In Boban Marjanović’s tour of Texas, courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Houston Rockets, the seven-foot-four Serbian big man has noticed a thing or two about the state and those of us who call it home.

“I land in Texas and say, ‘Hey, everything’s bigger in Texas,’ ” he tells me, letting out a booming laugh. I’m guessing he picked this line up from one of those tourism campaigns. “What I like is that all the people, they’re so kind,” he says. “I’ve had great experiences here. Really, it’s how you treat people. That’s how people will treat you.”

It’s a few days before the end of a dreadful rebuilding season for the Rockets, and I’m in downtown Houston, sitting across from this 290-pound gentle giant, just a few steps from the team’s practice floor inside the Toyota Center. I’ve come to inform him of a teensy bit of history he made this season, his first with the Rockets. Having previously played for the Spurs in 2015–16 and the Mavericks between 2019 and 2022, Marjanović is only the second player in league history to spend full seasons with all three NBA franchises in Texas.

Before Marjanović completed the Texas triangle, only Mark Bryant, currently an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns, had pulled off that hat trick. (A handful of other retired pros, including former Mavs coach Avery Johnson and ageless power forward Kevin Willis, managed to suit up for all three teams without completing a whole season for every squad.)

Marjanović slaps a humongous hand on the table at this news. “Really?” he says. “Cool! Yeah, I make some history here. I really love Texas. I bought a house here. My kids are in school. It’s my favorite state so far.” After a moment of thinking over his role in this bit of NBA trivia, he adds a clarification. As a rookie, Marjanović also played for San Antonio’s developmental league team in Austin. In one game there, he dunked a ball so hard that screws popped out of the basket’s rim. “I hit all the big cities,” he says. (He can take that up with the folks in Fort Worth if he stops by Joe T. Garcia’s.)

Marjanović is unfailingly polite—to the point of sometimes seeming anxious to please—and he begins our interview by apologizing for keeping me waiting. He’d thrown himself into his workout and lost track of time. He arrived a measly ten minutes behind schedule.

“Bobi,” as teammates, coaches, and friends call him, is one of the NBA’s most recognizable and beloved players, thanks largely to a string of television commercials and movie cameos. In every arena, fans roar with approval when he tosses away his warm-up jersey and prepares to enter a game. “I hear my name and the fans,” he says. “They make you feel like you do a great job. Your blood pumps in your veins. You’re proud of yourself. I feel like my parents are proud.”

When Marjanović landed in San Antonio eight years ago, it was his first look at Texas and only his second visit to the United States. “My English then, it was tricky,” he recalls. “I could understand what people were saying, but it was all new. The NBA was my dream, but I had to learn so much.”

All things considered, he caught up pretty fast. Although he missed Robert Earl Keen’s farewell tour, hasn’t made it over to Barton Springs yet, and was unaware that Texans will sometimes wait hours for a slice of brisket, Marjanović’s indoctrination into the Lone Star State is coming along. He notes that Houston appears to have some traffic issues, that people seem “always busy” in Dallas, and that San Antonio feels, well, big.

As for cuisine, his wife is a bigger Tex-Mex fan than he is, so he occasionally goes along to get along. “You know, if it makes my wife happy, it’s what you need to do, right?” he says.  He does that with teammates, too, explaining: “I don’t want to be the party breaker.” He’s unsure about the whole concept of chicken-fried steak and balks at the mention of “gravy” when a member of the Rockets staff tries to explain the dish.

“I’m not a big sauce guy,” Marjanović says. “I never put sauce on something. I’ll put ketchup.” Eventually, though, he concedes: “I’m not picky about food. I try to eat everything. Like with my mom, if you have a plate, this is what you eat. You need to finish.”

Marjanović’s true fame has been amplified by a television and movie career that began with a cameo in the 2015 Serbian sports drama We Will Be the World Champions. Four years later, he appeared opposite Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, in which Marjanović plays a Dante-quoting assassin who fights Reeves in the stacks of the New York Public Library. He’s also performed in the Netflix Adam Sandler vehicle Hustle and in national ad campaigns for State Farm Insurance and Goldfish crackers.

