If he happened to be American, there’d already be a “30 for 30” about him, and Hollywood producers would beg to get the rights to his life story. Once you learn about the odds he beat, going from a small village in Bosnia to Portland, Oregon, Nurk’s magnificent return from a knee injury in the bubble will make perfect sense.
And when I say small, I mean small. Svojat, Bosnia had its population peak in 1991 with 850 inhabitants. Three years after the census, while the Yugoslavian war was still going on, Jusuf Nurkić was born. You don’t have many options as a kid growing up in a small village in a country recovering from war. Like most kids, Jusuf turned to sports for fun, and like most kids, the game in question was soccer.
Nurkić started practicing organized basketball in 2009, and in 2014 he was in the NBA. His basketball journey started with the craziest origin story ever. Jusuf’s father, Hariz, is a police officer in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and he stands at about 7 feet and weighs over 250 pounds. After a story broke out that he beat up 14 people in a fight (true story!), a Bosnian sports agent Enes Trnovčević went directly to their house with only one thing in mind – find out if the cop has a son.
The guy showed up at my house and said: “You’re the best kid in ’94 [generation] in Bosnia.” I’m looking at that dude like, “WHAT??” He was 1000% sure I was going to be in the NBA. He actually said what’s my height gonna be. When he was saying it, it didn’t make any sense.
The agent mapped out a path for Jusuf, but it wasn’t going to be easy. For Jusuf to take his chance, he had to leave his home and go to Slovenia. An 8-hour drive from friends and family, a new country with a different language and culture, and all that for a 15-year-old who never played real basketball in his life. It was the ultimate leap of faith.
Just as his career was taking off, Nurkić had a serious knee injury in 2012. Questions about his commitment and conditioning started to appear. When a Croatian team, Cedevita, gave him a chance, Nurkić took it and didn’t look back. In the ’13/’14 season, just five years after getting introduced to basketball and after a serious knee injury, Nurkić was nominated for the FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year Award. Dario Šarić won it for the second time that year, But Nurkić didn’t lose much sleep over it.
He was going to Denver as the 16th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Not bad for a kid from Svojat, Bosnia.