Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth had never been to Sombor, Serbia.
He wasn’t there when a contingent of Nuggets executives showed up, unannounced, at Nikola Jokic’s horse stables to present him with his second consecutive MVP in mid-May. Although he’d been to Serbia before, Booth had never taken the two-hour trek north from Belgrade to Jokic’s hometown.
In the aftermath of former president Tim Connelly’s abrupt departure to Minnesota, it was Booth’s turn.
At the start of free agency, the Nuggets’ top decision-maker was en route to Sombor to secure a commitment from Jokic on what would become the largest contract in NBA history: five years for $270 million, with a player option for the final year. Keeping Jokic all but assured the Nuggets will remain competitive for five more years, keeping the window open for the franchise’s first title.
“Honestly, it’s an honor,” Nuggets governor Josh Kroenke told The Denver Post. “To present a contract like that obviously speaks to the player, a two-time MVP, but I always talk about the person when you talk about Nikola. When you’re giving out a contract like that, you’re obviously rewarding the player, but you’re keeping the right mind of who the person is that you’re rewarding it to because you’re betting on the future. And we’ll bet on the future all day long with Nikola Jokic.”
The Nuggets were confident Jokic would sign the supermax extension, but about a week before free agency opened, Booth, assistant GM Tommy Balcetis and Jokic’s two brothers met for lunch to address questions they had after Connelly’s exit. Jokic’s brothers knew Nikola would command a supermax deal, but the lunch aligned both parties about the direction the Nuggets were headed.
As the NBA world convened in Las Vegas this past week for summer league, Kevin Durant’s seismic trade request consumed conservations in every corner. Beyond that, there was considerable chatter about whether Utah would entertain trade offers for Donovan Mitchell. With that backdrop, it further crystallized how fortunate Denver’s situation has become. Not only do the Nuggets have a foundational cornerstone in Jokic, but he’s about as low maintenance as superstars get.
While it was technically a business trip, the excursion to Serbia was also a chance for Booth to get a new perspective on Jokic and see him in his most comfortable environment. Booth was on the ground for just 40 hours. His roundtrip flights had taken him 24.
Booth arrived in Serbia and spent the initial night in Belgrade. He, Nuggets assistant coach Ogi Stojakovic and Jokic’s European agent, Misko Raznatovic, had dinner together before the next day’s drive.
“Sombor’s a little different than Belgrade,” Booth said with a smile.
Just as he’d done two months earlier ahead of the Nuggets’ international surprise party, Stojakovic drove the familiar route north. Raznatovic rode separately. The first stop was at Jokic’s parents’ house where the group convened. The next was at Moj Salas, a remote restaurant in a field about five miles outside of the city. Those who were there recall it being among the hottest days of the year.
The group arrived around 3 p.m. with a spread of traditional Serbian food awaiting them. Unlike the MVP party, which was a bit larger than his closest confidantes, the people there to celebrate the agreement were Jokic’s tightest circle of family and friends.
“MVP party was like a party-party, crazy, emotional, exciting, surprise,” Stojakovic said. “This was kind of like a family reunion.”
There was Booth, Raznatovic, Stojakovic and his wife, Jokic’s wife, Natalija, his brother Nemanja’s family, and his parents. Strahinja was “there in spirit,” according to Booth, FaceTiming from the States.
As with any Jokic party, there were also two musicians to orchestrate a jovial soundtrack for the event. The two guitar players were friends of Nikola’s.
Amid the rejoicing, with traditional dishes, rakija and song, Jokic and his wife couldn’t help but dance. The occasion marked a triumphant moment for the Jokic family, and even though it was expected, there was a palpable relief that Jokic didn’t need to think about the contract anymore. (The deal was signed and became official on July 8.)
Happy and content, Booth was struck by another aspect of the gathering that might be synonymous with the entire Jokic ethos.
“None of their kids ever cry,” Booth said. “They all just smile and are happy because the energy’s so chill. That was probably the most startling thing to me. Especially his little one … She’s the happiest little baby in the world.”
By 9 p.m., with both hearts and bellies full, Stojakovic and Booth headed back to Belgrade before their flights the next day.
“We were joking, like, ‘Man, I can’t go wrong with my first signing,’” Booth said. “This is a pretty good first signing.”
In the days following the historic agreement, Jokic’s offseason whereabouts populated all sorts of social media channels. He danced shirtless around a fire, went rafting with a few members of his family, and indulged in a giddy karaoke session that was filmed by his wife.
His most popular social media sighting, however, came when Raznatovic shared a picture of 5-year-old Nikola, improbably, wearing a Nuggets sweatshirt. The other kid in the photo gave it to Jokic’s father a while ago. He and Raznatovic agreed to hang onto it until a special occasion. That Jokic went on to sign the largest deal in NBA history with the Nuggets, some 22 years later, felt like fate.
— Mike Singer (@msinger) July 9, 2022
In the wake of the excitement, two theories emerged on Jokic’s apparent happiness. One was that Jokic might be savoring his offseason before he reports for the Serbian national team ahead of EuroBasket later this summer. The other theory, according to his godfather Nebojsa Vagic?
“He’s being surrounded by people who truly love him, and he trusts them,” he said.