NIKOLA JOKIC ONLY LETS A SELECT FEW ride his horse Dream Catcher. It’s an exclusive club, one that includes Jokic’s godfather, his girlfriend and Michael Malone.
Not even Jokic’s two older brothers are permitted to climb into the harness behind Dream Catcher and take the reins as Jokic’s horse trots around Sombor’s race track, situated five minutes due south of the city’s main square. But on one afternoon last summer, Jokic let his coach take his pride and joy for a spin around the dirt oval.
“The horse is calm,” Jokic said. “So that’s why I thought he could ride it.”
Malone was instructed to take Dream Catcher on a light jog around the track, but the horse quickly picked up speed. Denver’s coach didn’t hear the calls from Jokic or Dream Catcher’s trainer to put on the breaks.
“It was just supposed to be a jog, but he was pretending it was a race. I was yelling ‘Coach! Slow down!” Jokic recalled. “He didn’t listen. He still needs to pay me money for that.”
Typically, Malone is the one yelling at Jokic, clamoring for his All-Star center to get back on defense or close out to a three-point shooter with more tenacity. Yet on that Sombor afternoon, their roles were reversed, a sliver of insight into the unique player-coach relationship between Jokic and Malone that’s been four years in the making. This season, that partnership has translated into an unprecedented amount of on-court success for both Malone and Jokic since the two arrived in Denver together prior to the 2015-16 season.
The Nuggets just clinched their first playoff appearance since 2013 with Jokic playing at nothing short of an MVP level, navigating Denver through 268 games missed due to injury by its players as one of the few constants in Malone’s rotation. His averages of 20.2 points on better than 50 percent shooting from the field, 10.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists are All-NBA worthy. Jokic has also upped his Usage Percentage within the Nuggets’ democratic offense this season from 25.5 to 29.7 percent, per Cleaning The Glass, the 12th-highest in the league. Behind the scenes, he’s embraced the responsibilities that come with being the Nuggets’ frontman and has taken on more of a leadership role too.
Some of Jokic’s feats this season — the triple-doubles, no-look assists and full-court outlet passes — are nothing new. For four years, he’s stood at the top of the three-point arc, firing one-handed strikes to his teammates and taking basketballs out of the hoop and launching them 90-plus feet downcourt with one hand like a water polo goalie advancing the ball up the water. This season his indie act finally went mainstream. Malone has given Jokic, a former second-round pick, an incredible amount of control over the Nuggets’ offense over the years, but Jokic has validated Malone and the Nuggets’ belief in him by altering the franchise’s trajectory with his play. Behind Jokic, the Nuggets will easily surpass the 50-win mark this year three seasons after both his and Malone’s rookie year’s in Denver when it won only 33 games.
Malone and Jokic’s partnership has never been a natural fit on paper. One is a no-nonsense East Coaster from Queens, New York, who at one time tried to join the Secret Service and grew up in a blue-blood basketball family as the son of longtime NBA coach Brendan Malone. The other is a small-town kid who feels at home around Sombor’s horse stables.
Trips halfway across the world were only part of Jokic and Malone’s path towards forging a unique bond.
CONNECTING WITH HIS PLAYERS on a personal level has always been part of Malone’s coaching DNA. When Malone played Division 1 basketball at Loyola University (Maryland), he was always drawn to coaches who were open and honest and held him accountable for his actions. As he worked the college circuit for a few seasons before eventually landing an assistant coaching job with the Knicks in 2001, he made sure to be the type of coach that he admired as a player.
“I remember first coming in the league with Jeff Van Gundy, and it was Charlie Ward, Mark Jackson, Howard Eisley, Allan Houston, (Latrell) Sprewell, (Marcus) Camby, and Kurt Thomas,” Malone said rattling off a few of the colorful personalities that he worked with in New York. “I was trying to make sure I had a relationship with all those players because that was important to me.”
That belief stayed central to Malone as he rose up the NBA ranks. As an assistant with the Cavaliers for five seasons from 2005-10, he cultivated a strong and genuine relationship with LeBron James, one that the two still enjoy a decade later. Over All-Star Weekend, James and Malone rekindled that bond while trading friendly barbs on the sidelines of Sunday’s All-Star game. Malone was an assistant in Golden State for two years, and Steph Curry and Draymond Green speak glowingly of his ability to connect with his players whenever given the opportunity. When he got his first head coaching job in Sacramento, Malone quickly developed a rapport with a 5-foot-9 point guard by the name of Isaiah Thomas as well as DeMarcus Cousins, whose edginess has rubbed more than a few coaches the wrong way over the years.
As soon as Malone touched down in Denver, he began to align himself with the Nuggets’ young core of Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. Before Jusuf Nurkic’s relationship with the Nuggets grew sour, Malone visited him in Bosnia over the summer just as he’s journeyed to Serbia during each of the last two offseasons. He’s gone out of his way to relate and connect to his players, especially those who come from international backgrounds.
Those trips to Sombor offered a chance for Malone to spend time with Jokic where the 24-year-old feels most comfortable, in the quaint, 50,000 person town where the 7-footer spends most of his time in during the summers. There, he also got to connect with Jokic’s parents, his extended family and his two older brothers, Strahinja and Nemanja, who watch over their youngest like a hawk.
“It’s not always about basketball, and I learned that from his father,” Malone said. “I have to coach him. I have to be hard on him. I have to hold him accountable. I have to love him. I have to build him up. All those things go into being a coach. But I also have to get to know Nikola and let him know that I genuinely care about him and his family way before I care about Nikola as a player.”
