The car ride that transformed Nikola Jokic into an MVP — and changed the NBA forever

IT WAS A suggestion at first. The kind of thing a friend brings up during a long car ride when there will be plenty of time to discuss it. And in the winter of 2019, Denver Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger had his pick of long car rides to the airport with star center Nikola Jokic to choose from.

The two had grown close in the four years they’d worked together. Eichenberger spent a month with Jokic in the big man’s native Serbia each offseason. Jokic was present when Eichenberger’s daughter was born — and for all of her birthday parties afterward. Before games, Jokic often went into Eichenberger’s office to escape the noise of the locker room.

Jokic had started talking with his friend and training coach about getting in better shape. He’d text Eichenberger a bodybuilding video and would then joke he wanted to look like that someday. Or he’d mention that his knees or back hurt after games and would ask Eichenberger if losing weight might help with that.

For years, Jokic had been told by coaches, executives and talking heads in the media that he needed to get in better condition if he wanted to succeed in the NBA. But now it was coming from within.

It was time for Jokic to hear this.

“You can be MVP in this league,” Eichenberger told him.

Jokic had just been named to his first All-Star team. He had won a Player of the Week award in early February. The Nuggets were in first place in their division. Everything was trending upward. Which meant it was time to start pushing Jokic to an uncomfortable place: superstardom.

“He got mad at me,” Eichenberger says, laughing at the memory. “He got pretty heated. He’s like, ‘That’s not the player I am. I pass more than I score. … I’m not selfish.'”

For those who know Jokic, who will be playing in his first NBA Finals against the Miami Heat beginning with Thursday’s Game 1 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), this was not an unexpected response.

“I never coached Tim Duncan, but I always compare him to Tim Duncan,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone tells ESPN. “He’s just a selfless superstar who’s almost embarrassed by the attention.

“He’s not beating his chest, saying, ‘Look at me.’ He’s saying, ‘Hey, look at us. This is a group.'”

Eichenberger knew going into the conversation he might touch a nerve. But that was the point. And the ride to the Denver airport was at least 25 miles. So he dove in further.

“I knew he wanted to work,” Eichenberger says. “He was always willing to work.”

So rather than try to untangle the self-consciousness that the MVP talk was triggering, Eichenberger laid out a plan for Jokic to transform his body.

Focus on the work, not what it means to be an MVP.

Jokic thought about it for a little bit before answering.

“OK,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

After every game, no matter how many minutes he played, they’d lift weights. He would change his diet, cutting out as many indulgences as possible, which meant no soda, no beer, no snacks while he played video games.

An exception was made for orange juice and the occasional bite of his mother’s cooking, when she visited from Serbia. But just a bite. “I actually told him to enjoy his mom’s food after games,” Eichenberger says. “Like, come on, you can’t not eat your mother’s cooking.”

“But once he gets something in his head,” Eichenberger adds, “that’s how it’s going to be.”

OVER THE REST of that 2018-19 season, Jokic adhered to this routine religiously, even lifting after playing 64 minutes in a four-overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series.

Denver ended up falling to Portland in seven games, and while Jokic led the team in every category — averaging 27.1 points and 13.9 rebounds in 42 minutes a game — he had worn down as the series went on.

By the end of Game 7, he had nothing left. He missed seven of 10 shots in the fourth quarter, unable to carry his team across the finish line.

It was a devastating defeat. The Nuggets had been up by 11 points at home midway through the third quarter. All they had to do was finish and they’d be in the Western Conference finals against a Golden State Warriors team that was dealing with injuries and chemistry issues.

Afterward, as Malone huddled the Nuggets coaches in the locker room, they heard a knock at the door.

It was Jokic. He had come to tell them he’d never let that happen again.

David Adelman remembers the sentiment in Jokic’s voice as much as what he said.

“He was emotional when he came in,” said Adelman, the lead offensive assistant coach for the Nuggets. “I think he felt like he wore down in the second half, and we all looked at him like, ‘Joker. You carried us through this whole process.’

