Nikola Jokic stood at his locker following the Denver Nuggets' 104-92 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 24 dressed, as usual, in a monochromatic sweat suit. A pack of reporters huddled around him roughly 15 minutes after he'd helped topple Memphis with 14 fourth-quarter points. They wanted to talk about Marc Gasol, his big fourth quarter, the crowd.
Jokic was interested in discussing a different game entirely.
"I’m going to give you one interesting stat," Jokic said, launching into a non-sequitur after he was asked about his team's success at Pepsi Center. "In 2 1/2 years, I beat Sparky every time in ping pong. And today he beat me after two and a half years. So it’s got to be something about this day."
Jokic was referring to Sparky Gonzales, the Nuggets' long-time equipment manager. When Jokic was a rookie in 2015, the two of them began playing ping pong against each other for fun. Two seasons later, their matches have evolved into a heated rivalry that pits the team's star center against the man whose job is to do the dirty work.
Before every home game, Jokic and Gonzales meet in the auxiliary room next to where Denver players dress. In the back right corner is a white table that's cut in half by a strip of plastic, which serves as a net. This is where Jokic and Gonzalez battle. They begin the game at 4 p.m. if it's a 7 p.m. tipoff. That gives Jokic plenty of time to get his ping-pong fix before he eats and goes through individual on-court work.
The matchup is one-sided. Thanks to to his 7-foot-3 wingspan and freakish hand-eye coordination, Jokic dominates. He's not a graceful winner either.
"I think we cannot compare me and Sparky in the same sentence," Jokic said. "He is just not that good."
Gonzales, who's in his 17th season as Denver's equipment manager, estimates that his record is 7-100 against Jokic in the 2 1/2 years they've been playing. Jokic is skeptical Gonzales' win total is even that high.
"Did you ask him before or after practice? If you asked him after practice maybe he was a little,” Jokic said, tipping his head back and bringing his right thumb to his mouth as if it was a bottle.
"He's really good," Gonzales admitted. "He’s got a good backhand. He’s got a forehand. He’s got a good serve. He'll slam it if you put it too high."
Shooting guard Gary Harris sometimes watches them play while he eats his pregame meal. Harris emphasized how serious Jokic takes the matchup.
"He doesn’t play about the ping pong," Harris said. "They come in, and that’s the first thing they do. He gets his pregame gear on and goes straight to the ping pong table."
"He gets in the zone. You guys should watch it. Someone should film it. It’s entertaining."
Gonzales and Jokic are both veteran ping pong players. Gonzales, who's worked for Kroenke Sports and Entertainment since 1977, began playing 30 years ago. Jokic's ping-pong playing days started when he was a teenager. He went up against his older brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja, growing up. The youngest Jokic brother claims he's the best ping pong player out of the three.
"I’m the most talented son of our parents," Jokic said. "I’m the best in everything. Maybe in fighting, maybe in martial arts things, they’re better in that. But if I practice in that I think I’m better too."
On Saturday, Jokic and Gonzales played for the 16th time this season. Gonzales has won twice so far this year — the first of which happened hours before Jokic nearly hung a triple-double on the Grizzlies.
Gonzales came close to earning his third win Saturday. But as he does so often, Jokic pulled it out in the end.