BOBAN MARJANOVIC is singing. Just a minute ago, Boban was talking about growing up in Serbia and being 7-foot-4 and playing for the Dallas Mavericks, but now, he is warbling, in thickly accented English, a Vanessa Carlton song with the joy and energy of a devoted tween.
“I’d walk a thousand MILES … if I could see you TONIGHT,” he sings, laughing so hard his shoulders, which are roughly the size of two split logs, roll up and down. It’s “A Thousand Miles,” the anthem featured in the movie “White Chicks,” which Boban readily admits is one of his favorites. “I really love this movie,” he says.
This sort of thing — Boban singing, Boban giggling, Boban smiling so widely it seems like he might puncture a wall — happens a lot. To be in Boban’s presence, according to, well, basically everyone who knows him, is to feel the ineffable warmth that comes from being around someone so comfortable in his own skin.
Former teammate Tobias Harris, one of Boban’s best friends, says Boban is uncommonly committed to simply being himself. You see it most in the little things, like, say, Boban’s deep and abiding love for soup. He grew up eating soup all the time — “in my country, for breakfast, not allowed, but for lunch and dinner, yes” — and he makes no apologies for his desire to have it all of the time in every setting. “No matter what restaurant we go to,” Harris says. “We could go to, like, Popeye’s or whatever, and he’ll ask, ‘Do you have soup? Do you have any soup?'”
Whatever the subject, Boban speaks with the tenderness of a beloved camp counselor and the clarity of your favorite professor. When he tells a story about losing all the photos on his phone, he concludes, “So, you know, I don’t believe in the iCloud.” There are also plenty of jokes, some inappropriate for family-friendly reading and some, delivered with his wide grin — “What do you call cow on roller coaster? … Milkshake!” — that perfectly tiptoe along the line between hokey and hilarious.
Boban is also stunningly big, and when he stretches his arms wide (his wingspan is 94 inches), it seems as though an enormous pterodactyl has suddenly flown in. Except, it turns out, this velociraptor is chattering on about how Luka Doncic “has a great taste for the music,” and then he shrieks, “Woooo!” like Ric Flair and giggles so hard his chest heaves, and, ultimately, who wouldn’t want to hang out with a pterodactyl like that?
Boban calls himself a “big, friendly giant,” and he believes this warmth is his most important attribute. He is happiest when kids approaching him for pictures actually have no idea he plays in the NBA; they simply see him as a colossus who, however incongruously, also feels safe. “The same with dogs,” he says. “When dogs walk to me, they feel that energy. The dogs feel the most, and the kids — the kids and the dogs are my goal. Because they both just want to be around a good person.”
By any statistical measure, Boban is not an iconic NBA player. He is 32 years old. He is on his fifth team. He has averaged 4.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 8.2 minutes a night for the Mavericks this season, and in many games, he hasn’t played at all.
And yet still: Boban is an undeniable star. He is in commercials. He is in YouTube skits. He has nonfungible tokens for sale. He is the featured attraction on a website with the sole purpose of posting pictures of him holding things — fruit, toys, other people’s faces — in his massive hands.
Boban’s unshakable earnestness is the motor behind all of it, the driving force behind the energy that ripples out from the Mavericks as a group. “It’s like having a cute dog in the locker room,” says Mavs owner Mark Cuban (who then clarifies the specifics of a Boban-sized dog as, “like, 40 Great Danes or German shepherds piled on top of each other”).
“Not that Bobi’s a puppy or anything, but he’s just got that joy to him that, that just comes out of him and that is just — I mean, it’s contagious.”
It might be slightly cloying, but it is also genuine. Boban’s personality is rooted in his lived experiences, in a lifetime of using good nature and joy for his sport to block out a history that wasn’t always quite so chipper. And that personality is why the teammates who stand with him and the fans who cheer for him see him as something extraordinary.
It is also why a backup center for the fifth seed in the Western Conference is very likely your favorite player’s favorite player.
ANY CONVERSATION ABOUT the Mavericks this season starts and probably ends with Doncic. This is understandable; if the Mavs can pull off an upset against the Clippers, whom they play Tuesday night up 1-0 in the first-round playoff series, it will almost surely be because of Doncic, who is one of the rising stars in the NBA and a global phenomenon.
