The itinerary was settled on Sunday, two days before the scheduled departure.
The Nuggets found out Nikola Jokic had won his second consecutive MVP several days earlier, but as it turns out, planning a covert, international surprise party takes time. Nuggets coach Michael Malone sent team president Tim Connelly a text.
“I said ‘Listen, man, no one other than you and me should be giving him this award over there,’” Malone said. “‘Whatever we have to do to make this happen, let’s go to Serbia and give him the award.’”
Flights were booked on Mother’s Day.
Among the traveling party — Connelly, Malone, assistant coach Ogi Stojakovic, strength coach Felipe Eichenberger, PR director Nick O’Hayre and cameraman Bob Nicolai — there was at least some discussion about being discreet. Translation: Don’t wear Nuggets paraphernalia at the airport.
As Tuesday approached, news of Jokic’s second consecutive MVP had already leaked. The Nuggets had always expected him to win, so that aspect of the surprise didn’t matter much. What mattered was keeping the presentation under wraps.
“We gotta be at the (horse) stables,” Connelly said. “How are we going to do this?”
The trip had a hiccup almost immediately. As O’Hayre went through security at Denver International Airport, his carry-on bag, toting a 40-pound solid crystal MVP trophy, got flagged.
Fearing any kind of public display, the bag got searched in a private room, away from prying eyes and nosy cameras. Beyond that early obstacle, the Nuggets were on their way to Sombor, Serbia, by way of Munich then Belgrade.
The initial foundation for the plan had been laid before they’d even lifted off. Nikola’s brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja, were stateside but they approved — and helped facilitate — the surprise. Typically protective of his offseason and hometown, Nikola normally wouldn’t want so many drop-in visitors. He’s fond of telling people where he’ll be in the offseason before adding a wry, cautionary note: “You won’t find me.”
The decision, on this occasion, wasn’t his to make. The Nuggets could’ve sent him the MVP trophy without any fanfare, effectively downplaying the accomplishment. They wanted to make it special.
With boots on the ground in Serbia, the choice was obvious. Nikola’s wife, Natalija, and his agent, Misko Raznatovic, were in on it, too. Outside of the presentation itself, the Nuggets were flying by the seat of their pants.
Once they landed Wednesday, Stojakovic, a native of Belgrade, was the obvious pick to drive the two hours to Sombor. To accommodate the traveling party, camera equipment and trophy itself, the group opted for a sprinter van. Malone rode shotgun, as Stojakovic, a history buff, navigated the slow, single-lane roads and narrated the history of the towns.
Nuggets governor Josh Kroenke landed at almost the same time. On his way to Sombor, his party was slightly ahead of the van and waited at a gas station near Jokic’s horse stable for the group to convene. It was there that the group all donned matching T-shirts.
“Some people want to see you fail,” the shirts read. “Disappoint them.”
Enthused and energetic, Connelly encouraged Nicolai, the cameraman, to start documenting.
“This is awesome,” Connelly said. “We’re at a gas station in Serbia right now, man!”
As the group hustled over to Jokic’s stables Wednesday afternoon, there was barely 10 minutes to spare. The jet-lagged crew, running high on adrenaline, had made it.
When Jokic turned the corner on his trotter, he was already being serenaded by a traditional Serbian song. The musicians, playing a tune about a long journey on horseback, were friends of the Jokic family.
The MVP’s smile beamed from 30 feet away. By the time he got closer, tears were welling beneath his sunglasses.
“You don’t see Nikola get emotional,” Malone said. “That, for me, that moment, was what made it special. … It was just so pure.”
Between his black socks, Nike tank top and riding helmet, it may have been the most unassuming coronation in NBA history. In other words, perfectly Jokic.
Photo provided by Nick O’Hayre, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic poses for a photo after being presented with his second consecutive NBA MVP award by Nuggets staff in Serbia.
“Somehow, everything happened effortlessly,” said Nebojsa Vagic, Jokic’s godfather. “It’s very hard to explain. It’s very emotional. … I’m gonna remember that — I don’t want to sound poetic — but probably forever. It was sunny, it was nice music, his horse and the coach were coming into the stable and everything was so close to perfect. He was thrilled with seeing all these guys from the States. … It was just fantastic.”
The scene evoked a rare side of Jokic and prompted many in the traveling party to get emotional, too.
“They just didn’t come around the corner,” Vagic said. “They came from the other part of the planet.”
