First, the news: If you haven’t heard, Darko Milicic is leaving the Celtics in order to return to his native Serbia and spend time with his mother, who is ill. Doc Rivers has said it is “unlikely” that Darko will return to the Celtics this season. Rivers and Ainge seem to have left the door open if Darko is inclined to return. Despite the fact that Darko is only 27, possibly heading into his NBA prime, it is possible Milicic’ NBA days are over. He was ambivalent about returning to the NBA this year. It was rumored he was considering returning to Europe in 2010 and again prior to this season.
As NBA fans, it’s helpful to understand Darko’s oft-questioned motivation for the game might have a source. His mother’s sickness is likely that reason this year, but Darko’s return to Serbia was a long time coming. It forces us to realize that the NBA, while a business like any other professional sport, is a game, and it’s a game that isn’t always enjoyable to it’s participants. Zack Greinke says he doesn’t enjoy baseball. We choose to ignore that reality as fans, because we want to believe the game is for us to enjoy, to live vicariously through, to escape from our own troublesome realities. Those athletes who don’t enjoy the game, or the attention/adoration/scrutiny/media that comes with the game, stay involved because of the money. Darko’s story is unusual to us because it took place in a war-torn, Central European nation torn by multi-generational conflict.
But beyond that fact might be the idea that he has little love left for the game itself. To understand that possibility, let’s go back to the 1990’s, cross the Atlantic, and consider the vulnerability we all felt at the age of thirteen, when we were desperately trying to grow some sort of facial hair, and our voices were changing dramatically. At this time in my life, I was on the short side, about 5’2″. Darko was a monolith among his classmates.
Darko Milicic was born in 1985, in Novi Sad, Vojvodina (today part of Serbia). Novi Sad is the administrative capital of Vojvodina, which has the most fertile land in the former Yugoslavia. In the 19th century, Novi Sad was known as the “Serbian Athens.” Today, it is the second largest city in Serbia, on the Danube River. Darko was five years old when Yugoslav’s various ethnic groups, the Serbs, Croatians, the Bosnians and the Slovenians were involved in intensifying conflicts. After the fall of Communism in the Balkans, the Slavic lands were polarized. Slovenia and Croatia, the northern and western territories in the former Yugoslavia, which were somewhat more economically stable, were pushing for democracy, while Serbia, under the reign of the merciless Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic, wanted to maintain single-party autonomy and dictatorial control of the region. Though Communism was dying, it was not yet dead.
Milosevic took autonomy away from the states of Kosovo, Montenegro and Vojvodina, leaving Serbians with control of four of the republic’s eight states. From 1991-1995, war was a constant in Croatia, as Milosevic attempted to gain control of Croatia and Slovenia. What did all of this mean for Darko? The son of a police officer father, Darko’s parents were not directly involved in the war. When Darko was 13, a basketball coach saw Darko towering over his classmates, and signed him up to play professionally, two hours away from home. The next year, Novi Sad was a target of the NATO bombings. From March through early June of 1999, the city was strategically decimated by the bombings. The city was left in ruins. Milicic had escaped from the chaos of home. Still, he was playing for a team whose country was at war.(1)
Darko’s experience in European competition came early. At the ages of 14 and 15, Milicic played for the junior team of Hemofarm Vrsac (say it three times, real fast!). Milicic was called up to the top team before his 16th birthday. He averaged 8 points and 5 boards in 21 min/game in the team’s playoff tournament. Over the next two years, Darko began to get minutes and his team was promoted to higher-level competition. In 2002-03, he was promoted to the highest level of European competition. According to NBA.com’s 2003 draft profile, Darko “Saw more playing time in the North European Basketball League (NEBL), a competition against other top European clubs. In 10 games (team went 6-4), averaged 14.2 points and 7.0 rebounds. Scored 21 points in a victory over Greek power PAOK. Tallied 23 vs. PAOK in the losing rematch. Exploded for 37 points in a victory over Skonto (Latvia).
