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Boban The Great

As the Mavericks were headed to the playoffs, the NBA effectively canceled its season. That night, the team's most lovable player had the best game of his career. All hail...
Boban Marjanovic Dallas Mavericks
Courtesy of Dallas Mavericks

Just before 4 on a Monday afternoon, Boban Marjanović’s black-on-black-on-black Range Rover pulls into a reserved space in front of the Mesquite branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas. You want him to be bigger when the door opens and his head pops above the roof, but a Range Rover isn’t small enough to provide the necessary contrast to his 7-foot-4 frame. It doesn’t need to be a Mini Cooper; a Toyota Camry would work. Everyone looks more or less the same stepping out of a Range Rover. Not short or tall, just mildly affluent.

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Boban is here for a basketball clinic, part of the Jr. NBA Program. His presence will be a surprise to the 50 or so kids participating in the camp. He walks to the back of the car and takes off his shirt, changing into a gray long-sleeved tee with the Mavericks logo on the front. The 31-year-old from Serbia signed with the Mavs in the summer, after stints with Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, and San Antonio since coming to the NBA in 2015.

“I came here so they can see how a real basketball player looks,” he says. “I’m one of those guys who did something with their life—play in the NBA, play basketball games, play professional—and I came here to show them that.”

Boban has his 8-year-old son Vuk with him. Vuk—to answer your question—is a normal-size 8-year-old kid. Which makes sense: his mother—Boban’s wife, Milica—stands at around 5 feet, and no one on Boban’s side of the family is exceptionally tall; his father is 5-foot-9. Boban is Buddy in Elf. “I’m the only guy who is bigger than everybody,” he says.

But still, when he sneaks behind the campers lined up in rows across the middle of the gym floor, following the instructions of a coach from the Mavs Basketball Academy, he doesn’t seem that big. Pretty much every NBA player would loom large above a room of children, many younger than Vuk.

Boban Marjanovic Dallas Mavericks
Rise Above: Boban isn’t merely a curiosity, a sideshow attraction only signed for in-arena videos and off-court activities. He is extremely efficient, at least when he gets to play.

Try telling that to these kids, though. When they turn around to see Boban in the back, doing defensive slides along with them, they stare at him like he’s a mythical creature, something out of a fable rather than a backup to a backup center, like a griffin has swooped down to show them the fundamentals of man-to-man defense. It’s close enough to true; Boban didn’t play in the Mavs’ previous two games. He’s Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant here in Nike Tech Fleece.

The kids gather around Boban and take turns jumping to try to give him a high-five, his (slightly) raised hand almost 8 feet above the floor. A few of the older campers succeed. Then another tries, and Boban jumps along with him, teasing him, keeping his pickleball paddle-size palm out of reach. The kid, slapping nothing but air, tumbles to the floor. Boban scoops him up with a laugh.

The campers split into two groups, divided by age. Boban goes with the younger ones first, getting in line to run through drills with them.

“I play with you in 2K,” a girl in his line tells him.

He looks genuinely surprised. Why would a little girl from Mesquite even know who he is, much less adopt his character in a video game? He has done well when he plays, but those opportunities haven’t come that often. He has averaged about 10 minutes over 223 career games. Since coming to the NBA and the United States, Boban has been known more for, at best, basketball-adjacent reasons rather than anything he has done on the court. There is his odd-couple friendship with Sixers forward Tobias Harris, with whom he has played on three teams and appeared in a YouTube series, The Bobi & Tobi Show. “He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known,” Harris says via email. “It’s rare that you find someone as genuine as Boban. Plus, he’s hilarious.”

It’s one thing to be Gulliver in a gym full of Lilliputians. It’s quite another to be Gulliver around a bunch of other Gullivers.

There have also been various photos and videos of him juxtaposed with smaller people, like when he met 4-foot-11 actress Kristin Chenoweth while playing for the Clippers. (When they shook hands, it looked like a boa constrictor swallowing a mouse.) Every year there is a new one. And there was his role in last year’s John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, a fight scene in the New York Public Library. “He was perfect for the opening of the film,” says director Chad Stahelski. As for basketball, most of it is played where no one can see. Like here.

He goofs around with the kids for the better part of an hour, swinging the little ones around, blocking the shots of the bigger ones, charming everyone. Before he leaves, one of the adults, a counselor from the Boys & Girls Clubs, runs up to him like one of the kids had earlier, pressing her palm against his for a photo.

I wonder how many times he has had to take that shot.

It’s one thing to be Gulliver in a gym full of Lilliputians. It’s quite another to be Gulliver around a bunch of other Gullivers.

Before the Mavericks’ game in Atlanta a month later, former Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo is holding court near one corner of the State Farm Arena floor, across from the Mavs’ bench. He’s talking to fans, signing autographs, posing for photos. His No. 55 hangs in the rafters above us, an honor earned while he was the 7-foot-2, 260-pound defensive anchor for some pretty good Hawks teams in the late 1990s. Mutombo is 53, but he looks the same as he did in his playing days. A little grayer, a little thicker, but not shorter.