But Doncic is also a devoted Boban sidekick/fan/enabler. And it isn’t a stretch to say that, after Doncic, Boban might well be the most recognizable player on the Mavericks, in addition to being the team’s spirit guide.
Cuban describes Boban’s connection to Doncic as “very paternal” and highlights it as a crucial element of Doncic’s development. Boban’s attitude, Cuban says, “lifts everybody up” around the entire franchise.
Part of the connection between Doncic and Boban comes from a shared Balkan heritage (Doncic is Slovenian), and during the NBA bubble last year, the two hosted a dinner with a slew of international players that featured, according to Boban, lots of meat and an eclectic blend of regional music that went on “till, like, the battery die.” Recently, a clip of Boban and Doncic, arm-in-arm doing an elaborate Serbian dance during pregame warm-ups went viral, as did video of Boban and Doncic wearing surgical masks and rocking out to “Barbie Girl.” The Mavs’ social media team has taken advantage, creating an animated “Luka & Bobi” series that portrays the two players getting into various degrees of mischief.
Doncic seems to enjoy watching Boban do … well, pretty much anything. And while Doncic isn’t nearly as gregarious in interviews as Boban, it is clear that Doncic finds comfort in knowing that Boban is his human equivalent of a daily espresso shot.
“He’s amazing,” Doncic says. “You don’t meet these people every day, you know. He will help you any time. It’s just great to have him here.”
The most endearing part of Boban’s reputation in the NBA, though, is that the people on his own team are not the only ones who adore him.
Referee Ed Malloy, looking stricken, placed an apologetic hand on Boban’s arm while softly informing him he had been ejected after Boban accidentally committed a flagrant foul during a game in April, and last August, during a game between the Mavs and Clippers, on-court microphones picked up an unusual exchange between Boban and Clippers forward Marcus Morris.
“You might be the nicest guy I ever met, man,” says Morris, as Boban beams. “I give you that, baby,” Morris — who, just to reiterate, was on the other team — goes on. “You are my guy. My guy.”
Harris, who became close to Boban in 2016, when they played on the Pistons together, says he isn’t surprised by Morris’ sentiment, mostly because what separates Boban from others is his commitment to making sure the people around him are happy. And by that, Harris confirms, he means literally every single person, including strangers.
“Sometimes, we’d be out to dinner,” Harris says, “and one thing for me, I think it’s a little rude when people want to come up and take photos if we’re eating. But he’d say something like, “No, no, no, come on brate, get up. [Boban says “brate,” the equivalent of “bro” in Serbian, a lot.] He’ll say, ‘Brate, you don’t know if they’re having a bad day.’ And I’m like, ‘All right, let’s take a picture …'”
Harris laughs. “I look at him as my best friend, but if you ask a lot of the guys around the league that played with Boban, I think all of them would say they look at him as a very good friend.”
This, of course, is exactly what Boban wants most in life. And when I ask him where he gets the relentless positivity necessary to become the NBA’s own Mr. Congeniality, he does not hesitate.
“My whole family, it’s like that,” he says.
“I come from a small town, 3,000 people.” Boban laughs. “This is the place on Earth they give you the good energy.”
BOBAN WAS BORN in Boljevac, in Eastern Serbia, in 1988. By 1991, the entire region had fallen into a series of bloody wars between the nations of the former Yugoslavia that were about ethnicity, identity and independence, and have been described by historians as the deadliest wars in Europe since World War II. The fighting lasted for a decade.
“We slept in the same room — my mom, my sister and me, because we want to be together in case something happen,” Boban says, recalling the two-month-long NATO air strikes of 1999. “When you hear that sound of the planes, you’re scared. You try to find somewhere to go, you can’t be in the streets.”
It is the only moment — and only subject — when he seems uncomfortable. “I hope I never feel that again my whole life,” he says, and it is impossible not to see those experiences as the origin story for Boban’s ever-present sense of joy: How can one come out of something like that and not be grateful for where he is now?
Boban discovered basketball at 10. But despite being unusually tall — there is an old picture of him in first or second grade in which he is about the same size as his teacher — he didn’t even attempt to dunk a basketball until he was 15.
