Wissot: White men don’t need to jump

The Denver Nuggets are in the NBA Finals for the first time since joining the league in the 1976-77 season. They’re led by a Serbian sensation whose only weakness on the basketball court is that he can’t jump. In a sport where aerial acrobatics are the norm, his feet rarely and barely ever lift an inch off the hardwoods.

Nikola Jokic, a two-time league MVP, is a unicorn in gym shorts. He’s perhaps the most uniquely talented big man in terms of shooting, rebounding, passing to ever play in the NBA. The 7-foot, 284-pound, sweet-natured, gentle giant manages traffic on the court like a cop at rush hour on a grid-locked New York City street. He’s directly or indirectly responsible for almost every basket the Nuggets score when he’s in the game.

The triple-double in basketball is the ultimate testament to a player’s ability to reach double-digit figures in points, rebounds and assists in a game. The names at the top of the list of most career triple-doubles are all current or soon-to-be Hall of Famers. Jokic is in seventh place. LeBron James is sixth, two triple-doubles ahead of Jokic. James just completed his 20th NBA season; Jokic is finishing his eighth.

Earlier this season, Denver’s All-Star player, affectionately nicknamed “The Joker” because of his goofy personality, passed the incomparable Wilt Chamberlain for the most career triple-doubles by a center. Chamberlain, who played for 15 years in the NBA, is a whopping 27 triple-doubles behind the superb Serb. For good measure, Jokic also recorded his eighth triple-double in these playoffs, the most in NBA postseason history. The player whose record he broke? Wilt the Stilt.

Great players admire greatness in other players. In that regard, Jokic has an enthusiastic fan club. Kevin Durant, a 13-time NBA All-Star, said of him: “Jokic is an all-time great. He’s going to go down as one of the all-time great centers to ever touch a basketball.” King James agreed. After being swept by Jokic and the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, James told reporters, “I know he’s great. He sees plays before they happen.”

Support Local Journalism

The only deficiency found in Denver’s talented big man’s skill-set is his inability to go airborne.  He’ll never be mistaken for graceful, gravity-defying players like Julius Erving, David Thompson, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Vince Carter, and, of course, Michael Jordan, all of whom played above the rim and turned dunking a basketball into an art form. The Joker won’t ever be asked to join Cirque Du Soleil or become a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet.

When it comes to leaping ability, Jokic is like a bird that can’t fly, a penguin on an ice float. Mike Singer of the Denver Post described him as a “plodding traffic cone.” San Antonio’s five-time NBA champion coach, Gregg Popovich, paid him the highest of compliments when he said Jokic was “a reincarnation of Larry Bird,” the last great white superstar in the NBA who also couldn’t jump and rarely dunked the basketball. Veteran sports columnist Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star wrote that “Nikola Jokic can’t jump, but he’s the best basketball player alive.”

This brings me to the title of this column. The 1992 classic, “White Men Can’t Jump,” with Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson captured the direction that basketball had taken in going from a ground-bound, slow-moving, almost all-white sport in the 1950s to one that is now 71% African-American, played at a frenetic pace, and dominated by high-flying, dunk-happy athletes masquerading as gazelles. Woody Harrelson’s character, Billy Hoyle, can’t dunk a basketball, something that comes easily to his fellow street hustler Sidney Deane, played by Wesley Snipes. By the way, a remake of the film now streaming on Hulu is terrible.

What is forgotten in the 31 years since the movie debuted was that while Billy couldn’t jump, he damn well sure could “ball.” He had game when it came to dribbling, shooting, rebounding, passing. In terms of basketball skills, Billy was every bit as good as Sidney.

The fact that he couldn’t jump didn’t stop these two con artists from winning bets at pickup basketball games against chumps who were snookered into believing Billy sucked because he was white.

The Joker is like Billy in that his game hasn’t suffered because he’s never achieved lift-off.

He uses spin moves, head fakes, and body twists to frustrate opponents trying to stop him from scoring. He’s a flat-footed superstar. If Russell Wilson can manage to throw a football with the same pinpoint passing precision as Jokic, the Broncos will have a successful season this fall.

Jokic plays with passion and perseverance every minute he’s on the court. His game is all grit, all the time. His teammates respect and adore him. He prefers passing to scoring because he believes when he assists a teammate in putting the ball through the hoop he makes two people happy. His unselfishness is contagious and the reason for the team’s cohesive chemistry.

The Nuggets’ jocular leader doesn’t take himself seriously, but he definitely does take basketball seriously. Anthony Davis, the elite 7-foot defender on the Lakers, found this to be true when Jokic used brute force to bull his way to the basket and score on an overwhelmed and overmatched Davis at a critical juncture late in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals to send the Lakers packing.

It was a vintage Wilt Chamberlain power move. So what if white men can’t jump? As long as they can shoot, rebound and pass, who the hell cares?

Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at

Support Local Journalism