“The responsibility he has for us is different than maybe any player in the NBA. He can be our center. He can be our point guard. He can play the wing. He can be a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s playing every part of the floor.”

But Jokic was not interested in any consolations. He had finally felt what he and Eichenberger had been talking about: Everything he had was not enough to win. There was another level he needed to get to.

“I mean, he gave everything he had possible,” Adelman said. “But then I think he, in his mind, thought, ‘Maybe I can give more. Maybe if I get in even better shape. Maybe if I do this.'”

And so he did.

BY THE TIME Jokic returned to training camp in the fall of 2019, the change in his physique was striking. He was leaner and stronger, having lost 20 to 30 pounds while gaining muscle everywhere. The effect of this change became immediate on the court. Jokic played in every regular-season and playoff game, finishing ninth in MVP voting and leading Denver to the Western Conference finals in 2020.

“He lost 10 pounds, and he’s like, ‘It feels good.’ He lost 20 pounds, and he’s like, ‘Wow. I can dunk now?'” Eichenberger said. “He lost 30 pounds. Like, ‘Wow. I can really sprint.'”

During the four-month shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jokic kept training and eating healthily. So much so that photos of him taken at a gym in Serbia went viral on social media.

Was that Jokic or tennis player Novak Djokovic?

Former teammate Jameer Nelson texted Jokic immediately after seeing the photos.

“When you do something like that, you deliver a message to your teammates,” Nelson told ESPN. “When you do something for your body or your mind like he did, the way he did it, everybody gets stronger.”

Nelson, a 2004 first-round pick and 2009 All-Star, had played with Jokic in Denver from 2015 to 2018, and like most people who knew Jokic early in his career, he cannot say he saw this kind of transformation coming.

“His skill level was high,” Nelson said. “But obviously, I didn’t know he’d be an MVP.”

At the beginning of Jokic’s rookie season in 2015, Nelson had organized a voluntary camp for the team near his home in suburban Philadelphia right before training camp.

He put guys up at the local Marriott hotel, put them through his offseason conditioning workouts at a local gym, then organized paintball and golf outings during their free time. Jokic was just looking to make an impression and, hopefully, the roster that fall.

There were no coaches there. But toward the end of the week, then-Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly called Nelson to check in.

“Who looks the best?” Connelly asked Nelson.

“The foreign kid,” Nelson told him. “I don’t really know his name, but once he learns English and gets in better shape, he’s going to be really good.”

JUSUF NURKIC WAS one of the only people who knew anything about Jokic when he came to Nelson’s camp that fall. They’d played against each other in the Adriatic league as teenagers.

But whereas Nurkic, the Bosnian center, had been invited to the green room in New York as a projected first-round pick in 2014, Jokic was asleep back in Serbia when his name was finally called late in the second round, while the broadcast was airing a Taco Bell commercial.

“He played exactly the same style as he does now,” Nurkic told ESPN. “But it was a different type of basketball. The pace was totally different. So I don’t think people could really see what he could be.”

It is important to remember this about Jokic’s background when you hear him talk now. He’ll say he never expected to make it to the NBA, much less win two MVP awards, and people assume he is just being modest.

But this is not an act. He’s just modest.

You notice it as he covers his mouth when he has to talk about himself publicly. Or in his self-deprecating jokes about his English or always being a bit off-balance on the court.

On Saturday, prior to the 2023 NBA Finals, he was asked when he realized it might be possible for him to win an MVP award one day and whether it was true Eichenberger had planted that seed.

“I mean, still isn’t,” he said with a shrug. “But yeah, that’s true. Felipe was the first guy who told me I was going to be an MVP. It was a car drive to the airport. I remember … I was laughing.

“To be honest, I’m playing the same way since my days in Sombor [Serbia]. I didn’t change. Maybe I upgrade a little bit, but I didn’t trade my style or play since day one.”

Jokic is underselling himself. Of course he has upgraded since coming to the NBA. He has transformed his body from a chubby, soda-guzzling teenager into a fit, 28-year-old, triple-double generator.

