Last night the Denver Nuggets secured their first NBA Championship in team history. Though the group made it clear that this is the best team in the league, nobody doubts that the effort was led by the unlikeliest of superstars: Nikola Jokic. 

Jokic’s eye-popping statistical superlatives have come fast and furious in the last few years, but ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne does the much tougher work of getting to the core of his makeup. How did he go from being a longshot in an NBA no-man’s land to undisputed MVP on a championship team? In this profile, Shelburne talks to those around the Serbian big man—reporters know that Jokic won’t talk about himself—to uncover the genesis and story of how he molded his body to fulfill a lifelong dream for not only himself, but also the team, coaches, and city around him.   

Focus on the work, not what it means to be an MVP.

Jokic thought about it for a little bit before answering.

“OK,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

After every game, no matter how many minutes he played, they’d lift weights. He would change his diet, cutting out as many indulgences as possible, which meant no soda, no beer, no snacks while he played video games.

An exception was made for orange juice and the occasional bite of his mother’s cooking, when she visited from Serbia. But just a bite. “I actually told him to enjoy his mom’s food after games,” Eichenberger says. “Like, come on, you can’t not eat your mother’s cooking.”

“But once he gets something in his head,” Eichenberger adds, “that’s how it’s going to be.”