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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić has time before ‘of all time’

Jokic’s performance speaks for itself. But there are many more miles to travel before he sits with the greatest.

DENVER — For the past three seasons, I’ve attempted to put Nikola Jokić, the Denver Nuggets’ outstanding center, in proper perspective.

Jokić turned in another stellar performance on Sunday, scoring a game-high 41 points but in a losing effort as the Miami Heat evened the series at one game apiece with a 111-108 victory.

But this time, Jokić, a supreme passer, only had four assists, turned the ball over five times, and showed uncharacteristic frustration when the game was on the line.

When he was voted NBA MVP for two consecutive seasons, my antenna went up, a reaction that happens when a white player excels in a sport dominated by Black athletes. This typically results in the sports media reacting with gushing praise. It’s not enough to say the white athletes in question are great, but they are the greatest of all time, the smartest, and the most transformative.

In March, Kendrick Perkins, the former NBA player turned television analyst, committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting that racism played a role in Jokić being pushed for a third consecutive MVP title. Perkins mentioned stat padding, but the comment that put him in hot water was that racism — Great White Hope-ism — contributed to Jokić’s elevation. Perkins’ assessment was not entirely wrong, and the intense pushback he received was evidence that Perkins pricked a familiar nerve of race and racism in the United States.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid ultimately was voted league MVP. Meanwhile, Jokić has been sensational during the postseason, leaving no doubt that he is indeed a phenomenal player.

Jokić became the third player in NBA history, behind LeBron James and Magic Johnson, to average a triple-double during the playoffs.

My issue is not with proclamations of Jokić’s greatness but with the premature coronation of Jokić as the greatest ever, the greatest of all time, the best center the NBA has ever seen — the best of all time.

“Of all time” encompasses a vast universe and can only be assessed at the end of a career. There are many more miles to travel before Jokić sits atop Mount Everest with the greatest of all time.

The thing is, Jokić doesn’t seem to care about any of this noise.

During media availability Saturday, I asked Jokić about his legacy. Where would he like to be in the next five to eight years? He said that he didn’t think of himself in those terms.

“To be honest, I don’t think about that much,” he said. “I’m just playing. I’m just playing, and my focus has never been those kinds of records or whatever, whatever the media are putting on me. I’m just trying to win a game and just play every game. Go step-by-step and play every game to win a game. As simple as that.”

Invariably, it’s not the white athlete who instigates the gushing but the sports media surrounding the athlete. According to a Pew Research analysis, 82% of sports media is white and male. This doesn’t mean that white reporters are a monolith, but it does mean that athletes are routinely filtered through a white prism. This often results in over-the-top gushing when a white athlete excels in a so-called Black sport.

In this respect, Perkins was in the right church. He just sat in the wrong pew.

Perkins contended that there is a voting bias against Black NBA players. The problem is the tendency to immediately deify white players who excel in sports such as the NBA and NFL, where Black athletes dominate.

After more than a century, the racial dynamic in sports continues this ebb and flow. In some ways, the NBA should be lauded. The league’s first Black players were admitted in 1950, and for several years after that, teams used quotas to limit the number of Black players. Today, Black players have become the standard by which excellence is judged.

The premature canonization of Jokić is a contemporary manifestation of the Great White Hope trope that began in 1908 when Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight champion — and the scourge of white American society.

Immediately after Johnson’s victory over Tommy Burns, the writer Jack London called for former champion James J. Jeffries to “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you,” London wrote.

Ultimately, London’s call to Johnson was unfair. Public pressure to defend “white honor” forced the 35-year-old Jeffries to fight a younger, hungrier Johnson who carried the aspirations of a marginalized Black community into the ring.

Johnson defeated Jeffries and thus was born the Great White Hope imprimatur.

The trope has changed forms over the years. For me, the issue crystallized in the late 1990s with Jason Williams, a white player nicknamed White Chocolate because of his style of play. (An African American media relations assistant apparently came up with the name, proving that Black people are not above exploiting Great White Hope-ism).

Williams’ style was associated with Black players, yet Black players were not singled out because their style of play was — expected.

While White Chocolate was lauded for playing Black, a Black player merely did what was expected. Just average.

This is the point Detroit Pistons forward Dennis Rodman was trying to make after a heartbreaking loss to the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics during the 1987 playoffs. After the game, Rodman told reporters that Bird was “very overrated” and that he had won three straight MVP awards only “because he was white.”

“Larry Bird is a very, very good basketball player,” Rodman said. “But if he was Black, he’d be just another guy.”

Rodman’s teammate Isiah Thomas backed him up. “I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player. He’s an exceptional talent. But I have to agree with Rodman. If he were Black, he’d be just another good guy.”

Both players would spend the next 35 years explaining and apologizing.

Thomas flew to Los Angeles before the second game of the 1987 NBA Finals for a joint news conference with Bird to explain his comments. Thomas said he was joking, though his more substantial complaint was about how the sports media perpetuates the stereotypes of Black and white athletes: White athletes are smart and hardworking while Black athletes are natural talents.

Over the years, the sports media has gotten better with its description of Black athletes, though Jokić routinely is praised for his cerebral play and uncanny grasp of fundamentals that offset his so-called lack of explosive athleticism.

In any event, Jokić does not play a so-called Black style. He has a style of his own: deft passing, shooting from all angles and distances that befuddle defenders.

Jokić’s performance over the last three seasons, especially during these playoffs, speaks for itself. He doesn’t need a chorus, but the chorus is baked into the fabric of the sports media.

He is a great player; you’d be foolish to draw any other conclusion. But his career must be allowed to play out before he can be put on Mount Everest. Where will he be in the next seven years? How many NBA titles will he win? How many more MVPs? Will he overcome obstacles and maintain a high level of performance?

Jokić was magnificent in Game 1 and the Nuggets won. He led all scorers Sunday, but his team lost.

With three more wins, Jokić will lead Denver to its first NBA title and his stature will be dramatically elevated.

But let’s pump the brakes on a coronation as the best of all time. He’s great. For now, let’s leave it at that.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.