“He’s an ultra-conditioned athlete now,” Malone said after the Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. “The guy can play for minutes on top of minutes and play at a high level.

“He made that turn. And his dedication from that point on has allowed him to become a two-time MVP.”

THE NIGHT THE Nuggets swept the Lakers to advance to the NBA Finals was supposed to feel like a culmination of everything Denver had been through. For the faith the Nuggets had shown in their core of Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. over the previous five years. For the patience they’ve had through significant injuries and setbacks. For the vision they’d had in drafting those players in the first place and the way they’ve built around them since.

But Jokic found himself strangely unsatisfied and restless during the long break they had until the start of the Finals.

“To be honest … I thought it was going to be a much bigger feeling,” he said on Saturday. “Yes, we won the game, and I was really happy. Yes, we made history. This, that. But next year, nobody is going to remember us. Maybe if we win it all, maybe it’s going to be different.”

Adelman is not surprised to hear Jokic in such a reflective mood. Over the six seasons he has coached him, there have been many conversations like this.

After the team lost its final regular-season game in 2018 at the Minnesota Timberwolves, Adelman remembers Jokic coming to the back of the team plane and sitting with the coaches to discuss the campaign and where the team could go from there.

“He really takes stock and ownership of what he just experienced, and he likes to talk it out,” Adelman said. “I think that’s why we’ve grown steadily as a group, is having a person that’s your leader who thinks that way.”

Jokic did this before he was a leader too.

He even did it as a rookie, when it became clear his presence had disrupted Nurkic’s development.

Nurkic had been a friend and a mentor to Jokic, helping him acclimate to life in the NBA and America. But there wasn’t room for both of them in the starting lineup, and within a few months, it was clear Jokic was the team’s center of the future.

There were no hard feelings, Nurkic said. He just wanted to be somewhere he could start, so he asked for a trade. Jokic understood, but he didn’t think it had to come to that.

“He went to the coaches and offered to come off the bench,” Nelson said. “Like he really didn’t care about starting. It didn’t matter to him. He just wanted everybody to be happy.”

Nurkic said he never knew Jokic offered his starting spot back then. He just knew his friend wanted him to stay and believed they could play together.

“We still talk about what could have been,” Nurkic said. “But everything happens for a reason. I’m happy with my career. And I’m happy for him too … His story is really amazing.”

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FOR THE MOST part, Jokic lets others tell his story. Coaches, former teammates, friends.

“I think probably my family, my close friends … you need to ask them,” Jokic said, when asked whether he has changed since the spotlight started shining on him. “But they are not going to answer you.”

He is aware that this is a funny answer because people in the room laughed afterward. But he also has to know he isn’t giving the most satisfying answer to an audience that is accustomed to superstars delivering those lines.

It’s hard to know what to do with someone who doesn’t bask in the attention the NBA spotlight creates.

But that’s not his problem to solve.

The night he was named the MVP of the Western Conference finals, the story was LeBron James talking postgame about possible retirement.

But if Jokic had a reaction to James stealing his thunder, nobody heard it. He reads books, not his mentions, having deleted all his social media years ago.

“Maybe someone should actually start to address that, like, being humble is a virtue,” Nuggets assistant coach Ognjen Stojakovic told ESPN. “That it’s OK to be humble, be a hard worker, be a good person.”

Stojakovic has known Jokic since he was a teenager making his way through the Adriatic league. He knows where Jokic is from in Serbia. He visits him in the summers.

He knows Jokic’s parents and his two older brothers. And now he knows Jokic’s wife and daughter.

“Honestly, it’s very fun to be part of his journey,” Stojakovic said. “To see how he’s maturing from year one to year two, three, four, five, six, seven.

“You know he came as a boy. Now he’s a father.”

Each step was deliberate and thoughtful. This last one will be the hardest.

“For the first two years, we butted our heads because he had his own pace and he didn’t understand how hard he had to work,” Stojakovic said. “But now he does. He works so hard. And he’s ready to do whatever it takes to win.”