Catching Nurk Fever in Portland

The effect of a Bosnian Beast on a city and a team

There’s something about watching a big man fall down. It takes extra effort to get him off the ground, so even the normally most unsympathetic parties are like “gotta help this guy.” There’s a charm, a vulnerability. It gets to you, especially in the Pacific Northwest in the springtime. Seven feet and 280 pounds worth.

Across the world, in Bosnia, an anthem describes this very phenomenon: Nurk Fever.

Illness and injury are an athlete’s professional obligation, but the metaphors of Nurkić Fever get complicated quickly. We are infected with this fever, but we worry that we will recover before our beloved big man does. Instead, we put his health before our own — we wish him quick recovery so that we may keep this gleeful sickness!

At the end of the season, Nurkić’s non-displaced fibular fracture put him, along with my other Blazer boos Allen Crabbe, Ed Davis and Festus Ezeli on the rest list, or what I like to call it, “Blazers in Blazers.” Nurkić was wearing a shiny blue suit last Saturday night, like he was campaigning to upgrade the whole event to “Blazers in their Steakhouse finest.” He is an athlete in recovery, and is probably spending several hours a day in the hot tub. I would not want it any other way.

As NBA fans know, All Star Weekend is a national holiday timed conveniently with Valentine’s Day weekend, ALWAYS. In my experience, this is an often gloomy midwinter bacchanalia that is often the killer of budding romances. All-Star Weekend is a time of excess, of endless groupie drama, of Gabrielle Union looking bored, sitting in a folding chair. Doris Burke interviewing old guys, Michele Roberts giving speeches on television, Mascot action. This year, Blazers fan got Jusuf Nurkić from the Nuggets after the All-Star game.

We swapped him for Mason Plumlee, another tall white dude, one both appropriate yet underwhelming. I had a sad affinity with Plumlee, whom I’d seen around town for the past few years. A middle sibling from a Duke athletic dynasty including a brothers Marshall and Miles, and sister Maddie, a Notre Dame volleyball player. I felt a deep kinship with him when I saw him walking alone in the Pearl District, or when I saw his profile on the dating app Happn (near his downtown condo, obviously.) Like me, Mason Plumlee was a shy homebody moping around in the Portland athleisiure-industrial complex. We were comrades in my mind in some sort of a Portland-specific sort of overachieving loneliness, compounded by seasonal affective disorder and the guilt of feeling misunderstood in a city that everyone says is cool.

But Plumlee’s departure seemed unremarkable soon enough, because Nurkić joined the Blazers bench with all of the explosive charm of a mischievous cartoon bear. It was infectious. I noticed, for example, how adorable he was when he fell over. I told my five year-old daughter, when we were watching the Blazers play the Bucks. “HEEEEEEEE”, she she giggled. “It takes, like three of the Bucks to pick him up off the floor!”

A benchwarmer in Denver, Nurkić came out on the paint in Portland and improved things for everybody. CJ and Dame scored more buckets, and we were all in good spirits. Until his recent foot injury, the Portland Trailblazers were at 14 and 6, a turnaround in what had looked like an uninspiring season. Since his hurt paw last week, we’re 2 and 2 without him, heading into the playoffs.

YET, one mystery remains. NURKIC HAS NO MINUTES PLAYING AGAINST THE WARRIORS in Blazers colors. The postseason usually offers surprises, often involving seeing your hometown favorites stumble and get injured.

But this postseason, the possibility remains that Nurkić, our loving, blue suit wearing Nurkić, could heal. To rise from the dead. The Bosnian Beast, as he self-identifies, has yet to face the Warriors as a Blazer, and sat out Sunday’s Game 1, resulting in a loss and Draymond Green’s unfettered shit-talking. Poor old Mason Plumlee had nothing to offer in the low-post against the Warriors offense. What if Nurkić changes everything?

If he does not rise, I will be fine to see my other dear Blazers like Noah Vonleh, Allen Crabbe, CJ McCollum (whom my friend spotted shopping at the Mall 205 Target) do their worst against our closest geographic rival. After all, they call Portland the cheapest suburb of San Francisco.

Portland is a city that predisposes itself to Nurkić fever. For one, the early spring here can be gorgeous, with cold rain and the smell of daphne. The 22-year-old, 7-foot-tall, Bosnian Muslim is the sort of floppy teddy bear of a guy who would hang out with the Eastern European diaspora in Southeast Portland. Across the world, the Bosnian jam band doesn’t look so different from what we’d see in some bar out in Gresham some night: a bunch of dorky dudes of various shades of white, black, brown and yellow, all holding the same space in a feel-good way.

Of course, he has a possessive girlfriend who has made her presence in Portland known by issuing him a t-shirt with her face on it and the message “ If you can read this, you’re too close. He has a girlfriend.”

Unlike most newcomers to this city, she sees the danger in the wholesomeness of the Rose Garden.

He is here, maybe for a little while, maybe for longer. His jersey sports the accented ć, though much of the merch does not. Jusuf Nurkić displays none of this outward torment. He feels no need to remind us that, like anyone of his generation in the part of the world he lived in, he has seen some shit, and is still ready to guard us and take a tumble if we’re getting the full-court press.