A couple of years ago, at a press conference, Nikola Jokic was asked if he had taken advantage of the weekend. With a very serious face, the Denver Nuggets star answered no. “I’ve been watching Pokémon for 5 hours.”
His answer was funny because, obviously, he was telling the truth; but also because it honored his hard-working reputation as a lazy man. Since he began to stand out in the league, the Serbian player has been the subject of numerous criticisms for his physique: photographs in which he appeared to be overweight were viralized; The anecdotes about his addiction to Coca-Cola multiplied; his former coaches acknowledged that he spent more hours lying on the couch than in the gym; and everyone, including his brothers, spoke of his lack of ambition and competitive nerve. Jokic played to have fun, not to be the best.
On the night of the draft, in which he was picked at No. 41, he fell asleep before he knew if any team would claim his rights. Now, seven years later, in addition to joking in press conferences, he is about to be named MVP, the best player in the best league in the world.
Jokic’s case is exceptional for many reasons, but his defiance of the hypercompetitive logic that prevails in the NBA is perhaps the most revealing. Until now, all the MVPs had been chosen among the top positions in the draft: most of them were players who, since they were children, playing on semi-professional circuits, in high school and in university, subjected to high-performance training. Athletic potential had always been a key factor in identifying promising youngsters, but in recent years the NBA has become even more physical and demanding. More possessions are played per game, faster and almost always on the outside of the three-point line, so players have to be faster, tougher, more versatile, more explosive. Many stars have followed strict training programs to adapt their bodies and, especially the centers, have had to lose many kilos to adjust to the hectic pace of the games.
In this context, it makes perfect sense in the world that a chubby, indolent giant like Nikola Jokic was picked in the second round. His virtues with the ball are inversely proportional to his physical conditions, and he knows it. For this reason, after the press compared him with LeBron James, the Serbian ironized: “The speed is there. We are athletically the same. In fact, I don’t know if he can jump as high as I can. He’s a little older so I don’t know. Can you keep up with the rhythm? It is enough to watch him play for a few minutes to understand that he excels for other reasons, as a conductor, attending to the relational dimension of the game: he is the invisible center of a plural organism that requires that all its parts be constantly in motion. Not only does Jokic not need to run and jump to influence the game, but he has built his game on this resignation. “I am patient because I cannot run fast. It is my only option ”.
Although he exaggerates his shortcomings – Jokic can cross the track, attack the post, shoot three and force one against one against whoever he wants – the truth is that his imagination stands out above all else. He has the privileged ability to read the game in motion, collectively organizing and executing attacks, always making his teammates better. His assists open spaces that did not exist before, from angles impossible for rival defenses to predict, but that once executed seem logical, simple and even obvious. Watching him play, one has the feeling that next to him he could also score twenty points for the Lakers.
Its naturalness does not conform to the commercial standards of the NBA. Beyond some absurdly brilliant passes, the best version of his basketball does not leave highlights. Jokic slowly dribbles the ball, pivots on himself and distributes it according to the team’s needs. His virtuosity emerges in decision-making, in the positional game, in the ability to “do nothing” in the middle of the track, except direct the movement of his teammates and wait for them to generate an advantage. Legend has it that the Nuggets’ physical trainer called the owner to tell him that Jokic would be all-star when he saw him play paintball, managing his squad as if it were a game of chess: his strategic intelligence made the technical aptitudes of the other players irrelevant.
His renunciation of action in favor of attention, of a patient gaze, also translates into his attitude on the track. Jokic doesn’t tense up, nor does he seem to feel any kind of pressure. Rather the opposite: he moves around the court with disinterest and even with a certain apathy. He himself says that when he played in lower categories his lack of temperament made his father despair: “He is not exactly a relaxed type. Even now I drive him crazy, because I’m so calm that nothing seems to matter to me. ” If he dominates the league today it is precisely because he does not have the craving for recognition that we associate with great scorers – Jordan, Bryant or LeBron himself -; on the contrary, he approaches basketball from an essentially playful perspective: “every game is like a pachanga in my hometown. You need to go with that mindset and play the game. No pressure. Yes, you are obliged to do something. But it’s just a game. “
Jokic is a star without a winning mentality, who doesn’t seem to care much about losing – except if he’s playing poker. ONE o al Call of Duty–. He publicly asserts himself as someone who is not willing to get up at five in the morning to practice shooting or spend the weekend doing push-ups. The Serbian even refuses to participate in the “healthy” competition within the dressing room itself, which for many sports gurus is essential to fuel the team’s ambition. In fact, after his team signed another center, Jokic was puzzled: “He wants to compete,” he said referring to newcomer Mason Plumlee, “but I think he takes all this a little too seriously.”
