It was all about Serbia vs. Greece and Jokic vs. Giannis at the Stark Arena in Belgrade.
Pageantry first. Novak Djokovic arrived about 30 minutes before tip-off and received an immediate standing ovation. He was followed by one Serbian basketball visionary after another. Each legendary coach and player was greeted with applause as they stepped into the arena. I got chills. It was so cool to see the basketball and sports traditions of this country live. The passion for basketball and the wide cultural lanes it fills Serbia was taken from this trip.
And then the game. His two meetups with fans in Belgrade this week will both be memories of a lifetime. I was expecting a close matchup between his two players who I consider to be the best in the league (Jokić his #1 and Giannis his #2). I expected more from individual players.
they did just that.
Being in the same building as those spectators and seeing those two athletes will never be forgotten. It was legendary. It was the loudest basketball game I’ve ever seen. Every player walking that floor had to be tough as nails. The environment is definitely not for everyone.
Giannis was great, but Jokic was better. At some point in the second half, he started to feel like he was breaking into the classic Jokic fourth quarter. I mean, we’ve seen that story many times before. you know when it’s coming Serbian roll his players were also up to the task and felt that 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 did you think of that atmosphere?” Jokic asked us out when we saw him after the game outside the Serbian locker room.
Now I know why he never wavers from NBA crowds.
This game served as the perfect cap for the trip of a lifetime. All week long we have learned about the great history of Serbian basketball and sports. Learn about the legendary coaches and godfathers who transformed Serbian basketball into the sport it is today. I have been to the arena where many historic domestic and international matches have been held. We spoke with stalwarts across the country who are some of the smartest basketball fans I’ve interacted with. This is a proud, proud country that demands excellence.
It was given by Jokic to his compatriots in Belgrade.
I’ve thought a lot this week about the pressure Jokic is under this summer playing in his home country. Here, a gold medal at next month’s Eurobasket or next year’s World Cup means much more to him than another MVP or his championship to the Nuggets. Winning a gold medal here in Serbia makes a player instantly royalty. Jokic is the best Serb player in the history of his country, but in my opinion he is not usually viewed by most Serbs in the same way that I have collected. Because he has not brought home a gold medal for his team Serbia in international competitions. That excellence is what this country has come to expect.
And I get it. Here she’s only been for a week and I can see why anything but gold would be a disappointment for this country. I was able to really understand the storied tradition of basketball here and why it is taken so seriously. It is a feeling of gratitude that would not have been possible if I had not come to Serbia. Here, basketball is a sport that is ingrained in the fabric of society on a level it doesn’t have in the United States.
If Serbia fails to win gold in Eurobasket this summer, it’s not Jokić’s fault. This is not Serbia’s strongest team, and injuries to Nemanja Bielica and Vasilje Micic have already made headlines this summer. But Jokic seems to be in great form. He looks better now than he did last season in Denver. Jokic looks fast in the paint, but he’s just as strong in the post. He had no problem being protected by Yannis. His touch was also great against Greece. He also appears confident, almost cocky. He walked the court against Greece and he seemed to know he was the best player.
As I leave Serbia after a wonderful week here, all I can say is thank you. Thank you to the wonderful people of Serbia who welcomed us to this country with open arms and gave us a week of their lives. We want to learn about Serbian culture, basketball and the people here. I thought. That is why I 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. There is.
Thank you Serbia.