Boban Marjanovic’s big basketball dreams started small.
He can picture himself at 10 years old, watching the Serbia national team win the 1998 FIBA World Championship on television in his house—“Come on, make free throw!”—as Dejan Bodiroga led his country to its first gold medal in the event. He thinks back with admiration on how that group was like movie stars—Bodiroga, Sasha Danilovic before him, built up on television and in newspapers, predating the social media that’s contributed to turning Marjanovic into an international phenomenon—and remembers his goal wasn’t, at first, to play with them.
“I remember that time when I was sitting in front of TV and I was like, Man, this is amazing,” Marjanovic says, his long 7-3 frame folded into an office chair, overlooking the retired numbers at the Philadelphia 76ers training facility between bites of his beet salad. “You know. Amazing sport. Amazing players. I wish one time, not like I can play, more like—I wish one time I could meet these people. Nobody can touch them because they’re on TV.”
This was how it started for Marjanovic, growing up in Boljevac, population 3,332. A childhood with deprivations Marjanovic says will make a great book someday, inspirational reading, “Like, you know the Rocky films? I want when somebody read my book and say, ‘Man, I want to work out. This is like amazing story.’”
Because for Marjanovic, it’s always been a struggle. Imagine a childhood in a small village where you cannot hide, 6-10 by the time you’re 14. He remembers how it’s always been entering a room, seeing himself through the eyes of others. “There’s nothing easy because I’m tall guy, different than everybody,” Marjanovic says. “When you look at a person—my hands, my ears, my nose, you know, like, how I walk. It was like, Man, this guy is not the same. There’s something wrong with him or he has like some disease, sickness.”
And yet there’s been this duality to how Marjanovic is viewed. The clichéd story is that the too-tall, gangly presence off the court turns into the sought-after talent on the court. This wasn’t the case for Marjanovic, not right away, and really, not even until the Sixers brought him in, along with his best friend Tobias Harris, in a deal earlier this season meant to turn the Philly roster into what general manager Elton Brand hopes is its Finals-winning form.
Basketball was simply another part of his childhood, at least at first, something to do after coming home and asking his older sister, Vesna, for help with his homework. He asked his father to take him to basketball practice at his school because his friends were going one evening. There was little indication, he says, that a future international career and NBA star was born that day.
“We come there,” Marjanovic says. “We just start to have fun. Basically, first practice, nobody can practice like this. Most [of us] start to run or throw the ball. Like, who can throw the highest. How that shot feels like from the knees or from the chest.”
There were no thoughts of agents, or draft position, or flying across the world to play basketball as a profession that night in Boljevac.
“You know, I’m supposed to ’cause kids have dreams, but my first thing, I want to be with my friends and have fun,” Marjanovic says. “And this is like basketball, the game. We want to have fun on the court. This is how everything got started. Now the kids play for the money. They play for the celebrity. [I] played just to have fun because my friends were there. The ball was there. We try to have fun. This is my first thinking when I step on the court.”
Marjanovic preserved this mentality, and it’s come in handy, as he’s worked hard to prove himself, again and again, amid doubters. There’s been this disconnect between what the numbers say he is on the floor—an elite, efficient scorer around the basket the likes of which has rarely come along in NBA history; a defender maligned yet consistently leading his teams to better defensive numbers when he’s on the floor vs. off it; a skilled player whose skills are somehow blocked out in the view of coaches, media and fans alike by his frame; his big personality—and what people think he is. He smiled earlier the day of our interview when a reporter asked him in a group session about his two assists against the Heat the night before, as if passing was some revelatory new part of his game. He’s not mad, he’s actually happy he got the question. Marjanovic is used to people missing the parts of his game that make him special, relishes the chance to fill in the blanks.
“Oh, I can pass,” Marjanovic calmly explained. “You already see that. I can pass the ball like this. I think you must born with that. You cannot learn how to pass the ball. You just have or not have and I can pass the ball.”
It’s true, he can: assists in six of his first seven games in Philly, part of a second straight season with double digit assist percentages.
