The hugs had been exchanged. The tears had been shed. The realizations had been accepted: there would be no more basketball for this Nuggets team. Their dream of a championship, which had been faint at the outset of the season but had grown brighter as the wins rolled in, was extinguished.
One player stayed back in the locker room. For hours, he sat by himself at his locker, not answering any of the messages that came to his phone, not changing out of his uniform, not doing anything but staring at the floor. He had been their leader, but he had failed them. Leaving the locker room would be the final acceptance of this fact. So he stayed.
“Nikola. I knowings you would be alone.”
Nikola wearily raised his gaze at the sound of the familiar voice. When he saw Jusuf Nurkic standing there, he didn’t even feel surprise. The security personnel preventing entry into the locker room would have departed long ago. It was unlikely that Jusuf had met any resistance at all in getting in. “Yep. You found me, Jusuf.”
Jusuf seemed calmer than usual. In a typical interaction between them, Jusuf would be enraged to the point of irrationality, but now, Nikola noted that there was a remarkable clarity in Jusuf’s eyes. Perhaps they would be able to have a rational discussion of their differences.
“Nuggets is losers,” Jusuf said with a smirk. “Dumb Serb Nikola will getting fat on couch while strong Bosnian Jusuf will support teammates of Blazers during run to Finals.”
“You guys played great,” replied Nikola. “We’re lucky that you weren’t playing, or the series might have been over sooner than it was.”
Jusuf had seemed ready to come back with another series of insults, but he was caught off-guard by Nikola’s heartfelt words. His smug look softened, but he remained defiant. “Nikola attempts to win favor of superior Bosnian by sayings the flattery words. But I very much wary of Serb deceptions, and my hating of Nikola cannot being soothed just by words from mouth.”
“No deceptions, Jusuf,” Nikola said. “Despite your violent actions towards me, I respect you both as a player and as a human. When you’re ready, we can set aside the differences which drove us apart when we were teammates here.” Nikola stood up and held out his hand as a peace offering.
Looking at his foe’s outstretched hand, Jusuf took one step forward, as if in a trance, before coming back to his senses and stopping. “No! Is trick! When hands touch, that is when evil Vlach magic curse is transferring!”
Nikola felt guilty for having pretended to use traditional Serbian magic cast a “spell” on Jusuf in one of their recent encounters. It truly seemed like Jusuf took the old Balkan superstitions seriously. “There’s no such thing as magic, Jusuf. Vlach or otherwise.” He held his hand out again to re-emphasize his offer of reconciliation. “The real magic is when a broken friendship is repaired and brothers are reunited.”
Jusuf’s expression of fear disappeared. He looked at Nikola’s hand, then at his face, then back at his hand. His resolve was visibly crumbling. Tentatively, he held out his hand, then withdrew it. Finally, he overcame his fear of Vlach magic, and grasped Nikola’s hand in his own.
The two men locked eyes, Nikola’s strong and steady, Jusuf’s wavering. When Nikola held out his other arm for an embrace, there was less hesitation on Jusuf’s part. They hugged closely and fiercely, and in that moment, Nikola forgot all about basketball.
As they hugged, Jusuf stared over Nikola’s shoulder at the switchblade in his hand, a weapon which Jusuf had concealed under the long sleeve of his shirt. The sharp blade gleamed dangerously beneath the fluorescent lights of the locker room. It would be so easy to use it, to eliminate the scourge of Nikola from his life forever. It would be the ultimate act of triumph.
But a different kind of triumph was within reach. The triumph of friendship.
Jusuf let the blade fall from his hand.