Serbia-Greece, Jokic vs. Giannis at Stark Arena in Belgrade was everything.
First, the spectacle. Novak Djokovic entered about 30 minutes before tip-off and received an immediate standing ovation. He was followed by a visionary of Serbian basketball, one after another. As each legendary coach and player entered the arena, each was greeted with their own standing ovation. I got chills. It was very interesting to witness live and just another example of the tradition of basketball and sports in this country. The passion for basketball and the wide cultural lane it fills in Serbia has been a lasting takeaway from this trip.
And then the game. During our two fan meetings this week in Belgrade, both of which will be lifelong memories, I told everyone who would listen that I was expecting a classic. I expected a close matchup between two players I consider the best in the league (Jokic is No. 1, Giannis is No. 2). I expected each individual player to deliver as well.
They did just that.
Being in that building with that crowd and watching those two players will be something I’ll never forget. It was legendary. It was the loudest basketball game I’ve ever been to, and I didn’t have to think too hard to make that statement. Every single player who walked on that floor had to be tough as nails. This environment is certainly not for everyone.
Giannis was great, but Jokic was better. At one point in the second half, it started to feel like we were in for a classic Jokic fourth quarter. I mean, I’ve seen that story many times before. You only know when it will come. Serbia’s players were also up to the task, which I felt was the difference in the game. It was a must-win for Serbia, who needed a win to keep their 2023 World Cup qualification hopes alive.
“What do you guys think of that vibe?” Jokic asked us when we saw him after the game outside the Serbia dressing room.
Now I know why he’s never been rocked by an NBA crowd.
The game served as a perfect cap to the journey of life. All week we have been learning about Serbian basketball and the great history of the sport here. We learned about the legendary coaches and godfathers of Serbian basketball who turned the sport into what it is today. We have gone to the arenas where so many historic domestic and international games have been played. We’ve talked to brave people all over this country who are some of the smartest basketball fans I’ve ever interacted with. All of this has led me to this conclusion: This is a proud, proud country that demands excellence.
This is what Jokic gave to his compatriot in Belgrade.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the pressure Jokic is under this summer playing for his country. Here, a gold medal at EuroBasket next month or the World Cup next year means a lot more than another MVP or Nuggets championship. A gold medal here in Serbia immediately returns a player to the reigns. Although Jokic is the best Serbian player in his country’s history, in my opinion, he is not usually considered by most Serbians to be that from what I gather. Simply because he has not brought a gold medal for the Serbian team in an international competition. This perfection is what this place awaits.
And I understand. Having only been here a week, I can see why anything less than gold for this place is a disappointment. I was able to really appreciate the well-known tradition of basketball here and why it is taken so seriously. I have a new appreciation for it now. It’s an appreciation that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t come to Serbia. Here, basketball is a sport that is ingrained in the fabric of society on a level that simply isn’t in the United States.
It won’t be Jokic’s fault if Serbia doesn’t come away with a gold at EuroBasket this summer. This is not the strongest Serbian team and the injuries to Nemanja Bjelica and Vasilije Micic have already made history this summer. But Jokic seems to be in good shape. He looks better now than he did last season in Denver, and I don’t say that lightly. Jokic looks quicker in the paint but just as powerful in the post. He had zero problems being guarded by Giannis. His touch was incredible even against Greece. He also seems confident, like almost cocky. It’s like he walked onto that pitch against Greece and knew he was the best player there.
As we leave Serbia after an incredible week here, all I can say is thank you. Thank you to the incredible people of Serbia who welcomed us to this country with open arms and helped us give the week of our lives. We were very eager to learn about Serbian culture, basketball and the people here. This is why we came to Serbia in the first place. And the great people of this country were so open and eager to share their culture and way of life with us. The hospitality and generosity we experienced here is something I will remember forever.
Thank you Serbia.