The group sat at the stables drinking beer and Rakija before shuttling over to a remote farmhouse restaurant, known in Serbian as a Salas. Nikola’s parents, who were on hand for the surprise, had prepared the spread. After dinner, the plan was to head back to the stables for his TNT interview. But after the day’s surprise, the interview was the last thing on Jokic’s mind.
“The hardest working guys there were the three musicians,” Malone said. “They never stopped playing. … As we’re partying and we’re singing and we’re dancing and we’re drinking, it’s beer — which they call pivo — and it’s Rakija. Next thing you know, Nick goes, ‘Hey Joker, we gotta go back to the stables for your interview.’ And Nikola’s face, it was classic. He goes, ‘Brother, I’m drunk. I cannot do interview right now.’”
Jokic asked if they could postpone to the next day. That wasn’t happening.
“Ernie Johnson’s waiting for us,” Malone recounted.
Photo provided by Nick O’Hayre, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic waits for his national television interview with TNT’s Ernie Johnson in Sombor, Serbia.
The entire group shuttled back to the stables where they prepared the modest backdrop for a national audience: His favorite horse, Dream Catcher, in the background and the sun setting on a perfect Sombor evening.
Everything was picturesque and flawless until the WiFi on Jokic’s remote stable cut out. Connelly, Malone and Kroenke cackled at the chaos. For 20 unsettling minutes, it wasn’t clear whether Jokic’s interview with TNT was going to happen.
To the world’s benefit, it did.
“It was just so organic,” Connelly said. “It was exactly what he wanted.”
Back at the farmhouse after the TNT interview, several, including Jokic, warned his visitors about the potent effects of Rakija. Not all heeded the cautionary message.
But as the night carried on, with Jokic singing traditional Serbian tunes and Stojakovic translating, it turned into a moving, unforgettable evening for Jokic’s inner-circle.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with NBA, with fame,” Stojakovic said. “You’re so happy to be a part of the story.”
Added Malone: “I told him this that day. ‘The thing I’m more proud of than anything, Nikola, is not the MVPs, not the wins, it’s that in the seven years that I’ve been with you, I’ve seen you grow up, I’ve seen you mature, but at your core, in your heart, you haven’t changed. You haven’t allowed the fame, the success, the money to change who you are.’”
Even Kroenke, reveling in the spontaneous afternoon, danced to the “Kolo,” Serbia’s national folk dance.
“It was just smiling all the time,” Vagic said, “like I had a cramp in my face.”
A banner celebrating Nikola Jokic hangs from a building in Serbia. (Photo provided by Nick O’Hayre, Denver Nuggets)
On Thursday, Jokic had to fulfill his MVP news conference, but because of the eight-hour time difference, most of the traveling party had the day to kill.
Serbians are known to be hospitable, and Jokic was more than happy to show off Sombor’s quiet beauty. The group had lunch by a lake, dining on one of Jokic’s favorite meals: traditional fish stew.
Meanwhile, Kroenke, Connelly and Malone departed for London in anticipation of the day’s Tottenham-Arsenal match. The latter two sat in the vulgar away section as Arsenal, Kroenke’s Premier League outfit, fell 3-0 to its biggest rival.
But back in Sombor, Jokic was thrilled to share his favorite ice cream spot with those who remained. Beyond the treat itself, it was the chance for Jokic to open up his world to his American friends. The ice cream shop was a place Jokic had been going to for years. He was known there long before he became one of the greatest basketball players in the world.
“He’s the same person,” Stojakovic said.
By 5 p.m. local time (and 9 a.m. MT), the Nuggets had prepared Jokic for his Zoom press conference at his family’s secluded riverside home. As Jokic sat in front of the camera, barefoot and clad in a tank top and shorts, behind him was a sprawling green landscape. It was a perfect encapsulation of Sombor, said to be the greenest city in Serbia.
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Having to handle perhaps his last media obligation of the season, Jokic was at ease counting down the minutes until his MVP news conference was done. When the Nuggets planned the trip, they never intended to stay long. The point of the trip wasn’t to crowd his space or interfere with his simple life at home with his wife and daughter. It was to celebrate someone who, without a little urging, wouldn’t have celebrated himself.
“He’s a human, he keeps his emotions down, but he’s still young. I like when he feels those emotions,” Vagic said. “It’s good to let them go sometimes. I think it purifies him. … He has to perform, he has to be best every night, but I like when these things happen for him because in a way, he cures himself through the emotions. He keeps to himself all through the season, the pressure and the emotions and the thing he has to be the strongest every night.
“It takes a toll. It’s a heavy burden for him. I like when he reloads.”