This is the Boban Marjanovic story: gently, firmly showing, telling the world what he can do, even as they doubt him, even as they discount his successes and focus on what everyone is certain are his flaws, the ways he must be out of step with the modern game.
And so, it was the case that after he signed with an agent, he stayed overseas for the end of the Serbian League in 2010, and no NBA team even drafted him. Two years later, he remembers sitting in an office in a Russian outpost midway through the 2011-12 season, as an executive with BC Nizhny Novgorod told him he wasn’t even good enough to play for the team. He thinks about it sometimes, still. It is his Rocky music.
“They basically tell me, ‘I cannot see you play basketball anymore. You can go in your village,’” he says.
He did, and returning to Serbia, promptly won Serbian League MVP, continuing to work on his game, trying to attract the attention of the NBA, until he did—Gregg Popovich brought him over to play for the Spurs, with another group of stars he knew from TV. He was married by then—he and Milica had their first child, Vuk—but there was no question they needed to go to San Antonio.
“Like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Aldridge, David West, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, it was the team of your dreams,” Marjanovic remembers telling his wife. “You know, just think and they already have the best coach and I was like, Man, let’s do it.”
Success followed, enough of it that the Pistons made Marjanovic an offer so good—three years, $21 million—Popovich insisted Marjanovic take it. Still, consistent playing time has remained elusive. So on nights his coaches have decided he is the wrong matchup, Marjanovic just remembers the feeling that first imbued him with joy on the school court back home. He takes pride in cheering for his teammates, always among the first off the bench after a big play.
And he’s always ready to contribute, knowing that he’s going to maximize his five minutes, or his 30. Around three hours before game time, he finds that acceptance of the night ahead.
“I know my body,” Marjanovic says. “At that time, I make my mind ready. My mind is ready with me. I am thinking about nice stuff. If you want to play a game, [you should] have fun. I just relax my mind. No overthinking.”
In coach Brett Brown, he has a long-time admirer, someone who sees beyond what everyone has decided are the things Marjanovic can’t do. Finally, in Philadelphia, where so much of NBA conventional wisdom has been upended these last few years, Marjanovic is in a place where the opportunity may match the way he’s always seen himself, the way the numbers measure him no matter how many naysayers come along to dismiss them.
“He is so unique to our league, he’s very different to our league,” Brown says of Marjanovic in late February, a day after Boban took on the understudy role for Joel Embiid and Brown’s Sixers didn’t miss a beat—19 and 12 for the center, another win for Philly. “And some of the things that we’re seeing we sort of identified. I saw him play 10 years ago. And how we now use him, now that he’s mine, now that he’s ours, is exciting.”
In Brown’s eyes, the paradigm is finally about what advantages come with Boban Marjanovic, rather than getting blinded by what it is assumed he cannot do.
“Make him a real target, a focal point,” Brown says. “Because I think it would be pretty cool to have rim protectors like Joel Embiid and Boban chewing up 48 minutes. That would work if the other teams would let us type it up. And I’m excited to continue to grow Boban and see how we can best use him.”
So now he’s here, in the very city of the Rocky movies, just a short drive from the famous Philadelphia Art Museum steps. He’s on the cusp of free agency, another chance for 30 teams to see him, really see him, and he’s already won the hearts of Philly’s faithful, who pack the Wells Fargo Center and stand and cheer him when he enters the game, a useful and vital component of a Sixers team that looks poised to complete The Process.
And none of this is a surprise to Boban Marjanovic, hero of his own story. That duality continues as well, with a fuller appreciation for the father of two now, devoted husband, open-hearted man of the world now on display for all to see.
“Like, they see the size but I think they see something more [now],” Marjanovic says. “A couple days ago, someone told me something nice, a compliment. He was like, ‘You’re big, but you’re not just big. Your heart is so big and people know that. People more like you for that and you’re likable, like a friend and like a person.’ I have two kids. I want, one day, somebody to tell them what this person tell to me. I want somebody to come to them and tell that same story.”
Howard Megdal is a contributor to SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @howardmegdal.
Photos via Getty.