One of the stars of this year's NBA Finals is Nikola Jokić, a center for the Denver Nuggets. He was born 28 years ago in Sombor, Serbia. In 2014, he was picked by the Nuggets in the second round of the NBA draft. Nine years later, he is in the position of leading the Mile High City to its first-ever NBA Championship.
The money so far is on the Nuggets, though they lost Sunday's Game Two against the Miami Heat, a team that barely made it to the playoffs. But Jokić's Nuggets swept King James's Lakers in the Conference Finals, an achievement that's of historical and cultural importance for two reasons. One: It might be the last playoff series experienced by the second billionaire the NBA has produced. Two: The Lakers were swept right after (and finally) defeating the Golden State Warriors, a team that established a dynasty (the peak of the present Stephen Curry era) in 2014.
The New York Times had this to say about Jokić, known as the Joker by his fans and the press: Nikola Jokić Has Mastered the Art of Slowness. This was a polite way of saying: the Joker is not electrifying. He is also not graceful, like a Ray Allen. He even has a clumsiness about him. Indeed, NYT goes as far as to describe Jokić as the kind of player who "might trip while trying to jump over the Sunday paper."
JOKIC GOES COAST-TO-COAST 😱 pic.twitter.com/HohTOcwsox— ESPN (@espn) June 5, 2023
Anyone who saw the coast-to-coast basket Jokić made on Sunday is more impressed by the inelegance of it all. The ball is messily dribbled (it bounces like a heart beating wildly), the giant but ungainly steps, the blunt finish (it got the job done). Seriously, Seattle (a city hearing, once again, talk about the return of an NBA team it lost too many years ago), imagine our beloved and currently in trouble Shawn Kemp doing a coast-to-coast back in the day. You can remember that, surely. It would be nothing but the purest expression of force. The total command of the ball, the muscle-pumped leap, the spectacular finish, the roar on the floor that sends Squatch to the moon. You will find none of that with Jokić, winner of the NBA Most Valuable Player Award for two seasons (2020–21 and 2021–22).
This is the paradox that New York Times was trying to explain or capture. What makes this ungainly player so effective? How did he, of all the magicians the NBA has to offer, lead the Nuggets (a team that's nearly twice the age of Jokić) to its first finals? The answer will ultimately be found in socialism. Or, more closely, Yugoslavia's experiment with a form of economic organization that centered the interests of workers.
Jokic makes an absurd pass and the Joker approves 😂 pic.twitter.com/2bWSfw8rII— ESPN (@espn) June 5, 2023
For me, and I'm not alone in this way of thinking, the Nuggets lost the second game of the series because the Heat, who were basically destroyed by Jokić, figured out something that appears to be his kryptonite: force him to be a more capitalist than socialist player.
How did that work? He scored lots of points, 41, but suffered as a passer (four assists). In Game One, Jokić had 14 fewer points and 10 more assists (he had roughly the same number of rebounds). These numbers mattered because Sunday's game was not in Miami's favor. This fact was made clear by the way Miami struggled, to the very end, to capture that crucial on-the-road win. ("We now have a series!") Every basket counted. There was the real fear that Jokić would do to Miami what he did to LA. But his passing was shut down, and he was forced to shoot, to make points, like a regular/all-American NBA star. His power as a player has not been just as a top shooter, but also rebounder and passer. He triple-doubles all the time. And it is in this ability we find the ghost that's presently on the floor of this year's finals. This ghost is socialism.
Many of my (negative) readers will think this is nothing more than the usual: me pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Now, firstly, I never do this. I never make my points or find my position on matters right out of pure air. If you refuse to trust me on this assertion (socialism is the ghost on the floor), then maybe you will listen to one of the major cultural institutions of American capitalism, Time magazine.
That periodical answered a question that was in my head after the first game of the finals: Why are there so many Serbians in professional basketball? Serbia is a very small country. There is nothing that's genetically different from Serbians and Hungarians or Austrians (indeed, Jokić's hometown, Sombor, is close to Serbia's border with these countries). What cannot be explained biologically must find its answer in a culture. And so it is: Serbia was part of a mostly successful experiment with front-door (rather than backdoor) socialism. We call this experiment Yugoslavia.
 Jokić is easily the most accomplished NBA player to ever come out of Serbia, but his success has not happened in isolation. He comes from a long line of great basketball players from former Yugoslavian countries....
 Basketball was officially introduced to what was then known as Yugoslavia by an American Red Cross worker in 1923. But the country—which encompassed present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia—really began to invest in the sport after World War II, when the Yugoslavian government began promoting team activities as part of its political agenda.
 The socialist mindset helped cultivate a playing style that would ultimately become known as positionless basketball. In the United States, basketball players usually trained to specialize in specific positions. Taller players focused on staying close to the rim, dunking, and using their physicality to defend. Shorter players were encouraged to focus more on passing, dribbling, and taking jump shots further away from the basket.
In Yugoslavia, however, things were different. All young players trained using the same drills regardless of height or individual strengths.
“That was a hallmark of the Yugoslav school of basketball. They were not going to profile you based on your size,” Jovanović says. “They were not going to say you’re a point guard so you focus on point guard things, you’re a center so you focus on center things. Everyone learns how to dribble, how to pass, and how to shoot.”
This is Jokić in a nutshell. And what many Americans may not realize is that Yugoslavia, which collapsed into a nightmare of ethnic-driven violence in the 1990s, was actually one of the fastest-growing economies of the post-war period. The thinking, according to Jörg Baten, a German economic historian (and this opinion was shared by my father, an economist who visited and studied that country's rapid industrialization in 1985), is that its "unique socialist system... in which factories were owned by workers and decision-making was less centralized than in other socialist countries... led to stronger growth." In fact, "from the 1950s to the early 1980s" Yugoslavia's growth rate was comparable to "South Korea and other growth miracle countries."
This happened for two reasons. First, its very imperfect leader, Josip Broz Tito, broke completely with Moscow; and, second, it did not break with capitalist nations. Yugoslavia wanted out of the struggle between "the eagle and the bear." This meant that Yugoslavia was actually on a path that was not that far from the one followed by Scandinavian countries. It industrialized rapidly but with a socialist program that was more radical or more consistent than that of social democratic Sweden. But what happened? What did Yugoslavian socialism do wrong?
And now we reach a point that I have made in the past. It's also why I describe Bernie Sanders's argument for social democracy (“When I talk about democratic socialist, I’m not looking at Venezuela. I’m not looking at Cuba. I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden…”) as clueless at worst and contentless at best.
Swedish social democracy, for one, was built on an ethnic/racial isolation (the rightwing concept of folkhemmet, or "people's home") rather than ethnic/racial diversity that, in its present capitalist form, is denounced as "woke" by a large and powerful part of American politics. What the world has yet to see is a socialist (and even social democratic) society that's successful and not at the same time deeply nationalistic. I kid you not. By way of the suburbs, for example, the US gave one of its races an approximation of social democracy; and by way of the inner city, gave another the purity of 19th-century capitalism—the slums, rats, and raw exploitation described, famously, in Richard Wright's Native Son. You find this kind of pattern (socialism/ethnic unity) everywhere in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Tito was a dictator for sure, but his country really tried to establish socialism whose population was not about one group feeling at home, but radically diverse. Swedes will always be only Swedes. But the Yugoslavians that made Jokić great were so, so much more.