BLAZERS' CENTER OF ATTENTION
Think back. When did you catch Nurkic Fever?
Was it on Feb. 13, the day after the Trail Blazers acquired Jusuf Nurkic in a trade with Denver, when the 7-foot, 280-pound center made all five field-goal attempts and collected 13 points and eight rebounds in just 21 minutes against Utah in his Portland debut?
Was it on Feb. 23, in his second game in a Blazer uniform, when he contributed 12 points and 12 rebounds to a victory at Orlando?
Or were you finally afflicted on March 9, when the "Bosnian Beast" erupted for 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists and six blocked shots against Philadelphia — becoming the first player to reach those numbers since Charles Barkley in 1986?
Could it have been when he said after the game, "I love it here. I appreciate what the city is doing for me, and the fans. I just want to give them something back?"
Don't say you haven't caught it. Everyone in Portland has a case of Nurkic Fever.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remain the team leaders, but the talk of the town these days is the 22-year-old wunderkind.
"It's all about Nurkic, all of it right now," says Chad Doing, talk-show host on Rip City Radio (620 AM). "People love ('Dame') but it's all about Nurkic."
No more tanking talk
Local interest in the Blazers was on the wane when Nurkic came aboard. Portland was 23-32, and the debate among those still engaged was whether or not the club should tank and shoot for the draft lottery.
Since then, the Blazers have gone 12-6 and are very much in the running for a playoff spot. Nurkic pumped life back into the fans, or at least took them off the respirator.
Nurkic's impact "has been phenomenal," says Dave Deckard, managing editor of "Blazer's Edge," a website that follows the team. "Our comments have doubled or tripled, and they have been amazingly positive.
"There was a stretch during the season when it was hard to find anything positive being written. Now all of a sudden, a large percentage of people are enthused about the team's fight for the No. 8 playoff spot. There has been a big uptick (of reader participation), not just in numbers but in positivity. The biggest reason is 'Nurk.'"
Since the trade
Minutes — 519 (28.8)
Points — 252 (14.0)
Rebounds — 178 (9.9)
FGs — 101-205 (49.3%)
Team record — 12-6
Minutes — 457 (25.4)
Points — 172 (9.6)
Rebounds — 126 (7.0)
FGs — 68-118 (57.6%)
Team record — 10-8
Nurkic has had a similar effect on his teammates, who liked the player he was traded for, Mason Plumlee. Plumlee is an athletic big, a guy who can run the court and finish and pass like a guard. But he can't shoot from the perimeter, he isn't a post-up threat on offense, and he isn't a rim protector on defense.
Nurkic has all those skills.
"He's a perfect player for our system," guard Allen Crabbe says. "He's playing great for us, blocking shots, protecting the paint, scoring, rebounding, dishing out assists. He's doing a lot for us. Everything turned out to be good."
Terry Stotts is careful when assessing Nurkic's impact.
The Blazers' rise, the coach says, "coincides with a lot of things. (Nurkic's presence) gave us an emotional boost. Damian is playing at an extremely high level. Coming off the All-Star break, we were a tired team. Since then, a lot of guys have been playing well. We're in a playoff race. All our guys are more focused. He is certainly a part of it, but I don't want to assign a certain percentage."
We love our centers
No question, though, Nurkic has made a difference.
A month and a half into his tenure as a Blazer, he has grown into a mythical creature. A cult figure. A folk hero. A phenomenon.
"It doesn't surprise me," Stotts says. "Everybody loved 'Mase.' Everybody loved 'RoLo' (Robin Lopez). The city loves good basketball players. Going back to (Bill) Walton and (Arvydas) Sabonis, the fans appreciate centers."
But there's something about Nurkic that defies logic. How did he become so popular, so quickly? Maybe it's the bit of a swagger with which he carries himself. Maybe it's the robust presence he brings to the Blazers middle that had been missing for a while.
Perhaps it's from the two (false) teeth he had knocked out due to a blow from Toronto's PJ Tucker, after which Nurkic remained in the game. He had the crowns temporarily repaired after the game, but has lived with it since.
"Never happened before, and I hope it never happens again," he says with a half-grin. "We're going to wait until the season ends to fix it, because I don't want to miss any games."
Recalls Bates phenomenon
Nurkic has captured the city like no one coming to the Blazers in the middle of a season since Billy Ray Bates, the high-flying guard who was first signed to a 10-day contract in February 1980. The 6-4 Bates averaged 11.3 points in 16 regular-season games, then had games of 29 and 26 points in a three-game playoff series against Seattle.
Mostly coming off the bench in his first full season with Portland in 1980-81, Bates averaged 13.8 points, including games of 40 and 35 points over the final two weeks of the regular season. He averaged 28.3 points in a three-game playoff series with Kansas City that year, still a franchise record.
But Bates had behavioral and alcohol problems, and was gone from the Blazers after the 1981-82 campaign and out of the league by 1983. It's unlikely Nurkic will be such an early flameout.
Deckard has been with Blazer's Edge since 2006. The Nurkic effect is almost unprecedented, he believes, in terms of fan interest.
