Think of what you love most about the NBA. Is it the sight of the world’s most physically gifted humans moving with impossible speed and purpose? Is it the transcendent players? The LeBrons and the Durants of the world, resplendent in their own dimensions of grace and skill? These are all reasonable answers. But there is a chance, perhaps, that you're thinking of a breed even more sublime: the lumbering, hirsute Montenegran center.
I’m speaking, of course, of Nikola Pekovic, massive human being. Nikola Pekovic whose face looks like a brick. Whose arms and legs (and torso and neck and whole body) appear to be hewn from concrete and thousand-year-old petrified oak. Whose internal organs, studies suggest, are made of a hearty beef and potato stew. This is the Nikola Pekovic who has a tattoo of an armored warrior standing on a pile of skulls, which we can only presume once belonged to enemies he (the warrior, but Pekovic if you're into it) has slain; the skulls are, at the point at which we meet the tattoo, now presumably the warrior's property, to do with whatever he wishes.
For the record, Pekovic also sports a huge back piece depicting a wizened monk’s face superimposed on the image of a mountain monastery. This all seems quite natural in its Pekovic-ian context. Nikola Pekovic looks, in short, like a man who is paid to devour your babies.
Given the dull, methodical pounding—imagine the metal album that has his tattoo on its cover, then imagine its crunchiest parts on a loud loop—that he hands out on a nightly basis, Pekovic doesn’t do much to dispel this first impression. The rim-run has been a staple of the big man’s game since big men were invented, but Pek, with all apologies to Dwight Howard, just may have achieved the maneuver’s platonic ideal, or at least winnowed it down to its cruel essence.
Here’s how it works. Pekovic aims his body at the front of the rim. When he arrives, he plants his shoulder—preferably the knight-and-skulls one—squarely into his defender’s sternum. Defender gasps audibly. Using this contact as leverage, Pek pivots until his chest is open to the court and his ass, the fulcrum of the entire machine, is sealing the defender—stunned, fatigued, grimacing now—from the passing lane. Helpless defender looks on as Pekovic catches, pivots, scores easily. Defender wonders if he still enjoys playing basketball.
Consider, for example, the nauseating way that poor, skinny Samuel Dalembert wobbled when, in Houston last year, Pekovic put that heavy body on him. Or the sickly look on Solomon Jones’ face whenever the two players meet. Ask Shelden Williams or Tiago Splitter or Demarcus Cousins or any other big man whom Pek has force-fed uncomfortably large mouthfuls of man sandwich. His game is an object lesson in the inexorable occupation of space, in the idea of physical density. Watching it makes my bone marrow hurt.
Now, you might be wondering why someone who professes to love the creative and the unorthodox and chaotic and sublime in basketball—that is me, and maybe also you—might take the time to praise a floor-bound, wide-load center, which is surely one of the stodgiest and least-appealing archetypes in the game's pantheon. I would join you in wondering that, in general and in the specific case of Nikola Pekovic. After all, we’re talking about a player whom Roy Hibbert rejected twice, without jumping, on one possession.
I would point you to two factors that complicate the picture. The first is that Pekovic’s game is not really that of the stodgy, Mikan-esque stereotype. In Pekovic’s first year, Kurt Rambis tried to shoehorn him into the back-to-the-basket role required of the center in the triangle offense. The result was Pekovic pounding the ball at great length and without purpose; awkwardly blasting it off the backboard; looking like a huge doofus. It was surprising, then, to discover, last season, the quiet efficiency that Pekovic brings to his off-the-ball game.
It seems counterintuitive and is definitively unlikely for a man who looks so very much like a Soviet housing project, but Pekovic is at his best when in motion. Last year, the combined influences of Rick Adelman and Ricky Rubio revealed his gift for footwork: for nimble rolls to the basket; for the well-timed duck-in; for moving block-to-block within the flow of the offense. Add to that his soft hands and solemn tenacity on the offensive glass—bet you didn’t know that Pek was second in the league in offensive rebound rate last year—and you’ve got a strange synthesis of the traditional NBA banger with the technically sound, outside-in Euro big man. That's minus the outside shooting touch, admittedly, but plus an elaborate Balkan-baroque tattoo and a few dozen extra pounds of granitic bulk.
Granted, this isn’t quite as tantalizing as a Kevin Durant crossover and pull-up three. But I actually find Pekovic’s unadorned offensive game strangely soothing—in the way that, say, a series of concrete rectangles can be soothing. NBA basketball is supposed to be complicated and ornate; there is something reassuring, graceful even, in Pek’s minimal play. “Don’t worry,” Pekovic seems to say in his silent, insistent way, “things don’t have to be so hard. Just do this. Then do this.”
Second: Pekovic does this humble work with the kind of cold-weather stoicism you might expect but also with an attitude of goofy bemusement that belies the pre-historic face, the gut-rattling physicality, even the well-honed technique.
Late in his first home preseason game as an NBA player, Pekovic fouls out after something like 10 minutes of court time. As he prepares to sit, he looks over at his good pal Darko Milicic and, amused and slightly bewildered that a ref would actually whistle one of his extremely unsubtle fouls, flexes his arms, thrusts his pelvis and performs the universal “they did me in the butt” pantomime. Which: well put, Big Pek. A little bro-ish and crass, sure, but his agreeable, nonplussed air drained the move of all possible aggro menace. Some large, strong men visibly relish the violence implicit in their big bodies. But Pekovic just seems pleasantly resigned to everything his ridiculous size and strength provides him, and to the grueling work that is his lot.
Later that same year, in the locker room. I finally summon the courage to ask him about that tattoo. Pekovic's answer: “[The terrifying, blank-faced knight surrounded by the rotting skulls of his enemies] is just me and my progress this year. The drawing is something like me.” Yes, that bloodthirsty knight is “something like [him],” but so is the gentle monk and so is the pilsner-chugging, sweat-suited goofball. (FTR, I don’t actually know that Pekovic chugs pilsner, but truly: you have never seen a man fill a sweat suit like he does. It really defies description.) He is a simple man. He is a hilarious monster. This is why we watch.
Illustration by J. Maddison Bond.