Paul Klee: The NBA Finals are Nikola Jokic's close-up, and here's the man he is: 'A rarity'

May 31—Soak in every shot, assist, rebound, triple-double, smile, laugh and moment with Nikola Jokic.

He won't be here forever — in Colorado, with the Nuggets, dazzling all comers in the NBA.

Days before Jokic leads the Nuggets into their first NBA Finals, the most reluctant superstar reminded the basketball world he does not need the basketball world. On the subject of his adorable 20-month-old daughter, Joker said: "Basketball is not the main thing in my life and probably (is) never going to be." Basketball would be fortunate to crack his personal top 10.

The NBA Finals is a close-up of Nikola Jokic, the first time most of the world has seen him shine, goof around, break the pro sports mold again.

Spoiler alert: Joker is nothing like other stars.

Ranking his priorities, they'd go like this: husband (to Natalija, a graduate of MSU-Denver and his better half since they were teenagers 10 years ago), father (to Ognjena), brother (to siblings Nemanja and Strahinja), son (to Mr. and Mrs. Branislav Jokic, a retired agricultural engineer) and horse trainer (to his beloved harness racers)... then basketball. Maybe.

On a night he could learn if the Celtics or Heat would be his opponent in the NBA Finals, Jokic instead went on a long walk with his daughter.

"I watched the first quarter," he allowed.

Basketball is a means to his end — providing a lovely life to the family and horses he adores.

For Nikola, it has always been and will always be family first, everything else second.

"He's never changed," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said when I asked what he appreciates most of Jokic. "I think we all see it in all walks of life: How does fame, fortune affect you? For most people, it goes to their head and they become something different. Sometimes they forget where they come from and who helped them get there."

All the hullabaloo over a lack of respect and media coverage of the Nuggets is misplaced.

Jokic prefers it this way.

"One thing I really love about Nikola, who is a proud father and a husband, through all the success and MVPs and max contracts, he's still the same guy. I marvel at that," Malone says. "I've been in this league a long time, and that is a rarity for a celebrity and superstar."

LeBron James has played 20 NBA seasons. Dirk Nowitzki played 21, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 20, Shaquille O'Neal 19, Carmelo Anthony 19, Karl Malone and John Stockton 19 apiece.

It will be an upset if Jokic, 28, remains in the spotlight while pushing 40. Nuggets executives have long believed Jokic's worldview and aspirations align best with Tim Duncan, the Spurs star who thrived in a mid- or small market where privacy remained a possibility.

Duncan played 19 seasons — all in San Antonio. Jokic has said he wishes to stay with the Nuggets for his entire career. Denver should be so lucky to entertain 19 seasons of Joker joy.

Given his priorities, I doubt that will be the case.

I remember his first practice with the Nuggets — Oct. 10, 2015. Jokic flipped hook shots over each shoulder, then tagged Malone with the ball when the coach turned his back.

Nothing has changed.

Nikola will follow his family everywhere and vice versa. When the 20-year-old arrived in the U.S. for the NBA summer league, brothers Nemanja and Strahinja drove cross-country to Las Vegas for his debut — then, when the games were over, reversed course and drove to New York City for the rookie symposium. When Nemanja sought to climb the 2,744 steps at the infamous Manitou Incline, Nikola joined his brother.

Joker told me then: "It was the worst thing since I come to America."

The brothers forgot to pack water bottles and somehow got lost near the top of the Incline.

"I have been there three times," Nikola said. "The first time, the last time and never again."

Jokic was asleep in Serbia when Denver made him the No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft. His circle had been mulling a contract from Barcelona prior to the phone call (he missed) from Denver.

His own joy came from being reunited with Natalija, Nemanja and Strahinja in the U.S.

"I was more happy to be around them than to be in (the) NBA," Jokic said last week.

As Malone said, "He cares about home. He cares about family. He cares about his horses. The guy is just who he is. I couldn't have more respect for him as a man because of that."

Branislav Jokic, his dad, is described as quiet, reserved and friendly with the people around his family. Mom worked as a nurse. The Jokic brothers go 6-11 (Nikola), 6-6 (Nemanja) and roughly 6-9 or 6-10 (Strahinja). His brothers used to train as MMA fighters at Denver's "Fight.Train.Win." gym.

Nikola's greatest support came from his dad: "He always thought I could be something more."

If the Nuggets win the NBA title, a parade would follow. That would be the longest time Nikola has stayed here when a season is over. He's always on a flight to Serbia within 48 hours.

The NBA Finals are Joker's close-up. Say cheese.