"The Greg Oden lottery and draft was bigger," Deckard says. "The Brandon Roy resurgence was like this, times two or three, and it sustained over three years. Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge provided the same kind of off-the-death-bed experience. And probably Lillard his rookie year. But the middle of the season from a trade? Nothing compares to this.
"Let's pretend Rudy Fernandez had worked out. That would have been comparable. The Scottie Pippen trade was bigger, but that came in the summer. You have to go back pretty far to find a comparison."
Nurkic isn't overwhelmed by the attention. In his mind, he is finally getting the chance to show what he can do.
"It doesn't surprise me," he says, resting on a bench after a recent practice. "I know who I am, what I can do. At some point, they did not allow me to do it in Denver. Coach Stotts and my teammates have let me show what I can do. It's easier to show with the (more) time you get.
"When I have a training camp and a whole season, I think I'll show more of what I can do."
Discovered before he played basketball
Nurkic grew up in Tuzla, population 120,000, the third-largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
His father, Hariz, is a police officer who did not play any professional sports. His mother's name is Rusmina. He has a 9-year-old brother, Kenar.
"He's a lefty — big already," Nurkic says. "He's going to be the real 'Beast.' "
Nurkic fooled around playing various sports, including soccer, through his middle-school years. He didn't start playing basketball until 2009, at age 14.
The story that has made the rounds focuses on his father, who is a very large man, said to be 7 feet tall.
"He's 6-9 or 6-10," Nurkic says.
And 400 pounds?
"Yeah, even more, I think," Nurkic nods.
The senior Nurkic caught attention when it was reported that, while on duty, he had gone up against 14 men in some sort of skirmish, and won.
"True story," his son confirms.
And, the saga continues, a Bosnian sports agent named Enes Trnocevic read the account, drove to the Nurkic home and asked if the father had a son. Why, yes, he was told. But Jusuf had never played basketball on a team.
"He says, 'You're going to be 6-11, 7 feet, and you're going to be an NBA player,'" Nurkic recalls. "I'm 14 years old. I look at him and think, 'Who is this guy?' He made the point, and when you have a guy who believes and knows exactly what's going on, it's a dream come true."
Trnocevic — "my agent for life, I call him," Nurkic says — helped introduce Nurkic to basketball fundamentals, eventually setting him up with a spot with Zlatorog Lasko of Slovenia, where he played at the junior level. He wound up signing a four-year contract with the KK Cedevita pro club in Croatia; the team that controlled his rights, which were bought out by Denver after a draft-night trade with Chicago, after the Bulls took him with the 16th pick in 2014.
Nurkic is an excellent passer who sees the floor well for a big man.
"I learned how to play the right way," he says. "I've had a lot of good coaches. Jasmin Repesa (with Cedevita) was the coach who had the most impact on me. He helped me understand it was all about winning, not about scoring points. I learned to play in a system, not as an individual. When you play as a team, you have a better chance to win."
"Team" is a common theme with Nurkic, who shot a lot of 3-pointers as a junior but has attempted only one this season.
"At some point, that's going to change," he says. "But right now, I'm doing what the team needs. I'm a team guy. It's not about me, man. It's about the team."
In 2014, Nurkic excelled while playing for his home country in the FIBA U-20 European Championships. He averaged 21.4 points, 12 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.6 blocked shots in eight games to claim tournament MVP honors. That year, he was nominated for the FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year Award. Past recipients include Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Jonas Valanciunas and Dario Saric. Nurkic didn't win, but he was on the radar of NBA scouts.
Nurkic started 27 of 62 games as a rookie with Denver in 2014-15, averaging 6.9 points and 6.2 rebounds. He played just 32 games due to ankle problems and then had knee surgery his second season.
Preferred playing with Blazers
Nurkic began this season as a starter alongside another Euro center, Nikola Jokic, but the pairing didn't work. Soon Nurkic was on the bench, Jokic was one of the best bigs in the league, and a trade was facilitated at the urging of Nurkic.
The Blazers, Nurkic says, "were definitely my first pick. I'm not going to make a drama of it, but it's where I wanted to go."
"They were the youngest team in the league," he says. "I'm not just watching short-term. I don't want to have to be in position to find a new home again. I'm not that player who wants to move around every second year or so. When I watched the team and the system and the coach and the organization, I think it's the best thing for me. I hope they find that for them, too."
Despite coming to basketball at a relatively late age, Nurkic has a good understanding of the game.
"It's surprising," Stotts says. "He must have had some good coaching. He has a good basketball IQ, both from a natural instinct and from an Xs and Os standpoint, being able to pick up plays and do things out of timeouts."
One of the things that has helped make Nurkic's transition to the Blazers smooth is his understanding of the English language, to which he was introduced in school as a fifth-grader.
"But it really helped when I started to play basketball," he says. "I played with a lot of American guys, like (ex-Blazer) Nolan Smith and Romeo Travis (a high school teammate of LeBron James). They helped me to learn English. And my first year with the Nuggets, the guys helped me a lot. I have no issue with language now. I can understand everything."
