los Angeles; James’ celebrity embrace made him one too. Patrick Ewing’s physique screamed New York. Jokic, a 28-year-old Serb who is arguably the best player in the NBA, is something of an enigma, as was Tim Duncan when he was in San Antonio. And that suits Denver and Colorado quite well, according to those who live here.
“Talent for what it is, you know, a humble talent, not someone who’s looking for the spotlight, a team player, someone down to earth,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado. “I think Denver and Colorado, we consider ourselves down to earth.”
On Thursday, Bennet put on Nuggets warm-up T-shirt in Washington DC on the way to vote to raise the debt ceiling.
Stars like Jokic, who won two Most Valuable Player awards, could be a spur to the city alone. Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock estimated that the Nuggets would go it alone in the playoffs this year. could bring in $25 million economic growth.
Despite this, Jokic has little to no off-court cultural influence as the Nuggets vie for local attention alongside the NHL’s Avalanche and MLB’s Rockies (all dwarfed by the NFL’s Broncos). But this obscurity appears to be by his own design. Talk of fame seems to tire him. Asked if he was the Nuggets’ best player, Jokic told reporters on Wednesday: “Sometimes I’m the best, sometimes I’m not. I take it easy.”
Murray, nicknamed “Blue Arrow” due to his basketball shooting skills, seems to be more comfortable in the spotlight than Jokic. He is personable, expressive and active on social media. If Jokic isn’t Denver’s best player, Murray is almost certainly the one. According to SponsorUnited, he has promoted at least 10 brands over the past year, while Jokic has only two. It’s unusual for a top player like Jokic to be so elusive off the court.
“I don’t know what kind of influence he actually has because he doesn’t flaunt himself,” said Vic Lombardi, Denver sports talk show host.
Jokic rarely gives interviews other than the obligatory press conferences where he gives mostly reassuring answers. He has a contract with Nike, but he doesn’t have branded shoes. He does not host a podcast, and his politics remain a mystery. He has appeared in several commercials in Serbia. Jokic recently said that basketball was “not the most important thing” in his life and probably never would have been.
“I think he’ll be more connected just because it’s necessary 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 the way he approaches it is: I’m just a basketball player. Gentle. He goes and plays ball and he goes home. So it makes his job a little easier and gets rid of all the distractions.”
Nuggets forward Jeff Green said, “His job is to play basketball, not cater to everyone’s needs.”“.
Vlatko Cančar, another teammate, chuckled when asked about Jokic as a public figure.
“When you’re a star of that stature, it’s very hard to please everyone,” he said. “I feel like he’d like to sign autographs for everyone, shake hands with them, and take pictures with everyone. But it’s too hard because it’s one of him and millions of others. “.
Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado called Jokic “a rarity in the age of modern sports”. He said people in Colorado “admire him even more for not being a distraction off the court like other so-called stars, you know, all too often in both basketball and other sports.”
Sen. John Hickenlooper, Democrat of Colorado, said Jokic looked like “a big bear that can dance.”
“And it’s a great view for Colorado because we’re a former cow town – a mining town,” Hickenlooper said. “We come from honest, hardworking roots. Denver is pretty sporty right now and I’m not sure we’re ready for ballet yet, but we’re aiming for it.”
White NBA stars are often described in positive terms that are less commonly applied to black players, such as being harsh and unselfish. However, discussions with those who know and follow Jokic show that his reputation as a conscientious passer is well deserved. Jokic said he prefers to pass rather than score.
His approach to fame challenges the NBA, which is constantly looking to expand its influence. But the league doesn’t always help itself: The Nuggets, even with a two-time MVP, weren’t so much on national TV in the regular season as some less talented teams.
In addition, some Colorado residents have been unable to watch Nuggets games for the past four years due to a dispute over transportation costs between Altitude, the regional sports network, and Comcast. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on Thursday it was a “terrible situation.”
Hancock, the mayor, called it “really unfortunate.”
“It takes these great young players away from the glory they deserve, especially this season where they’ve been phenomenal,” he said.
Stan Kroenke, who owns the Nuggets and Avalanche, also owns an Altitude. Polis, the governor, said he “called on both sides to resolve this issue.”
In Serbia, Jokic’s homeland, the NBA is popular. When he’s home during the off-season, he lives the same way he lives in Denver: away from the public, according to Christopher R. Hill, the US ambassador to Serbia. But Jokic is the one “everyone is talking about now,” he said.
“Games tend to start at 2 a.m.,” said Hill, who lived in Denver for a decade before leaving for his post in 2020. People don’t sleep for them. It’s incredible. I’ll talk to someone from the Serbian government and they’ll start yawning, “Sorry, I watched Jokic last night.”
Serbian journalists Nenad Kostic and Edin Avdić have been writing about Jokic since he was a teenager and now consider him a friend. They traveled to Denver to cover for him in the finals and had dinner with him the night before the first game. They said that the celebrity makes him uncomfortable.
“It’s not about the money,” Avdic said. “It’s not about fame. It’s – I think – too much trouble for him. No, it’s too hard for him.”
Kostic said Belgrade, Serbia’s nightlife capital, is often home to famous Serbian athletes, even if they are from smaller towns like Jokic.
“Nikola is not like that,” Kostic said. “He loves to spend his days in Sombor, the small town where he was born, where everyone knows him and leaves him alone.”
Twenty years ago, the Nuggets selected a player who was almost the exact opposite of Jokic: Carmelo Anthony. He was the more traditional star of the franchise, appearing in commercials, selling jerseys, and releasing branded shoes. Since his time at Syracuse University, he has made waves in popular culture with his style and confidence. He spent over seven seasons in Denver, coincidentally wearing the number 1.15 that Jokic now wears.
Kiki Vandeweghe, chief executive of the Nuggets who chose Anthony, said both players’ approach to fame has worked out well for the franchise from a business standpoint because of how well they performed on the court. He said that Jokic “makes his team better”.
“He comes with him every night,” said Vandeweghe, who played for the Nuggets in the 1980s. “He represents in many ways what the city is and his team is winning. And it’s a successful franchise.”
Evans, a muralist, said he does not usually paint celebrities, but believes Jokic’s growing relevance is worth the art. He completed his first mural of Jokic in February in the Five Points area of Denver. He added Murray to his second, one that ended shortly before the NBA Finals.
Caroline Simonson, a 22-year-old Nuggets fan from Boulder, said she paid $810 to attend Thursday’s game and sit in the stands. She said that Jokic’s public persona “limits his connection to perhaps NBA fans around the country, but not to the city of Denver.”
“We are proud. We know what Colorado is,” she said. “If other people don’t know what it’s worth, we know what we’ve got here. This is special for us. Sometimes we want to keep it for ourselves. We have to keep Jokic with us.”