Since landing in the NBA, his attitude has been as naive as it is subversive. Not so much for indulging in unproductive idleness – all the journalists who have been to his Colorado home describe it as the home of a big boy, full of toys everywhere – but for showing off his rejection of self-improvement discourses, exaggerating his negligence and making fun of his inability to lift his feet off the ground. Jokic represents the complete opposite of what the NBA sells today, the exact negative of the American dream: apparently, he has reached the top without trying, without bowing to the Protestant culture of work that is at the base of American capitalism. The Serbian is the league’s smiling antihero, and has earned the nickname “the Joker.” It all started with another joke in an interview, with Jokic imitating the DC villain with his menacing why so serious?, but as the years go by it seems that in addition to his taste for sardonic laughter he also shares his incendiary nihilism.
As a public figure, Jokic challenges the modern performance society, in which we are encouraged to fulfill ourselves through work, to be the best version of ourselves, to pursue our dreams, to conquer the impossible. The Joker maliciously laughs at all this meritocratic, hypercompetitive and individualistic paraphernalia and reminds us that, under neoliberalism, success is only remotely about effort. His is a provocative gesture, born in the heart of the entertainment industry, questioning the advertising narratives that fuel the NBA’s business model, increasingly focused on statistics and individual awards, quantitative achievements and a ring culture where it only matters to win, win and win.
As Marc Molina and Manel Peña explain well in Can’t Play Kanter –the best podcast about NBA, in which there is hardly any talk of basketball–, this turbo-capitalist transformation of the league resulted from the need to offer more content to a digital audience global, but also the emergence of media characters like Kobe Bryant, whose celebrated mamba mentality it was nothing more than a pathological radicalization of this culture of performance and hyperproduction (not by chance, before he died, Bryant was writing a children’s book with Paulo Coelho). In collusion with neoliberal economics, the disciplinary logic of the self-made man became a terribly damaging ideology, as more and more young people think they will succeed if they try hard enough – feeling guilty and responsible for their own failures when they do not succeed.
This is the case of Jamal Murray, also a player for the Nuggets. His father forced him to train in the snow, 20 degrees below zero, enduring a 12-minute squat with a cup of boiling tea on his knees; After this test, he had to hit a series of triples if he did not want to start over. Jokic has scoffed at his teammate’s competitive urge on several occasions: “Jamal wants to hit me when I’m not shooting.” At 26, the Serbian not only still prefers to see Pokémon to shoot triples in the snow, but the only cold he wants to feel in his body is that of the ice creams of his native Sombor, which he says are the best in the world. He only aspires to be “a normal boy”, “a stable boy”, because it is in the field, together with his horses, where he finds greater peace.
Of course, this constant display of humility and nonchalance is not entirely spontaneous. Jokic likes to sell himself as a sloth bear, a lucky glutton, when the truth is that he, too, has had to undergo strict diets and high-performance workouts. His skills as a passer were forged in Serbia, with exercises that mixed mental math and quick hands; Likewise, he is no longer the “fat base” that he says he always has been, but now even his abs are showing; furthermore, as he has recently shown, the Joker also lies in saying that “if I could score 40 points every game, I would score 40 points every game. But since I don’t think I can, I pass the ball a bit ”. It is clear that it could before and that it can now. He simply understands and practices the game in a different way, according to the basketball culture in which he was educated, where individual talent is put at the service of the collective.
However, the fact that the image of a lazy MVP is partially false only adds to the value of Jokic dedicating himself to sabotaging the hyper-competitive world-best-player-narrative from within. Make fun of gym routines and the spirit of self-improvement. Let him provoke critics by gobbling up huge bags of popcorn and tubs of ice cream. That detracts from the awards and individual statistics. That denies the champions of magical voluntarism with his carelessness and self-deprecating humor. That he belittles his acquired talent by attributing it to chance.
But, above all this, if we have something to thank the Joker for, it is that he reminds us that even in the modern NBA “doing nothing” can be more decisive, more creative, more fun and more spectacular than scoring sixty points between shouts of “ I’m the king”.
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