In Serbia, Malone saw a different side of his superstar. Jokic is a homebody, who’s at peace within Sombor’s city limits, around his horses, or on the banks of the Great Bačka Canal (Veliki Bački Kanal), the river that runs through Sombor, with his family and friends. One day last June, Jokic took Malone up the canal, which is an offshoot of the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river. Jokic’s godfather cooked up a fish at his river house later that afternoon.
“It meant a lot for him to come, just because he’s the first NBA coach to come to my hometown,” said Jokic. “That means that he trusts me. We’ve worked on our relationship, of course, so that’s something that helps us and has helped us grow.”
Over 5,500 miles away from Denver, Malone also saw how much pride Jokic takes in hailing from Sombor, the no-thrills town roughly two hours and 15 minutes outside of the Serbian capital Belgrade. The two trips to Sombor were important steps for both parties to learn more about one another but also for Malone to see firsthand the environment that made Jokic who he is today. You can drive across Sombor in five minutes and count the number of restaurants located within the town on two hands. Farms, some more than 100 years old, border the city.
“It’s a small town, nothing inside it,” Jokic said. “We have a river, that’s kind of it. I just love the people there. I love my friends there. I can always make stuff to do if I’m bored or just go home. Home is home, you know?”
“Sombor, it’s everything. My life is there. My everything is there. My relaxation, everything. This is not me. This is just me playing basketball here. This is me working here. Sombor is my home.”
Jokic keeps Sombor mementos in his locker to feel a little bit closer to home. He has the bright red ribbon that Dream Catcher received for winning his first race in 2017, which Malone was also in attendance for, hanging on the right side of his stall. A selfie of Jokic and his second horse, Bella Marguerite, sits on a shelf inside his locker too. Taped to one wall is a quote, not by Michael Jordan but from Winston Churchill.
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” it reads.
When Jokic retires one day, he’ll likely make his full-time home in Sombor again. He wants to improve the town’s horse track too, eventually giving Dream Catcher a better surface to run on. But he doesn’t want to turn it into the next Churchill Downs. “It’s really low level,” Jokic said of the racing in Sombor. That’s just how he likes it.
TWENTY-SEVEN MONTHS AGO, on Dec. 15, 2016, Malone turned over the reigns of the Nuggets’ offense to Jokic. Denver’s attack had stalled just 25 games into the regular season after the Nuggets tried to play Jokic alongside Nurkic in the frontcourt, a decision that took the ball out of Jokic’s hands and then towards the end of the frontcourt pairing’s run got so uncomfortable that Jokic volunteered to come off the bench.
Based on a little over one season of data and play to look back on, Malone recalibrated his offense around the then-relatively unknown second-year pro. The Nuggets never looked back, quickly emerging as an offensive juggernaut, a status they’ve held for much of the last three years. Denver compiled a 31-26 over its final 57 games that season and amassed the top offense in the league for the next four months.
“When you talk about trust, you have to prove to be trustworthy,” Malone said. “And Nikola was a player up until that point, on Dec. 15 of that season, year two, when I said, ‘Enough is enough. He’s our starting center moving forward, and I’m going to play through him.’ He had shown me time and time again that he was more than capable of being the anchor of our offense.”
It couldn’t have been how Malone drew it up. The Nuggets’ coach got a raw deal in Sacramento, unfairly jettisoned from a Kings franchise in 2014 that couldn’t get out of its own way for most of the last decade. In Denver, Malone’s second head coaching stop, he all of a sudden was hitching his wagon to a former second-round pick and one of the more unique and unconventional players in the league.
But Malone wouldn’t have taken that plunge if he hadn’t already developed a tight-knit bond with Jokic over the first season that two had spent together in Denver. The talent was obvious, but more important was the fact that Malone could trust Jokic to execute his schemes and game plan.
“I’ve never once looked at a player and looked at when were you picked? What round, it doesn’t matter to me,” said Malone. “Whether you’re undrafted, second round, lottery pick, if you can play, if you can help us, you’re going to get a chance to do so.”
Since then, their relationship has been strengthened, both by the daily grind of the NBA season where Malone and Jokic see each other probably more than they’d like to and summer trips to Sombor. Now, the two are on a collision course with a first-round playoff series.
Four years of organically building trust between one another came to a culmination last month when Jokic and his family boarded Josh Kroenke’s private jet with Malone and flew to Charlotte for All-Star Weekend. The only downside of the four-day trip was that the two couldn’t get any time apart.
“As the time goes on, we’ve talked more. We share everything,” Jokic said. “We know each other’s families. We kind of live together.”
It’s a relationship and a bond that’s still relatively young but one that seems to have an infinite runway into the future with Jokic under contract through 2023. The partnership had already had led to winning basketball over the duo’s first three years together, but this year the Nuggets finally clinched the elusive playoff appearance that both Jokic and Malone had been chasing since 2015 when they arrived in Denver. Along the way, the amount of trust that the two have between one another has grown but still glistens with each possession that Jokic initiates as the fulcrum of the Nuggets’ offense.
For Jokic and Malone, more Sombor meetups await over future summers where the two hope to celebrate long playoff runs rather than reflect on the incremental improvements they’ve made during the regular season. Denver’s coach will surely cruise up up the Bačka with Jokic again for a homecooked meal and take in countless more horse races at Sombor’s secluded track, just maybe not strapped into the harness behind Dream Catcher.