There are some NBA fans out there that have muttered:
“But he makes millions of dollars.”
“He’s a professional basketball player, he should be able to play through and deal with anything going on in his life.”
Whether that's a fair assessment or not, which I don’t believe it is, at the end of the day, these professional basketball players are still human beings.
And no, that’s not an excuse for a poor performance.
It’s just reality.
As the Trail Blazers cruised to a blowout victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves Thursday night, something felt different after the game.
Maybe it was that the Blazers didn’t squander a 20-plus lead like they did in Tuesday’s loss to the Bulls.
The team seemed happy about that.
In fact, it was Jusuf Nurkic's rare postgame Zoom interview that will be the most memorable moment of the night.
Sure, he had an efficient night, going 8-for-10 from the field, had 17 points, seven rebounds and two assists.
But, when Nurkic sat down in his yellow mustard suit, he laid it all out:
It's no secret that Nurkic has struggled to start the season and admitted that he returned to Portland at "70 percent" as far as his conditioning goes.
It was apparent, too, that Nurkic was emotional after having poor performances while also seeing and hearing about that disappointment from fans and the NBA world.
“I don’t worry about it too much,” Nurkic said of how he has been perceived early on this season. “Obviously, basketball is the priority for me right now, but we all human beings, we are all dealing with everything going on outside of our bubble."
It's funny, in a way. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that these NBA athletes, who lead a very different life than most, are real humans, with real feelings.
And 2020 was just as tough on Nurkic as anyone else.
His grandmother was diagnosed and later passed away from COVID-19 while the Trail Blazers were in the Orlando bubble. Despite the heavy heart, Nurkic decided to stay with the team.
“The situation come up and I don’t want to be in the same situation like I be in the bubble being so far and something happen and I would regret [it] later. So I pick to stay with my family… I’m a human being first.”
The 26-year-old center was in Bosnia with his family when Portland tipped off its 2020-21 training camp.
He missed the first week of individual workouts.
The team had said it was for “personal reasons.”
And for Nurk, that situation remains "personal."
“I don’t have to and I don’t want to, but it is because of family – why I decided to stay longer.”
But just because he is worried about his family, doesn’t mean he isn’t also concerned about his team.
“Right now I really want to get going and help the team win games,” Nurkic said. “It’s a long season… I think the first couple of games, I didn’t want to rush anything.”
Entering Thursday's game, the Blazers big man was averaging 9.4 points and 7.9 rebounds in nearly 25 minutes per game.
But against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Nurkic showed that he can once again dominate in the pick and roll. And even if it was against a T-Wolves team that was playing without Karl-Anthony Towns, it was still nice for Nurkic to get going.
Nurkic has had his teammates to lean on, as well.
Damian Lillard, who has always his teammates' back, spoke highly of Nurkic playing through his situation.
“For us, we just gotta support him,” Lillard added. “We’ve got to be there for him and show him that we care and we are on his side. I think it’s easy to try to say, ‘oh, we need him to do this and we need him to do that,’ and look past what he may be going through personally, but that’s not what we are here for, that’s not why they call us teammates and why they call us friends.”
Nurkic says he has also continued to work on his role as being a team player.
But it’s been difficult for fans not to see “Bubble Nurk,” who averaged 17.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, and 1.4 steals.
“Now people be like, I should put up 40 points a game,” Nurkic said Thursday night.
But as Lillard mentioned postgame, he and the rest of the team have faith in Nurkic.
It’s about grabbing rebounds, rolling to the basket, and setting good picks -- all of the small things needed to have a successful team and a successful season.
Nurkic says that he is still looking at his phone for a text or phone call update from his family, but he added, “it’s getting better, which is good, but you never know… We’ll see.”