CLEVELAND – Nikola Jokic sat down at his All-Star Game podium, but within minutes there was a Slovenian distraction.
Luka Doncic, seated to the right of Jokic, had stopped his news conference and was waving to Jokic from his seat. After acknowledging his friend and turning back to the media standing in front of him, Jokic whipped a squishy, palm-sized basketball at Doncic’s ribs. Like all of Jokic’s passes, this one connected, too.
Asked about his relationship with Doncic, Jokic, who was celebrating his 27th birthday on Saturday, deadpanned the dynamics of their friendship.
“I hate him,” he quipped.
By early afternoon, despite a public plea last month, Jokic hadn’t received any meaningful birthday gifts. He did say he planned on asking Chris Paul for a pair of shoes, though.
After finishing up practice with Team LeBron, which included Jokic attempting a hopeless through-the-legs dunk, the Nuggets’ four-time All-Star shared what this latest appearance meant to him. Doncic and fellow European Giannis Antetokounmpo all have a shared basketball identity. It’s the rest of the NBA hierarchy — LeBron James, Steph Curry and Paul — he’s seemingly won over, too.
“I think they just accept me,” Jokic told The Denver Post while walking in-between scheduled media stops. “I think that kind of shows the respect.”
The All-Star Game is not typically one for Jokic to shine. As his teammates rained in 3-pointers at Saturday’s All-Star practice, Jokic stood in his uniform rebounding for a number of his teammates.
His goal for Sunday’s All-Star Game showcase?
“Hopefully to score one point, somehow, and to have fun,” he said.
How could he not? The most low-maintenance superstar in the NBA is facing zero expectations in the game itself and is more than content – or perhaps indifferent – about how he’s perceived.
“I like it because I don’t have any pressure of, ‘Oh, everybody needs to like me,’” he said. “If they like me, they like me. If they don’t, they don’t.’”
Judging by his incessant hijinks, there’s not one teammate of his that doesn’t enjoy his company.
Saturday’s events, with his parents, brothers, wife and baby daughter all in attendance, proved markedly better than Friday’s debacle.
“I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “It didn’t start well. The travel and the flight and the ride it was not on time.”
But did it get any better?
“Actually, no, because my daughter didn’t sleep at all the whole night,” he said.
But between questions that asked Jokic to speak in both Russian and Portuguese (seriously), the affable big man seemed to enjoy himself with the low-key nature of the event.
He got serious for a second while speaking to his surging Nuggets team — “We just fight. That’s the word for us right now, just fight.” — but for the most part, Joker was carefree and in his element.
As he was leaving, Jokic found his errant basketball that he’d already pinged Doncic with. He wound up and nailed him one more time for good measure. Then he chased down the ball amid a scrum of reporters.
“It’s for my nephew,” he said.