Nikola Jokic didn’t have to be at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children two Christmases ago. But of course, he showed up, dressed in a Nuggets sweatsuit and blue and yellow Santa hat to give out holiday gifts that included a Jamal Murray jersey and signed Nuggets basketball to children in need with former teammate Juancho Hernangomez.
It’s a trip Jokic has made before and one he’ll make again. The RMHC cares for thousands of children every year, some of whom are facing life-threatening diseases or illnesses. Jokic visits with the hope that he can simply brighten someone’s day.
On a 2018 visit, Jokic met a young boy, who according to the nurses and doctors that the Nuggets’ All-Star talked to that day, had been suffering from depression for the last two months as a result of a recent diagnosis. He didn’t want to be around people, but when Jokic and Hernangomez entered the room the boy smiled, something he hadn’t done too often over the last few months.
Tears were shed. Hugs were shared.
“It’s a great thing when you can put a smile on a kid’s face,” Jokic said. “That just shows how we can impact the lives of other people. It’s not just about basketball. We’re going to stop playing basketball in 10 years or maybe tomorrow, you never know. But while you’re playing you can have a big impact on the kids and their families.”
Jokic stayed at RMHC for much longer than he was scheduled to that day because he wanted to meet with as many children as he could. He knew a visit from him was going to make those kids’ days, months, years, and maybe lives.
“I love it just because you can see they’re really happy,” Jokic said. “We are their heroes in some way and they just can’t wait to see us. When me and Juancho went they were waiting for us. They were like, ‘Are they going to come? Are they going to come?’ It’s kind of cool just to be around them, just to give them advice, just to talk, just to see them smile.”
That same dedication and enthusiasm Jokic often shows around children was on display two months ago when the Nuggets hosted 150 Special Olympics athletes at Pepsi Center. Jokic was where else, positioned at the event’s passing station instructing Special Olympians how to throw the perfect chest pass. That afternoon he went above and beyond like he always does at these events and took kids aside for individual 1-on-1 coaching sessions. He even bonded with one athlete over a mutual love of horses that the two of them shared.
After the event ended Jokic stood patiently at the scorer’s table for an extra 20 minutes fulfilling every autograph and picture request from a line of Special Olympians that spanned nearly the full length of the floor.
“I think it’s one of my favorite things to do with the team just because it’s great to see the Special Olympic kids,” Jokic said. “They’re really trying. They’re happy to see us. Just to give them advice or just to talk to them. They just like to talk. They just like to be around us so that’s pretty cool.”
As Jokic takes the floor for his second All-Star game, his on-court resume and accomplishments will be highlighted. Jokic is having another brilliant season for the 38-17 Nuggets who are currently second in the Western Conference. He’s pacing a Nuggets offense towards another top-7 ranking for the fourth-straight season and 50-plus wins for a second consecutive year.
Jokic’s current stat line — 20.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game — has only been replicated by three players ever (Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Russell Westbrook). He’s hit four game-winners this year and is shooting an absurd 50% from the field in clutch situations (when the score is within five points with five minutes or less remaining), trailing just Chris Paul among players who have attempted at least 50 clutch field goals. In the last 60 seconds of games, Jokic is even more clutch. He’s shooting 11 of 18 in the last minute of regulation this season.
His commanding presence on the low block causes opposing coaches to craft intricate defensive game plans that are designed to get the ball out of his hands and force someone else to make a play. From the top of the 3-point arc, Jokic’s computerized basketball IQ allows him to see the floor and carve up opposing defenses with pin-point passes like no big man has done before.
Jokic has recaptured the title of “best shooter from the coveted 5-9 ft. range” too, converting on 61.2% of his shots from that distance, the best in the league from that area of the floor by a hilariously wide margin. He’s also grown as a defensive player and leader this season, much to the satisfaction of Nuggets’ brass who have entrusted the 24-year-old with the fate of their franchise.
But with Jokic, there’s a part of me that always circles back to this fact: Amid Jokic’s rise and transformation from an unheralded second-round pick in 2014 to the face of not only a basketball franchise but also a country, his refreshing and organic personality and love and compassion for children hasn’t faded. It was with him when he entered the NBA and is still — even after a $148 million max contract — one of his defining qualities today.
It was on display again to open All-Star Weekend when Jokic arrived in Chicago and immediately put on his best Michael Malone impression, passionately coaching a team of Special Olympians in Friday’s Unified Game. Nuggets staffers often remark that Jokic is happiest when he’s around kids.
Not every NBA player is this way. In fact, few are.
But why is Jokic? Will Barton has shared a locker room with Jokic since the now fifth-year pro’s rookie season.
“He had no expectations coming into the league as the 41st pick,” Barton said. “I don’t even know if he or the team knew that they were going to bring him over from Europe his first year, so he was just happy to be here. When that’s his mindset going in it’s going to be really hard for him to change because that’s in his DNA no matter what. No matter the money, no matter that attention he gets, at heart he’s still that kid.”
That almost innocent, selfless nature that Jokic displays around children shows up on the court too. Jokic famously said in 2017 that the reason he prefers to pass rather than score is because, “Passing makes two people happy. Scoring only makes one person happy.”
Jokic deserves all the attention but wants none of it. He’s the most unselfish superstar in the league.
“He doesn’t play for accolades,” Barton said. “He just plays for the pure joy of the game.”
When Jokic takes the floor Sunday evening in Chicago he’ll become the 10th Denver Nugget to play in multiple All-Star games and the first to do it in consecutive seasons since Carmelo Anthony.
Jokic will be representing the Nuggets but also all of the kids whose lives he’s touched, changed, and impacted along the way.