SOMBOR, Serbia (AP) — It was barely dawn when Nikola Jokic’s hardcore fans in his Serbian hometown of Sombor chanted “MVP! MVP!” and celebrated the Denver Nuggets’ first NBA title.
Denver trailed the Miami Heat at halftime of Game 5 but rallied to win 94-89, with two-time league MVP Jokic posting 28 points and 16 rebounds and collecting the trophy for the most valuable player of the NBA Finals.
Every shot, rebound or block the Serb center made sparked loud cheers and shouts in a decrepit sports hall in the small and otherwise sleepy northern Serbian city near the borders with Croatia and Hungary where fans watched the game on a large screen.
The loudest ovation came when the typically humble and stone-faced Jokic said in a post-game, on-court interview: “It’s time to go home.”
Soon, those fans who spent sleepless nights watching the NBA Finals will see him in person as he returns home to take care of his racehorses.
For the small Balkan state of just over 6 million people, June has been a month few will ever forget. A Serbian sweep gave Jokic his first NBA ring and tennis star Novak Djokovic a record-setting 23rd Grand Slam singles title when he won the French Open on Sunday.
“It’s just amazing,” Jokic’s father Branislav, who runs a local harness racing club on the outskirts of Sombor, said in an interview. “I don’t think this great accomplishment can ever be repeated again.”
The stables are called the Dream Catcher after the name of the first racehorse that Jokic ever purchased years ago, as he developed a strong passion for horses and horse racing.
Not far away is a basketball court where Jokic first trained near his elementary school, which features a large wall painting of him in a Nuggets’ No. 15 jersey and an inscription: “Don’t be Afraid to Fail Big.”
Branislav Jokic, wearing a blue Denver Nuggets jersey, said that nobody could have predicted Nikola’s success as a basketball player as he progressed from a small-town talent, “who was a bit overweight at one point,” to moving to the regional league and then signing his first contract with the Nuggets.
“He had something special within him. I rarely mention it today, but I simply knew that he would be a good basketball player,” he said. “But as to what heights he would reach, nobody could have known then.”
Branislav Jokic said that although his son has trained hard to reach the top level, his mind was always set on a love of horses.
“He started growing, both in height and in size, and he started to become aware that he could be a basketball player, but he had a great desire in those days. He would say, ‘Dad, I want to become a horseman.’ And I used to tell him: ‘Son, become a basketball player first, and you’ll become a great horseman later,’” Branislav Jokic said.
Jokic became the lowest drafted player — 41st overall in the second round in 2014 — to win the MVP of the finals. He also became only the third second-round pick to win the award.
Jokic also became the first player in NBA history to lead the playoffs in points scored, rebounds and assists. With 600 points, 269 rebounds and 190 assists in total, he led in all three categories.
Jokic and Djokovic, once-in-a-generation athletes who grew up about a 2 1/2 hour-drive apart in a country not much more populous than Colorado, have been in the hunt to win titles and reach records that stamped their names in the history books.
“Sport is something that is special in Serbia. We have Novak, who is probably the best ever, Novak is the best ever for us, now we have an NBA champion,” Jokic said in a news conference. “It’s a very good feeling to be a Serb now.”