It was all about horses for me. I always loved basketball, but when I was little — even when I was 13 and 14 — I was going to horse race. I didn’t even practice basketball that much. I went to the stables, just to be the stable boy. That was my life. I raced. Not professionally, but amateur. I even placed fourth one time. It was a nice hobby.

I start to really practice basketball every day only in my last year in my hometown of Sombor. It’s nice. You can Google it. It’s in northern Serbia. I figure out that I can live from basketball. It can be my job and my love at the same. I knew I could be good — I didn’t know that I could be in the NBA. But maybe Europe.

Growing up, I watch the national teams, because when you’re a kid in Serbia, that’s your goal. I didn’t follow that much NBA, because in Serbia, the games are on at 3 and 4 a.m. When YouTube came out when I was like 15, I watched Magic because of his passing, and Hakeem because of his post moves, and Jordan because he is Jordan.

But when I was a kid, I just watched my brothers. They play basketball, too. We had some courts outside in our hometown. When they would play on those courts, I would watch when I was a little baby with my pacifier. I mix a little bit of both of them. One is talented, one is really strong. I’m a little bit talented, and a little bit strong.

Our apartment was really small. We had two rooms: kitchen, bathroom. It was my mom, dad, me, my two brothers and my grandma. It was always a full house. My brothers — cousins really, but in Serbia we call them brothers — also came over. It was always a full house of people, and we always mess around. We were crazy kids. We were making a lot of noise.

Nikola Jokic as a jockey
Nikola Jokic as a jockey

We even had a little basketball hoop in our apartment, and my brothers would play with me when I was little. The neighbor downstairs would always come up and complain about us making too much noise.

When I started playing, I was really fat, and I wasn’t that tall yet. I played center, but I also played point guard. I dribbled the ball all over the court. I just play for fun, you know? But the year I turned 16, I just feel like I could really play. And that’s the year I went from my small town of Sombor to the bigger town, Novi Sad.

In Serbia, you play for club team and you go to school, they’re separate. It’s not like United States, where you play for your school’s team. But, every year, all the schools in Serbia have one basketball tournament. I played for my school in Novi Sad, and we won the whole tournament.

My first two games in the bigger, junior league, I played really good. The Belgrade club KK Mega Basket saw me and call me and stay in touch with me that half season. Then, the next half season, I go to Mega.

Nikola Jokic family
Nikola Jokic family

Europe and NBA are totally different basketball. When you see the score in Europe, it’s like 50-58. And that was a good game. But here you see the games have 100 or 120 points. In Europe, they play really strong defense. If a team score 80, that’s bad defense.

We just want to play good defense. On offense, you have freedom to attack if you’re open. Everyone can shoot. If there’s 20 on the clock, you can shoot if you’re open. The coach wanted us to play defense, and then run, run, run. But…we weren’t that good at defense. We were really talented, and could score, but we couldn’t defend that well.

Last year, we were in the National Cup finals against Zvezda. In Europe, especially in Serbia, fans are crazy, especially against Zvezda or Partizan. Those are the biggest teams with a huge history in Serbia. When they play each other, it’s called “the derby.” I’ve played in Oakland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Utah. Utah Jazz have a really good home court. But in Europe, there’s more passion, I think. It’s their life, being a fan for that team.

You’re in the tunnel, and you hear the “dum, dum, dum” of the drums and it’s really intense.

Against Zvezda, the whole gym was against us. You’re in the tunnel, and you hear the “dum, dum, dum” of the drums and it’s really intense. Fog was all over the gym, fans screaming, cheering the whole game.

That was crazy, because we were the youngest team. They didn’t know us. Everyone was booing us, and I was like “You don’t even know us! I bet all you guys don’t know our 12 players on the court.”

I actually missed the basket for the win. In the moment I was thinking “Oh man! I miss the shot for the trophy! First time in club history!” I was down a little bit, but I didn’t think about it anymore after that night.

I’ll make the next one.

Nikola Jokic and Denver
Nikola Jokic and Denver

Every young European player, it’s like tradition: you must play Euroleague for two years, then go to NBA. But I didn’t think about the NBA at first. In the second part of my last season, we had some contacts with the Nuggets. I thought maybe I can make it, because I’m young. I can develop like NBA player, not European player.

Actually, though, I was sleeping when the Nuggets drafted me.

My brother had celebrations and champagne, and he called to tell me. I picked up the phone, but I really wasn’t listening. I just told him, “Come on, man, I’m sleeping.” Then I hung up. So I heard the next morning.

I didn’t think it was going to be a big thing. I thought, they drafted me, and I stay one more season in Europe. I didn’t think that I was going to make it to the NBA right away.

Barcelona, one of the best teams in Europe, came to watch me, and I played the worst game ever. I think I scored like 4 points, and maybe that was a sign that Europe wasn’t for me. At the end of that season, the Nuggets called me, and said they wanted me on their team.

Suddenly, everything is different. Everything.

The locker rooms, practices, weight rooms, people. We have like 10 coaches. The style of the game with a lot of running. Especially for big men, if you can run fast, you’re going to be really good in this league.

The best part is the travel. With Mega, we travel on bus, like 10 hours. Not good for big guy like me. Now, everything is airplanes.

Even the game is different. In Europe you have 4 quarters, 10 minutes. Here, it’s 4 quarters 12 minutes. You basically have one more quarter here than Europe.

Nikola Jokic, layup
Nikola Jokic, layup

One thing that hasn’t changed, for me, is the passion.

You’ve seen a few times when other players pull me or grab my leg. I love that kind of play on the basketball court. This is just how we play in Serbia. Last year, I scored an and-one, and I just start yelling, excited. And the guy just push me, and I fall down and make a flip. My teammates start fight for me. That’s what I want to continue doing. Not to make fight, but just to get passion into the game. I don’t want basketball to just be a job. I just want to keep that passion.

It’s better than racing horses.

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