Last July, Spurs traded Tiago Splitter to the Atlanta Hawks to clear the cap space needed to make a meaningful push at free agent LaMarcus Aldridge. The plan worked; that $8.5 million Gregg Popovich and company saved for the first marquee signing in recent Spurs history has made a difference, as San Antonio rests just below the transcendent Golden State Warriors atop the Western Conference. Still, on a team that uses role players as effectively as Popovich’s Spurs have the last decade-plus, the Brazilian veteran center Splitter would need replacing.
Enter: jug-eared, floppy haired, Serbian skyscraper Boban Marjanović. Aside from keeping newspaper copyeditors on their toes with an accented consonant, Boban is the type of singular talent—raw, unproven stateside—that is low-risk, high-reward; a low-stakes gamble that Popovich and the Spurs have taken (and won big on) since the late nineties. After ten years playing for Mega Vizura, Crvena zvezda, and other Tolkien-sounding Serbian professional teams, Belgrade’s favorite son wound up in Texas a week after the ink was dry on Aldridge’s contract.
Already a fan favorite, he’s drawn some comparisons to the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis. They’re both 7’3” (some sources say Boban is half an inch taller, but what’s the difference at that point?), fearless defenders, and have captured the hearts of their respective hometown crowds. All but penciled in as this season’s Rookie of the Year, Porzingis’s rise has a much steeper grade than Boban’s considering he was roundly booed by Knicks fans in attendance at the 2015 NBA draft. Boban mania has enjoyed a much richer, gentler rise; like a delicate souffle slowly baking while Porzingis’s tin of Jiffy Pop convulses atop the range.
For one, Boban plays for the Spurs, a team that receives far less attention than the New York Knicks, despite the latter’s last championship parade occurring in a pre-Summer of Sam Manhattan. Porzgingis, a lottery pick playing in television’s largest market for a team with salivating fans, anything resembling a title contender is thriving in a tenuous situation. If the Knicks miss the playoffs or his rocketing ascendance sputters out, Porzingis will start to hear jeers long before Boban ever does.
That’s largely because there isn’t much pressure on a towering center who plays sparingly behind all-time-great Tim Duncan and somehow still effective veteran Boris Diaw (his secret may be the recently uncovered espresso machine he keeps at his locker). In the limited time he’s seen, however—generally in the single digits in close games and more in blowouts—he’s shined.
Boban can hit corner threes. He can actually shoot free throws, hitting eight of eight from the stripe in a December game against the Nuggets. He was too good for his D-League assignment, dunking so hard that he broke the rim and executed a nifty no-look pass in the same Austin Spurs game. His mitts are like two soft shovels, so big, in fact, that when he shook a reporter’s hand recently, an Uproxx editor tweeted his amazement that the two men were of the same species.
And because he can do these things as a literal giant for a winning team, Spurs fans—and NBA fans on a grander scale—go nuts when Boban actually gets meaningful minutes. There’s even a Twitter handle @DidBobanPlay with over 1,000 followers tuning in only to know in “yes” or “no” answers if Boban checked in that night.
Boban is likely nothing more than a role player for the Spurs, a freakishly tall and stout tool Popovich can throw at opponents in key situations. Still, when fans lovingly but ironically chanted “M-V-P!” as Boban headed to the foul line in the midst of an exsanguination of the Milwaukee Bucks in December, Popovich took umbrage, telling The San Antonio Express-News that he understood Boban Mania but that it “worried” him. “He’s a basketball player,” Popovich said. “He’s not some sort of an odd thing.”
It’s clear that Popovich is defending Boban in that sentiment, saying, in essence, that the player is not a circus freak, and the Spurs aren’t some three-ring circus. But on its face, Pop couldn’t be more wrong. The Serbian monolith is an odd thing. He’s statistically an outlier, the thirteenth tallest person to ever play in the NBA, and the Spurs player closest to the sun in more than two decades years. Odd? That’s why Spurs fans love him. Like Linsanity before it, Boban Mania will someday slow to a crawl before it becomes a faint memory, faded as the future T-shirt bearing its slogan hanging at your local Goodwill.
But for now, and for the foreseeable future, everyone wants to know if Boban played.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kristaps Porzingis was born in the Balkans. He is from Latvia.