After a while, Mutombo calls Boban over to talk. Boban had been playing one-on-one with J.J. Barea, as he usually does during warm-ups. The veteran guard told me last year that he’s “5-foot-10-and-a-half on a good day,” so his pregame showdowns with Boban feel a bit like a performance, a little one-act for the fans, David vs. Goliath with jump shots instead of slingshots. But now Boban is walking over to greet another Goliath.

They are directly in front of where I’m sitting, 20 feet away. And maybe it’s an optical illusion, since Mutombo is in a suit and Boban is in uniform, but Boban is so much larger than Mutombo it’s jarring. He has to lean over to hear him talk.

I know Boban isn’t the tallest player in the NBA, in its history or even now (Tacko Fall of the Boston Celtics is 7-foot-5). But seeing him next to Mutombo, it feels like he might be the biggest. His head is enormous, like a carnival caricature has been granted life by a young boy’s magical wish. His hands are oversize to the point of fantasy, like Dave Grohl’s at the end of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” video. His arms are longer than CVS receipts.

Near the end of the first quarter of the Mavericks’ February 10 home game against Utah, Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson misses a 3-pointer from the right corner, in front of the Mavericks’ bench. The errant shot bounces high off the rim and over the backboard, landing in the briar patch of apparatus on its backside, the arms and cables attached to the shot clock and remote camera, almost 13 feet above the floor.

One of the ball kids hands a mop to Kristaps Porzingis. He’s the obvious choice among the players on the floor—7-foot-3, 245 pounds, with a wingspan like a pterodactyl. Holding the mop near its head, he pokes at the ball once, twice, three times, trying to dislodge it from its nest. The ball stays put. Porzingis looks like a halftime performer, showing off his amazing ability to balance a basketball on a mop handle. As he jabs at the ball again, now on his sixth try, a murmur makes its way through the crowd, building on itself as people in the arena see what’s happening.

It’s Boban time.

“Oh, Boban’s coming to save the day!” says Mavs broadcaster Jeff “Skin” Wade, as he notices the cause of the noise, Boban leaving his seat to come to Porzingis’ aid. Wade says it with the same glee as a kid who has just heard in the distance an ice cream truck playing the melody from “Turkey in the Straw.”

“Boban to the rescue,” says play-by-play man Mark Followill, as the big man frees the ball on his first try, while Porzingis looks on with delight. Boban is officially only an inch taller than Porzingis, but when they stand next to each other, it’s clear that it’s the biggest inch in the history of inches. (The next day, Boban will tweet a video of the sequence: “You’re not tall enough @kporzee, watch the BFG work!”)

Boban Marjanovic with the Boys & Girls Club of Mesquite
The BFG: Boban was a hit with the kids at the Mesquite branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas when he surprised them at a basketball clinic in January. (Bonus: can you find his son Vuk in this photo?)

“They love Boban,” says former Mavs point guard Derek Harper, as play resumes. He’s talking about the fans at the American Airlines Center, but it clearly applies to his teammates, too. Boban high-fives the entire bench before returning to his chair.

It’s the only time he’ll get close to the court this night.

The next day, when the media are allowed into the gym after practice, Boban is on a court, kicking a ball around with some of the Mavericks’ staff, mostly interns. I imagine him playing soccer for real. He’d be a nightmare in goal, obviously, King Kong swatting biplanes from the top of the Empire State Building.

Boban works one-on-one with a coach after that, and then it’s on to a series of full-court pickup games. Again, it’s mostly interns, though he has 51-year-old assistant coach Darrell Armstrong on his side. “He organizes these games,” says Scott Tomlin, the team’s communication director.   

Boban plays point guard for his team, bringing the ball up the court, running pick and rolls with an awkward grace, all exaggerated angles, a crane moving in the marshland. It may look like he’s still goofing around, but these runs are serious to Boban. He has to stay ready—whether he gets 20 minutes or .5 seconds, as he will in a couple of weeks against Miami—so he does this after every practice.

“Just to shoot the ball, feel the space, feel the players, feel the contact,” he says, “feel, like, the rhythm.”

Boban is sitting on the floor in the team’s weight room, just off the practice court, stretching before he has to leave to pick up his son. He’s drenched from playing at least four games with Armstrong and the young guys after a full practice.

“Of course, it’s not like real basketball, because they go up and down,” he says. “But you need to do that. And they can be tough, to be honest. They make you get into your rhythm, to do something excellent like you normally do in the game.”

He goofs around with the kids for the better part of an hour, swinging the little ones around, blocking the shots of the bigger ones, charming everyone.

Which is, perhaps, an idea that people do not consider enough, maybe because he’s not out there that often, or at least not regularly. But Boban does do something excellent almost every time he is in a game. He is definitely not just a curiosity. His career player efficiency rating (which measures per-minute production) is 26.1; only six players in the history of the NBA have higher. He’s a smart player with wonderful, delicate footwork and a soft touch around the basket, a sneakily good passer who always knows where to be on both ends of the court.

