The world of men’s sports is dominated by larger-than-life examples of men pretending a singular form of manhood, a bravado that is so exaggerated that nothing gets to him, a hyper-masculine form of strength whose entire purpose is to dominate others. I did not initially turn to this performance type for inspiration in looking for positive examples of masculinity because, in truth, I believed that I wouldn’t find many.
And yet, as I watched my Denver Nuggets win their first NBA championship ever this week, I was struck by how wrong I was. For those of you who are in no way interested in men’s sports, I encourage you to look past the rabid fanbases and extreme forms of competition to find a set of very human stories, a culture of winning that is both humble and life-affirming.
This team is led on the court by Nikola Jokic, who without question, is one of the most exciting players to watch. I had the pleasure of seeing him on multiple occasions in-person this season, and each of which was extraordinary. Not so much because of how many points he scored, rebounds he had, or assists he made (all of which were considerable), but because of how he has created a culture of joy around him for the game and for his life. It is to this that I turn our attention now.
First, he thanked every player on the opposing team before he started celebrating his championship win. I have never seen a single other player take the first moments after claiming victory to do this. He cares about others, about the game, and not just about winning.
He carried his daughter to the awards ceremony, placing her literally on the same table as the trophy, showing just how much he values her more than someone else’s indicator of his success. He continued to hold her and let her take part in the festivities, as confetti reigned down in the arena or as she patted the trophies and posed for pictures with his whole family. It was their celebration too, a shared moment and not a singular one.
He wears his wedding ring on his shoe, tied into the laces as a reminder of his family as he runs up and down the floor, hitting against his foot with every stride. While I would constantly worry about it falling out, he trusts in his abilities to keep his family, and what they mean to him, safe.
He doesn’t care about stats and often says to reporters that he doesn’t feel any different after having a big game. He cares about contributing to a team win and building a legacy with others. A single game or moment in time is far less consequential to doing this.
He has other interests besides basketball, whether it is horses or family. He is multi-faceted and is not obsessed with the game the way nearly every other icon in basketball says you have to be in order to be great.
He sees playing basketball as work, as something he does for money and for fun, but not as his entire life. He continually says that his home is in Serbia, contributing to the global and universal nature of sport rather than the overtly americanized version of it.
He does not make winning about himself. He gives credit to any and all of his teammates before taking any for himself. He is proud of his work, but he shows that pride in cheering on those around him. He is trying to give others the chance to shine rather centering himself in the story of this historic championship.
This is drastically different way to be a man in the world of sports. It isn’t bravado, it is bravery. It isn’t machismo, it is maturity. It isn’t egotism, it is egalitarian. Nikola Jokic and the culture he has co-created in The Denver Nuggets present an alternative for young boys and men in our world. They do not have to be an alpha or sigma male to be successful. They do not have to dominate and disrespect others to feel good about themselves. Their strength does not come from obsessing about a single facet of their life, but rather from having a community that holds them up and supports them in becoming better.
While not all of us can be Nikola Jokic or work on a team who performs at such a high level, I do believe that we can all learn from his quiet leadership and his contributions to our shared culture, our shared humanity. Just like him, we too can prove to one another that there is No One Way to be a Man.