This seems incredible, but Boban says it just never occurred to him. Although he was in actuality much larger than everyone else, Boban says he just assumed he should handle the ball and dribble the way other players did.
That changed one day at practice, when a coach finally shouted at him, “Hey! You! You’re supposed to dunk every ball!”
“How?” Boban asked, and the coach just waved at the rim. “Go dunk, just one time — try it,” the coach said, so Boban ran over and dunked without needing much more than a hop.
“Wow! This is super easy!” Boban cried.
“Now, go dunk with two hands!” the coach yelled back. Boban hesitated. “No way I can do it with two hands,” he told the coach, and the coach waved again. “Try it!” So, of course, Boban easily slammed the ball through with two hands. “This feels so amazing!” he screamed.
“This was when I figured out I was a little bit good,” he says now.
Boban was hooked. Finding shoes and clothes that fit him remained a challenge –here was an understanding in Boljevac that anyone who stumbled across anything oversized in a store within an hour’s drive should call Boban’s family immediately — but being on the court became a joy. Boban was just 17 when he made his professional debut for the Serbian club Hemofarm.
In 2010, he moved abroad and played two seasons in Russia and Lithuania, before returning to Serbia in 2012 and beginning a stretch during which he was named Serbian League MVP for three straight seasons.
It wasn’t just because of dunks, either. Boban had developed incredible strength and was virtually immovable off the low block, causing havoc either by scoring the ball on his own or sweeping rebounds up with ease. He set a EuroLeague record for double-doubles in a single season.
“He became an offensive force,” says Fran Fraschilla, the former college coach who is an expert in international prospects. Fraschilla recalls seeing Boban for the first time as a spindly teenager in 2007. By 2015, Boban had morphed into a different player. “He became a Serbian [Shaquille O’Neil] in the EuroLeague,” Fraschilla says. “The light came on for NBA teams that this kid would have a chance to play in the NBA.”
IT WOULD BE easy to look at Boban as a novelty. We do that with athletes all the time, reducing them to the point they are solely defined by their physical attributes. Take Manute Bol. He was thoughtful, generous and an incredible humanitarian, but most remember him more for being a spindly 7-foot-7.
Bol, it was said, never liked being noticed for his height. Boban, on the other hand, doesn’t seem outwardly bothered by questions about it — he proudly demonstrates how he used to ride on commercial airplanes, pulling his knees up to his chest — mostly because he sees it as only another sliver of who he is. He’s big — he should take up a lot of space.
“There is a lot of Boban,” he says. “I love being tall. Maybe I don’t look perfect, but I am a normal human like everyone else.”
This philosophical mantra has worked well for him when it comes to basketball, too. Since arriving in the NBA with the Spurs in 2015, Boban has been incredibly effective when he’s on the court. At the moment, he has the 11th-highest player efficiency rating in NBA history — putting him on a level with names such as Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain — yet in spite of that, he has always struggled to find consistent minutes.
The main reason? Boban is a traditional center in an era when no one actually plays center anymore. As Cuban says, “If a team goes small against him and [has] five 3-point shooters, they’re going to make 3s and he’s going to make 2s. It’s just that simple.”
Fraschilla, too, bemoans that Boban was born in the wrong generation. “Many of us who’ve watched the NBA for a long time feel like if Boban had come along in the ’80s and ’90s that he actually could be a star,” he says.
Boban, for his part, isn’t interested in dwelling on the fact that he has averaged more than 10 minutes per game in just one of his NBA seasons. He doesn’t think the league owes him anything simply because he is big, and he doesn’t see any point in being angry or frustrated that in a different time, he might have been playing 25 minutes a night like the Pacers’ “Dunking Dutchman,” Rik Smits. “I live in this world,” he says.
And in many ways, he has become that kind of star anyway. Sure, his fame is for being riotous in “Bobi & Tobi,” his YouTube series with Harris, not putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds every night. But the question he keeps circling back to when he’s asked about it is: So what?
Boban’s feeling is that he does not need NBA minutes to validate his experiences; he just craves the experiences themselves. Here is Boban playing arcade basketball at the State Fair of Texas. Here is Boban going fishing with other players in the NBA bubble. Here is Boban riding an ATV that looks like a tricycle beneath his massive frame. Here is Boban making a cherry pie with his wife and two kids, then serving himself a double portion because it’s “Boban sized.”
