BOSTON — Nikola Jokic performed his most selfless act on the basketball court on Friday evening. Every pass, assist and game-altering play during the league’s most-anticipated regular-season game to date was done while playing with a heavy heart, and his performance kept alive the memory of the man most responsible for turning him into the best basketball player in the world — a man we tragically lost earlier this week.
Somewhere, “Deki” was watching — and beaming with pride one more time.
The Denver Nuggets snapping the Boston Celtics’ 20-game home winning streak to start the season with a thrilling 102-100 victory inside TD Garden packed enough headlines to full up several inches in newspaper columns and blogs across the NBA universe. The league lost a shining light on Wednesday, however, when Golden State Warriors assistant coach Dejan “Deki” Milojevic, the man who coached Jokic in the Serbian league before Nikola came to play professionally in the United States, passed away at the age of 46 after suffering a heart attack a few days prior. Denver’s tilt tonight was the first game it played after Milojevic’s death, with the Nuggets playing in Philadelphia against the 76ers on Tuesday evening.
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, who had been in touch with Warriors head coach Steve Kerr soon after Milojevic went into the hospital and first knew of his passing from Kerr, spoke with Jokic soon after the news was announced, and, according to the Denver Post, Malone passed on a message to Jokic from Kerr about how much Milojevic loved Nikola.
It was probably that love that allowed Jokic to put his emotions right enough to play tonight, and Milojevic’s love and tutelage to allow Jokic to display his full arsenal for the world over the past decade. Against the Celtics, Jokic finished with 34 points, 12 rebound and nine assists, and he was only one rebound and one assist away from a triple-double by the end of the third quarter.
“[I’ve] just been supporting him. Comforting him. Giving him a hug. I couldn’t be more proud of Nikola for playing the way he played with the tragic passing of Deki,” said Malone, whose father, former NBA head coach and longtime assistant, Brendan Malone, passed away last October at the age of 88.
“[He] just lost somebody he loved and he cared about that meant a lot to [him], that was a mentor and a coach to [him],” Malone continued. “Go honor him. Nikola went out there and he honored Deki’s memory and his legacy by playing at the level he played at. Not easy to do with a heavy heart, but Nikola is a special person, obviously. It was incredible to watch him play with that heavy heart and the level he played, when you consider who we were playing and you add everything else to that mix. And that’s why Nikola is the best player in the world.”
Denver guard Jamal Murray, who led all scorers with 35 points, also knew he and his teammates were playing for Milojevic and his impact on the game of basketball and on his prized pupil.
“You want to play with his spirit lingering above you. I didn’t know [Milojevic] personally but it’s just one of things that you want to play your heart out and know that this could end at any time,” Murray said. “And I think we all did a great job in just bring the right energy, win, lose or draw. Just bring the right energy and go home with our heads held up high.”
Without question, Jokic, amidst his grief, should hold his head up high after tonight. We are all sure that Deki is doing the same.