The Blazers have been impressed with how quickly Nurkic has blended into the group.
"He has a good personality," Stotts says. "His teammates like him. He can make fun of himself."
"He's not a shy dude at all," Lillard says. "A lot of foreign guys, they're honest and open with what they feel. He's gotten comfortable with that very quick. We've gotten to know who he is as a person.
"Sometimes one or two jokes might go left, but for the most part, he understands. He's a sharp dude."
Says Crabbe: "He is fitting in well with the team. Everybody likes to be around him. He likes to joke around. Everybody has their own jokes for him, too. He's always on FaceTime with his girlfriend. Everybody is making jokes about that."
Nurkic laughs when told about Crabbe's observation.
"You need to give them something to joke with you," he says. "I try to be funny. I think I am. I enjoy every day with them."
The girlfriend's name is Emina. He says he prefers to keep her last name private. "She lives in Bosnia," he says. "She studies pharmacy."
How serious are they?
"Serious?" he says, his eyebrows raised. "What does that mean?"
Could there be marriage down the road?
"Definitely," he says. "I'm not a guy who just looks around. Right now, I have a girlfriend. I'm happy with that. We're going to go from there."
Comparisons to Sabonis
Nurkic reminds some of Sabonis, a European legend who played seven seasons in two stints with the Blazers. He is flattered by the comparison but deems himself unworthy — so far.
"I've watched him play on clips," Nurkic says. "He's a big name for me. I don't know how he would feel (about the comparison), but I'm not there yet.
"Sabonis was a big-time player. Maybe I have a chance to one day be even better, but right now, I don't think I should even be mentioned with him."
Nurkic says he has never had a weight problem. He currently weighs 280 pounds.
"I feel good at 280 or 290," he says. "I just need to get in more game shape, to play 30 minutes consistently. Right now, Coach (Stotts) is doing a great job handling my minutes.
"I have a lot of work to do. This summer, I'm going to put in a lot of time here, a lot of time overseas with conditioning. There is a lot to improve when you're 22 years old."
Nurkic isn't sure if he'll play for the Bosnian national team this summer.
"We don't have a coach yet," he says. "They're going to know by the end of the month. We have some qualification for the World Cup, but nobody has contacted me yet about it."
Nurkic is living in a hotel not far from the Blazers' Tualatin training facility.
"When I get time, I'll try to figure out where I want to live," he says. "I definitely want to buy a house here. I have no plans to leave (Portland). For me, everything is perfect. I wish I were in a little bit better shape, but that's going to come. It's not going to happen overnight, but I'm here to work and to help these guys to win."
Nurkic says he hasn't yet explored the city or done much of anything besides play basketball.
"No time for anything else right now," he says. "My mind is all about making the playoffs. I do hotel, arena and the training facility — whatever I can to recover faster and be ready for the next game.
"People in Portland didn't know me before I came here. They're going to see a lot more of me. I'll have more impact on the game. But right now, I'm just focused on winning. That's all that matters in this league."
Nurkic's arrival has changed plenty about the Blazers' path, both this season and in the near future, at least as far as the team's following is concerned.
"There was no stir, no buzz before he got here," Deckard says. "Fans were waiting out the season, ready to do the post-mortem and get on to the draft. The EKG had flatlined. Then, after the trade, there was like a little blip. And then the heart was pounding again."
Talk-show host Doing marvels at the swing of public opinion since Plumlee left and Nurkic arrived, along with a future first-round draft pick.
"At first, the pick was the big talk," the talk-show host says. "Then Nurkic played a couple of games, and it's like a wildfire spread rapidly. Interest in the team has increased by the game. People want to talk about him on the air. They're reaching out on social media. I get phone calls from family members and people who love the Blazers, to find out more about the guy.
"In just a few weeks, he has gone from being on Denver's scrap pile to a key figure in the Blazers' playoff run. The entire town is talking about him. The team is playing a different brand of basketball. He has energized his teammates and the fan base. Now people say we have the center of the future taken care of, and it might not be that hard to get the team to where they want it to be."
The irony of the situation, Doing says, is striking.
"The Nuggets thought Plumlee was going to be the final piece to get them over the hump," he says. "It turns out, the guy they discarded is the reason they probably won't make the playoffs."
Nurkic says he doesn't know Plumlee.
"I hear he is a great guy," Nurkic says. "He was loved here. I know he's a pretty good player."
The city is revved up for the Blazers-Nuggets matchup at Moda on Tuesday. Nurkic says it won't be personal.
"I have no issue with them," he says. "I appreciated what the organization did for me. I'm not a guy to make a drama on that.
"I want to win every game. I'm not focused just about Denver. I'm not there any more. I'm happy I found my home here."
He pauses, then smiles.
"I'm having fun," he says. "It's a pleasure to be in a position like this. The things you dream of as a kid, I find here in Rip City. I really want to be here. I enjoy every day."
It's all about Nurkic Fever. Even Jusuf's got it.