Among his NBA peers, Marjanović is considered one of the sweetest and most likable people to ever don a jersey. Although he’s averaged just under nine minutes of playing time over his 317 NBA games (for six franchises in all), his impact on teammates has been significant. “Everybody loves him,” Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate told the Houston Chronicle. “Everywhere he goes, people love him. Fans love him. Just having him here is great for our young guys, great for our organization. It’s something I can only imagine—everywhere you go, being somebody’s favorite person.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told the Athletic: “He’s a special, caring, loving, upbeat guy.” This from the guy who essentially threw Marjanović off his team seven years ago. Well, there’s a little more to the story than that: the Spurs signed Marjanović as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2015–16 season. He joined a franchise that still had championship ambitions after winning the 2014 NBA title, and a roster loaded with stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili, and Kawhi Leonard.

Duncan was one of his heroes, and from him, Marjanović learned lessons on focus, priorities, and discipline. “When it’s time to practice, it’s time to practice,” he says. “He didn’t say much. He’ll show up to practice. He’ll show up to the game. He’ll be ready. Great role model.” Asked about the famously taciturn Popovich, Marjanović straightens up, throws his head back, and puts his arms by his side. This, he said, is how people react when Popovich approaches. “Everybody is quiet,” he says. “[But] he’s really super nice. He believed in me. He brought me here. Gave me my dream. He found something good in me.”

Marjanović played 9.4 minutes a game that season with the Spurs, but his hyperefficient scoring made enough of an impression around the league that the Detroit Pistons offered him a three-year, $21 million contract. The Spurs, with all their highly paid stars, had no such salary-cap room or, for that matter, playing time. Nevertheless, Marjanović had plans to reject the offer and remain in San Antonio. “You know, I’m more like a loyal guy,” he explains. “That’s the most important thing in life. I felt like leaving San Antonio would be betraying someone.”

That’s when Popovich all but forced Marjanović to leave. “He’s such a good kid, at some point I had to work to get him to understand that twenty-one million was different than three million,” the Spurs coach told reporters before the 2016–17 season. “I said, ‘Get your ass out of here. Go. You’ve got to do it.’ But he felt bad. . . . I would have felt forever guilty if I would have convinced him to stay and give up all that money. In the end, I just had to say, ‘No, you’re going. You’re gonna go. You have a family. You have to do it.’ And he begrudgingly went.”

“Coach Pop talked to me and said, ‘You need to take care of your family; you need to go there,’ ” Marjanović recalls. “Pop is the best at thinking about your family, not just basketball. He tell me to go, I go.

“I react to how people treat me, and everything is not about money,” he says. “It’s relationships and friendships. But I went to Detroit, and it was a great experience. Your heart is still San Antonio. You still want to be there. But you adjust on everything, and business is business.”

About halfway through his second season in Detroit, the Pistons traded Marjanović to the Los Angeles Clippers, which prompted this from Detroit teammate Aaron Gray: “Man, I cried when that dude got traded. He just changes you, man.”

Marjanović played 56 games with the Clippers before being dealt to the Philadelphia 76ers. After the season, he signed a free-agent contract with the Mavericks, where he was united with Luka Dončić, a fellow Balkan international player and a friend of Marjanović for many years. Marjanović says he was barely recognized when he joined the Mavericks in 2019, but that changed when fans found out he and Dončić were pals. “A lot of people follow him on Instagram,” he says. “I think that’s why I became even more famous than I’m supposed to be.”    

Teammates and coaches who’ve spent time up close with Marjanović marvel at the joy he takes in everyday tasks, from the drudgery of practice to life on the road. His pregame routine includes shaking hands and asking the names of ball boys, security guards, and bus drivers. He stops for selfies and autographs and gamely answers fans’ questions about the size of his feet and hands.  

Sometimes, it’s Marjanović doing the hero-worship act. Like the night this season when he saw Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets’ all-time greatest player, sitting courtside. “I’m shy around people,” he says, “but when I see someone I really love . . . I walk up. [Olajuwon] hugs me and says, ‘Hey, let’s take a picture.’ I’m [thinking], ‘You met your hero!’ ”

Marjanović averaged a career-low 5.5 minutes and 3.3 points per game for the rebuilding Rockets this year, and at 34, he’s unsure what to expect from his basketball future. Still, he has enjoyed his time in Houston. “Maybe I play less,” he says, “but I can help with advice to the young guys. If you can’t always help on the court, you can help on the side. I’m blessed because so many people have helped me. Really, it has been true all over the United States. I’m living my dream.”