Here is Boban, in what many believe is the greatest episode of “Bobi + Tobi,” showing up at a SoulCycle with Tobi only to learn that he has been tapped to actually teach the class that day. Unruffled, Boban straddles the bike and leads the class with a mixture of encouragement, comical disparagement of Harris’ performance and bizarre (but oddly inspiring) nonsense, such as when he screams at the class, “Texas — yeah, I like their goat milk, but DON’T LISTEN TO THE GOATS. Listen to me!”
It is, in many ways, a lovely encapsulation of Boban’s existence, which is often sweaty, hilarious and frothy like a soda bottle that has been shaken so hard it can’t stop fizzing over. Boban is one of those people who just wants to see things and do things and try things and be things. He wants to make other people feel more than he wants to feel himself. Cuban mentions that he has introduced Boban to some acting coaches, and he says Boban’s personality might lead him to become the most famous entertainment star in NBA history (he suggests Boban would be perfect for a potential “Princess Bride 2”).
In truth, this isn’t all that absurd: Boban’s IMDb page already has a significant credit. In 2018, while driving to a workout, he got a text message from his agency saying that Chad Stahelski, the director of “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” had interest in casting him in the movie. Stahelski wanted an actor who was “fun and interesting and yet gigantic,” he told The Wall Street Journal, and one of the producers, Basil Iwanyk, happened to be a basketball fan and suggested Boban.
Boban, to his recollection, immediately replied “yes” to the message seven times, and ended up portraying an assassin who attempts to kill Keanu Reeves’ titular character in a library. (Spoiler: He fails and ends up being murdered by John Wick with a book.)
“When you’re standing there practicing a scene with Keanu Reeves, I was like, ‘Are you serious? It’s really Keanu?'” Boban says, adding that the experience was “incredible.” He cackles. “I was so professional, I must be honest with you.”
WHEN MILICA KRSTIC first met Boban, at a party back in 2007, she wasn’t especially interested in him. But Boban kept texting her — with jokes, stories and lots of emojis — and she found herself engaging with him. And enjoying it.
They had been talking for a few weeks when, on New Year’s Eve, Boban suddenly disappeared, and Milica was left wondering if maybe he was just like the other guys.
She quickly learned he wasn’t.
It turned out, Boban’s friends at the party they attended had taken his phone away from him because they wanted him to play hard to get. Once Boban recovered his phone, he called Milica and made a more in-character move. “Hey,” he asked her, “do you wanna be my girlfriend or what?”
She did. They’ve been together ever since, and Milica says what ultimately drew her to Boban was that honesty and candor.
“He’s very direct,” she says. “He’s Boban. He’s always been who he is now.”
So, who is that, exactly? Someone who clearly doesn’t mind admitting he loves “White Chicks.” Someone who once thought he was going to an AC/DC concert when in reality he was at a Guns N’ Roses show (Milica: “He texted, ‘Oh, I thought it was the same thing …'”). Someone who really, really enjoys folding his arms into the shape of a heart. And someone who, despite having spent most of his life flying all over the world to play basketball, still gets more than a little afraid during turbulence. (Harris: “The plane may shake just for a second, and like, I’ll be napping, and he hits me every time and he’s like, “Brate, the plane, the plane …”)
Boban does not see any of these as weaknesses or flaws or even quirks; they’re just the things that make him, the things that grew out of what he saw and heard in Serbia and carried with him to this life in the United States. If he cannot be a dominant player on the court — for whatever reason — then he hopes the message people take from watching him is that this massive, lumbering giant is so at ease with his uniqueness that there is no reason everyone else shouldn’t feel at ease with theirs.
At one point, Boban mentions his ears. They are, as you might expect, two bulbous masses, bulging with cartilage and popping out from the side of his head like broccoli trees.
Boban fingers one of them and laughs. “I can go to the doctor right now and fix my ears,” he says. “A little here, maybe the nose [he traces imaginary cuts around his face], but why? Never be shy, never be shy about who you are.”
He smiles his spreading, pasty, goofy smile.
“If you’re tall,” he says, “you’re tall.”