All of that was on display in a December game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Boban finished with 15 points (including a nimble drop step into a velvety-soft jump hook) and 16 rebounds, his first double-double of the season, and added two blocks and a pair of assists.

“Oh, I feel amazing,” he said, being interviewed by Wade on the court after it was over. “You know, my first time on TV.” He looked into the camera. “Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad! Hi, family! I’m here in Dallas.”

He didn’t play in the Mavericks’ next three games.

Boban grew up in eastern Serbia in a tiny town called Boljevac, before leaving at 15 to make his way in the basketball world. Sitting on the floor of the Mavs’ weight room, he says 3,000 people live in Boljevac, maybe 4,000. I tell him that I come from somewhere similar, a little place with a population around 2,500, keeping the conversation going while I’m writing something down in my notebook. When I look up, I see Boban’s fist extended toward me, to dap me up. Look at us, his gesture says, two small-town boys.

Boban Marjanovic Dallas Mavericks
In His Lane: Boban makes even players like Steven Adams, who is 6-foot-11, seem small. He might not be the tallest in the NBA, but he’s the biggest.

I put my hand out, and it’s like giving a fist bump to a cinder block.

Two nights after the Jazz game, with the Mavs up big on the Sacramento Kings deep into the fourth quarter, forward Justin Jackson misses a 3-pointer from almost the same spot where Clarkson did, and the ball winds up in the same place as it did then, stuck behind the backboard. This time, everyone is ready.

As soon as the ball comes to rest, the crowd buzzes with anticipation. “Oh, we’re gonna need Boban again,” Wade says on the broadcast.

Luka Dončić and Maxi Kleber, seated on either side of Boban, immediately light up like they’ve just spotted themselves on the scoreboard video screen and turn to him, each grabbing a shoulder. Barea jumps from his seat and runs to his teammate, gesturing at Boban to get out there with his right hand while holding his left up like a traffic cop to wave off Porzingis.

Boban jogs over to the basket and dutifully grabs the mop. Think about this, about the self-deprecation and sense of humor on display from one of the tallest people on the planet, a supremely gifted athlete who earns $3.5 million per year. He is not normal. It takes him three attempts to get the ball down this time, as Dončić looks on with an expression reminiscent of an orphan meeting Santa.

“He just wants to make a contribution,” Harper says, as Boban slaps Dončić’s hand and hugs Barea back at the bench, “even if it’s not in the game.”

But he does get to make another small contribution in this one, taking the court for the final three minutes or so. With 29 seconds left, he sinks a 3-pointer, only the seventh of his career. The crowd goes absolutely insane.

A month after I watch him play point guard with a bunch of interns, running up and down the court in his size-20 Nikes, Boban gets his second start of the season, replacing a resting Porzingis in the lineup at home against the Denver Nuggets. This is why he stays ready.

He seems to get exponentially better the more he plays, falling into the rhythm, making one excellent move after another.

The Nuggets have their own Serbian center, Nikola Jokić, 7 feet tall, somewhere around 300 pounds, an All-NBA big man accustomed to having a size advantage on just about everyone. But not against Boban. Boban scores the Mavs’ first two points with a dunk over Jokić. In the second quarter, he finishes a nifty drive to the basket with a feathery fadeaway from an angle Jokić would have needed a stepladder to block. Later, after Jokić pulls in a rebound, Boban strips his countryman, smoothly gathers the ball, and dunks again. When the first half ends, he has 11 points.   

Then everything gets weird.

During the second half, it’s announced that the game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder has been called off moments before tipoff. Jazz center Rudy Gobert has tested positive for the coronavirus. News moves quickly from there. Before the fourth quarter starts, the season is suspended indefinitely. And suddenly, this is the last game of the entire NBA season, at least for now.

With no games to plan for, nothing to play for, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle decides to leave Boban on the court longer than he normally would, and Boban makes the most of it. He seems to get exponentially better the more he plays, falling into the rhythm, making one excellent move after another. He begins the fourth quarter with a turnaround jumper in the lane to give the Mavs a lead they won’t lose, and he’s cooking. Boban scores 16 points in the fourth quarter alone, giving him a career-high 31, along with 17 rebounds. This is the best game of his life.

But it’s almost like it’s not happening. The arena isn’t quiet, exactly, but there is a strange energy, a kind of eerie hum as people stare at the news on their phones. The broadcast is almost completely devoted to figuring out the NBA’s future even as there is still a little more present left. The game is even minimized on TV screens much of the time, so ESPN can show footage of fans leaving the game in Oklahoma City.

Within a week, it wasn’t just the NBA that was put on hold. The coronavirus pushed pause on everything. Restaurants and bars closed. Gyms, too. In Dallas, you weren’t allowed to have enough people in the same place to run a decent pickup game. Looking back, it feels like that game against the Denver Nuggets, Boban’s biggest professional achievement, happened a year ago. World events, it seems, did something no human could: make Boban Marjanović look small.

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