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Novak Djokovic discusses friendship with Nikola Jokic: “It’s just amazing he’s from Serbia”

LOS ANGELES — The Djoker was mid-monologue about the Joker when a tap on the shoulder interrupted him.

Speak of the devil.

“I’m talking about the legend,” a beaming Novak Djokovic told Nikola Jokic, who had wandered over to investigate the interview.

Nuggets players, coaches and front office staff were still milling about as Djokovic held court outside the visiting locker room. He had been sitting courtside for LeBron James’ 40,000th career point, and for Denver’s comeback to spoil the milestone. After a 124-114 win over the Lakers, almost everybody in the team’s traveling party was eager for Jokic to introduce them to the top-ranked tennis player in the world.

Djokovic recalled watching Jokic play in Serbia once. And another time in Turkey, when Jokic was suiting up for the Serbian national team. But this was Djokovic’s first time rooting for his friend live at an NBA game. Jokic supplied 35 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

So, as he was saying …

“What he has done for not just Serbian basketball but European basketball in general is incredible,” Djokovic continued after Jokic turned the other way. “He has rewritten the history books in the last three years, and he just keeps going. He is in his prime. He’s the best. We’re super proud of him. I’m a great supporter of him, everything he does. We didn’t have too many athletes like him in the history (of Serbia), so he’s right up there. And he still isn’t finished.”

Djokovic’s date was Vlade Divac, a former NBA All-Star who’s also considered Serbian sports royalty. “But what Nikola’s doing is a different level,” Djokovic told The Denver Post in an exclusive interview. In fact, Jokic seems to be ascending toward a stratosphere within the nation’s history occupied only by Djokovic, the record-holding 24-time Grand Slam winner who has spent more than 400 weeks atop the world ranking.

“Like a bright star to most of people back home,” as Jokic put it. “… Probably it’s gonna (be) a long, long time and years before anybody like him is gonna show up again.”

“You have the best tennis player in the world, and you have the best basketball player in the world — according to my opinion,” said Nuggets assistant coach Ogi Stojakovic, who helped coach the Serbian national team to a FIBA World Cup silver medal last summer. “They support each other. It was really cool. You can kind of feel proud you’re a small piece, small part of that.”

Twenty-one-year-old Nuggets wing Peyton Watson wanted a photo with both Djokovic and Jokic to capture the scale of the moment. A group of Denver’s coaches and security officials posed for another with the duo plus Divac. Michael Malone’s daughters “couldn’t get over it” when they saw the pictures on social media. Players wandered in and out of the locker room. It was a postgame mini-reception, and Djokovic was the center of gravity.

“It was awesome. You’re talking about arguably — I know it’s a very hot-button topic — the greatest tennis player of all time,” Malone said. “One of the greatest athletes of all time. … And what really struck me when I went over and spoke with him was how engaging he was, how much he knew about our team, how complimentary he was about what we’re doing and how we play, and him being aware of all the times I’ve gone over to Serbia and how much that means to their country, his country. So it was a big hit.”

Djokovic considers basketball the “No. 1 sport” in Serbia. He’s enough of a hoops fan to remember Jokic playing in the Serbian and Adriatic leagues as a fringe NBA prospect a decade ago. Eventually, as Jokic’s status grew, the two athletes met through mutual friends. They ran into each other at a couple of sporting events in Serbia. They developed a mutual fandom that extended to congratulatory texts from Djokovic to Jokic during the Nuggets’ 2023 playoff run.

“We always followed each other’s careers and respected and admired each other,” Djokovic said. “So now I think the more time passes by, the more we appreciate each other and what we are doing professionally. But also privately, I think we click really well. He’s a family-oriented guy like myself. He’s really close with his family, with his origins, with his country, with his city. And it’s very important obviously to never forget where you came from. He reached the summit of one of the most important sports in the world and is one of the most recognized athletes in the world. It’s just amazing he’s from Serbia.”

Djokovic is from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, but he’s decently acquainted with Sombor, the small city in the northeastern region of the country that Jokic calls home. The 36-year-old said he remembers going to Sombor for tennis tournaments when he was a child. “But I’ve never been to (Jokic’s) place,” Djokovic added, because the summer months that Jokic spends in Sombor coincide with the heart of Grand Slam season. When Djokovic has more down time, Jokic is playing 82 games overseas in the U.S.

Timing finally lined up perfectly with the Nuggets’ trip to Los Angeles occurring days before the Indian Wells Open.

“I never got an invitation for one of his horse races, you know?” Djokovic said, grinning. “Hopefully. Hopefully. Very select group. A select few people get that.”

While he waits for that invitation, he feels fortunate to have witnessed a fitting display of Denver’s clutch pedigree.

“Unbelievable. It’s incredible how he elevated his game when it mattered the most,” Djokovic said. “And the whole team. We all know how good he is, and we all know what he’s capable of, and we all know he can score 50 points every game. But he chooses not to because at the end of the day, it’s a team effort. It’s a team sport. And they all play together with great chemistry. The way they communicate on the court, they’re such a great team. And they’re family. I love that. I come from an individual sport, so it’s different obviously. So for me to see that dynamic of relationship, communication, how they elevate each other’s game and encourage each other, it’s just amazing.

“They just, literally in the last three minutes, like, skyrocketed to a 10-point victory. Just awesome. Awesome to see. That’s why they’re NBA champs. And I hope they’ll win another ring.”

With a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics already clinched for Serbia, Djokovic has the same confidence in his country’s basketball program. Last summer, the Old Palace balcony in Belgrade became center stage for a massive party taking place on the streets below. Djokovic was celebrating his Wimbledon title. Members of the Serbian national team, including Stojakovic, were celebrating their silver medal. They all occupied the balcony together. But Stojakovic didn’t introduce himself to Djokovic. He was thinking about his friend’s tiring experience with fame.

“I didn’t want to bother (Djokovic) because everybody was bothering him,” Stojakovic explained. “I know how difficult it’s like with Nikola.”

Stojakovic and Djokovic finally shook hands in Los Angeles instead. Stojakovic brought up the celebration, how they both shared that same space a few months back.

“I’ll see you on the balcony again this year,” Djokovic responded.

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