Serbia-Greece, Jokic vs. Giannis at Stark Arena in Belgrade was everything.

First off, the pageantry. Novak Djokovic walked in around 30 minutes before tip-off and got an instant standing ovation. He was followed by one Serbian basketball visionary after another. As each legendary coach and player walked into the arena, they were each greeted with their own applause. I got chills. It was so cool to witness live and just another example of the basketball and sports tradition in this country. The passion for basketball and the wide cultural lane it fills in Serbia has been a lasting takeaway from this trip.

And then the game. Across our two meet-ups with fans this week in Belgrade, both of which will be life-long memories, I told everyone who listened that I was expecting a classic. I was expecting a close game between the two players who I consider the best in the league (Jokic is No. 1, Giannis is No. 2). I expected each individual player to deliver too.

They did just that.

Being in that building with that crowd and watching those two players will be something I’ll never forget. It was legendary. It was the loudest basketball game I’ve ever been to, and I didn’t have to think too hard to make that statement. Every single player who walked on that floor had to be tough as nails. That environment surely isn’t for everyone.

Giannis was great, but Jokic was better. At some point in the second half, it started to feel like we were in for a classic Jokic fourth quarter. I mean, I’ve seen that story too many times before. You just know when it’s coming. Serbia’s role players were up to the task too, which I felt like was the difference in the game. It was a must-win for Serbia, who needed a victory to keep their 2023 World Cup qualifying hopes alive.

“What did you guys think of that atmosphere?” Jokic asked us when we saw him postgame outside of Serbia’s locker room.

Now I know why he’s never rattled by an NBA crowd.

The game served as a perfect cap on the trip of a lifetime. All week long we’ve been learning about Serbian basketball and the great history of the sport here. We’ve learned about the legendary coaches and godfathers of Serbian basketball who turned the sport into what it is today. We’ve gone to the arenas where so many historic domestic and international games have been played. We’ve spoken with the diehards across this country who are some of the smartest basketball fans I’ve interacted with. All of it has led me to this conclusion: This is a proud, proud country who demands excellence.

That’s what Jokic gave to his coutnryman in Belgrade.

I’ve thought a lot this week about the pressure Jokic is under this summer playing for his home country. Here, a gold medal at EuroBasket next month or the World Cup next year would mean so much more than another MVP or Nuggets championship. A gold medal here in Serbia instantly vaults a player into royalty. Even though Jokic is the best Serbian player in his country’s history, in my opinion, he’s not typically regarded by most Serbian’s as that from what I’ve gathered. It’s simply becasue he hasn’t brought home a gold for Team Serbia in an international competition. That excellence is what this country expects.

And I understand it. Being here for just one week, I get why anything less than gold for this country is a disappointment. I was able to really appreciate that storied tradition of basketball here and why it’s taken so seriously. I have a new appreciation for it now. It’s an appreciation I’d never have if I didn’t come to Serbia. Here, basketball is a sport that’s engrained into the fabric of society at a level that it’s just not in the United States.

It won’t be Jokic’s fault if Serbia doesn’t emerge with a gold at EuroBasket this summer. This isn’t the strongest Serbian team and injuries to Nemanja Bjelica and Vasilije Micic have already been storylines this summer. But Jokic looks like he’s in top form. He looks better right now than he was last season in Denver, and I don’t say that lightly. Jokic looks quicker in the paint but just as powerful in the post. He had zero problems being guarded by Giannis. His touch was incredible vs. Greece too. He also looks confident, like almost cocky. It’s like he walked on that court vs. Greece and knew he was the best player out there.

As we leave Serbia after an incredible week here, all I can say is thank you. Thank you to the incredible people of Serbia who welcomed us into this country with open arms and helped give us the week of our lives. We were so eager to learn about Serbian culture, basketball and the people here. It’s why we came to Serbia in the first place. And the great people of this country were so open and eager to share their culture and way of life with us. The hospitality and generosity we experienced here is something I’ll remember forever.

Thank you, Serbia.

Author

Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. The University of Colorado alum grew up in Boulder and has covered the Nuggets for the last three seasons. You can hear him every weekday on the DNVR Nuggets podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind

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