The screen didn’t lie. His unorthodox greatness was as striking on the Arena Sport broadcast in Serbia as it was on ABC in the United States. Or on networks in China, Finland, France, Italy, Latin America and Spain, all of which were on-site covering a sport whose global popularity keeps multiplying.
As the Denver Nuggets celebrate their confetti-triggering 94-89 win over the Miami Heat in Game 5, the world sees the superstar Jokic has become. The world sees the diversifying virtue of the entire NBA. This is no longer a league that one team, rivalry or nation can own.
While the United States remains rooted as the preeminent basketball power, the sport now prospers because elite talent sprouts from everywhere. Jokic, a 6-foot-11, 285-pound center, plays like he is from another planet. Maybe his hometown of Sombor, Serbia, once seemed a space shuttle flight away from NBA fame. Not anymore. It’s right here. As the NBA brand swells worldwide, it does not flaunt American dominance and exclusivity. The appeal lies in its accessibility.
“To be quite honest, I never thought Serbia or former Yugoslavia would have a player in the Finals with such an important role,” said Nenad Kostic, an Arena Sport announcer who called the games on-site. “This is the first time in our lifetime that we’ve had someone like this. There have been a lot of excellent, unbelievable players from the area, but they were mostly role players, standouts but not the number one guy: Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic. To see Nikola Jokic here on this stage, as a two-time MVP, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We watch and think: ‘When did he get 20 rebounds? How is this even possible?’ ”
NBA globalization is most dramatic at the top of the league, and because individual stars hold disproportionate influence in basketball, the impact will be tremendous. It seems international players have overtaken the league, even though the demographics indicate steady growth. But the three players accounting for the past five MVPs didn’t grow up in America. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek-Nigerian forward who unleashes a bundle of athleticism and force every possession, started the streak with back-to-back awards in 2019 and 2020. Then Jokic won the next two seasons. Joel Embiid, the polished and amusing two-way marvel from Cameroon, is now the reigning MVP.
But they aren’t just owning the regular season. Teams led by international stars have won two of the past three championships. In 2021, the Greek Freak led Milwaukee to its first NBA title in 50 years, and the Bucks have been consistent, high-level contenders for the past five seasons. The Nuggets hadn’t advanced to the Finals before Jokic, with Canadian point guard Jamal Murray as his co-star, propelled a Denver team that should contend for a long time, too.
Beyond their appeal to a global audience, Antetokounmpo and Jokic have helped two forgotten American markets find relevance. And they don’t seem like the types to be easily seduced by the prospect of playing in larger cities, either. It’s another way to look at growth.
Jokic belongs to Denver. He belongs to Serbia. He belongs to the world.
It’s so much attention he probably wants to hide behind a tree. He can’t, though. He’s too big.
“The job is done,” Jokic told ESPN on the court shortly after the triumph. “We can go home now.”
You have to wonder if he’ll show up to the parade. When told afterward it was planned for Thursday, he insisted he needs to go home. To Serbia. He is the most circumspect celebrity in sports, and his unpretentious manner is now a covetable standard.
Jokic brings fresh flavor to stardom. The champagne-guzzling champ apologized for burping during a postgame news conference. He looked at his phone, exclaimed “Oh f—!” upon seeing all the text messages and declared he was going to turn it off. Give him a break. After averaging more than 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in the Finals, he deserves one.
The rise in international franchise players is both random and intentional. No one saw Jokic, the No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft, coming. Antetokounmpo, who was drafted 15th the year before, was a 190-pound string bean as a 19-year-old. Their development is mostly a credit to their desire. But the mission to seek talent across the globe has been a diligent NBA pursuit for more than three decades. And it started with a commitment to introduce the game worldwide, an effort that has only grown stronger over the years.
The NBA says during these Finals it has connected with fans in 214 countries and territories. The league and its worldwide media partners have been able to deliver games in 60 languages on television, computers and mobile devices. In addition, it has helped organize watch parties in countries spanning six continents.
In America, we looked at this matchup between the Nuggets and Miami Heat and wondered whether TV ratings would suffer because the matchup didn’t seem captivating enough. But the NBA has a broader view, and when considering the world, growth is not a concern. The league is busy activating markets eager to be activated.
“What we see is a lot of opportunity ahead of us,” said Matt Brabants, an NBA senior vice president and the head of international content partnerships. “We think, in some respects, we’ve just scratched the surface.”
With all of the international MVPs and championship influencers, with French phenom Victor Wembanyama highlighting the draft in less than two weeks, it looks like a golden age for players born outside the United States. The NBA doesn’t think so.
“If you’re talking about a golden age in terms of a high point, no,” Brabants said. “I think we still have heights to scale. We don’t, in the media space, take credit for international players who are transcendent. But we are proud of the fact that kids grew up watching and believing in what’s possible.”
Kostic and his television partner, Edin Avdic, have broadcast three straight Finals for Arena Sport. They remember vividly their first NBA Finals experience growing up in 1988 when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons in seven games. They were hooked. What’s crazy is that Finals also hooked me as a child.
“It was harder to follow then, but I loved it,” Kostic said. “I remember renting videotapes of NBA games. The video quality was poor, like it had been recorded over something else, but it was wonderful.”
Said Avdic: “I can’t remember how many times I watched the 1992 All-Star Game when Magic [Johnson] came back.”
“Basketball is a matter of national pride,” Kostic said of Serbia.
Finally, after producing so many high-caliber players, Serbia has witnessed The One. Jokic, as low-key as he is dominant, would be happy looking after his horses in Sombor. But he fell in love with basketball.
He had to find his way to the NBA.
The NBA had to find its way to him.