When examining the career of the Serbian center, let us consider the psychological toll of Darko’s professional basketball life, from the age of 13, in 1998 to the present day. What does it mean to be on your own at age 13? What does it mean to worry about your family’s survival for every year of your teenage life, and for your income to be their way out of the chaos? Why wouldn’t you enter the NBA draft as soon as possible — he had just turned 18–if you knew the guaranteed contract would provide the first form of stability your family had seen in their lifetime? Wait a minute…we’re talking about 90% of the NBA’s early-entry, high-potential lottery picks of the last decade, aren’t we? Maybe we just see it through this new lens because we don’t know much about Serbia.
Darko’s career is distinctive because he is the player most known for being the most overly-criticized draft-day mistake of the modern NBA generation. Michael Olowakandi was the top choice of the Los Angeles Clippers in 1998. Raef Lafrentz was picked third that same year by Denver. Kwame Brown was the top overall choice of 2001, picked by the Washington Wizards. While Greg Oden is often labeled as a “lottery bust,” at least Oden has his knee to blame. Most fans will note that these draft busts were taken ahead of Wade, Carmelo, and Bosh. Pistons fans, who grew accustomed to success–never finishing with fewer than 50 wins since from 2000-2008– still target the pick as the beginning of their fall from Eastern Conference titan to the mediocrity of the Pistons team today.
Many NBA fans have a degree of empathy for Darko because of Larry Brown’s warden-like role in Darko’s early-career-stifling relegation to the bench:
Under coach Larry Brown (2003-2005), Miličić only played when the Pistons had an insurmountable lead late in the game. Pistons team president Joe Dumars repeatedly stated that Miličić would play a big part in the team’s future, but he did not see a large increase in playing time during his second season. Miličić has been quoted on numerous occasions as attributing his slow development on his lack of playing time; “I’ve said it 10,000 times, the best way for me to improve is to play. All the work in practice and individual workouts can only help me so much.” (2)
Orlando fans got the liberated and motivated version of Darko. In Disneyworld, Milicic resurrected his career. Finally given a chance to prove himself, Darko was a consistent force in the paint, using his size to his advantage, and blocking shots (2.1 per game in only 21 minutes). Darko’s play in Orlando led him to Memphis, where he signed a three-year, $21 million contract.
Injuries cropped up while playing with the Serbian national team before the 2008 season. Milicic broke a knuckle that December. The Grizzlies envisioned Milicic as their 275-pound enforcer, blocking shots and collecting rebounds while Pau Gasol ruled from the elbow. Mid-way through the season, Pau and Marc Gasol traded places, and within months, Darko was an expensive role player.
Over the next few years, Darko’s ups-and-downs included being traded for the likes of Quentin Richardson once (to New York) and Brian Cardinal in another instance (to Minnesota). On the flip-side, his inspired play in Minnesota prompted GM David Kahn to sign him to another long-term deal (four years, $20 million with Minnesota in July, 2010–amnestied by Minnesota two summers later). Size and potential are inextricably linked in the NBA. The chance to obtain a game-changing center forces smaller market teams like Memphis and Minnesota to jump at the opportunity.
A healthy, inspired and motivated Darko is a rare commodity. A shot-blocking, rebounding immovable object in the middle of the paint. Defensively, his impact changes a game. Danny Ainge knew the possibilities, and the Celtics got a chance to once-again resurrect his career and find a way to motivate the gargantuan Milicic. But life intervened. His mom is very sick. He may be tired of the scrutiny and the dedication required to be an NBA player. His career path was chosen for him by circumstance and timing. He was thirteen when they signed him up to be a professional. His home was wrecked. His mind was always elsewhere. Now, for at least a while, he can go home and support his mom and his family–with not only money, but with his once-intimidating presence.
Jonah Hall blogs about the Celtics, the NBA, and why we love sports at The Darko Index