February 22, 2010
“The self hatred that blinds you, binds you, grinds you, keeps you down,
The world falls down around you, you build up walls around you,
You wear disgust like a crown.” - Rollins Band, “Low Self Opinion”
By Brian Spencer
There’s been no bigger punchline in the NBA over the past 7 years than Darko Milicic.
He’s one of the biggest busts in the league history, and he’s done little to help himself in the public-pity department as he’s skulked, moped, and complained his way through the rosters of five different franchises. Each of them at one point believed in him and in his potential to be the uniquely dominant player he was once billed as as a 17-year-old phenom from Novi Sad, Serbia. They all thought that all it would take to tap that supposedly limitless potential was some hands-on coaching, a few extra minutes, and the right situation.
Darko just needed some love, to feel wanted, and once he got it… watch out. This kid was going to be something special. Except, he wasn’t, he isn’t, and though still just 24 years young, we know he never will be.
It’s easy to pile on Milicic. He’s made few friends in the NBA, he’s wasted every opportunity that’s been gifted upon him (and there’ve been plenty), and he’s done all of it while sporting one of the most consistently biting, petulent, and accusatory attitudes we’ve seen in this league in some time. And that’s saying a lot.
So, believe me, I know you don’t need another writer to tell you how miserable Milicic’s NBA career has been; his resume speaks for itself and he’ll vanish from our daily NBA consciousness soon enough once he hops on that plane bound for home this summer. There, he’ll make millions of more dollars on top of what he’s already made, likely suiting up for a mid-tier European team, ideally one where he can be the big fish in a small pond and be told how great he is and how mistreated he was in the NBA during the prime of his youth.
Poor Darko. Poor. Fucking. Darko. If only… if only what?
Let’s not get misty-eyed and reflective about Darko Milicic’s NBA failure. He made his bed, he deserves to sleep in it. Nobody sunk Darko’s prospects except Darko. Not Joe Dumars, Larry Brown, and the Pistons. Not the Orlando Magic, not the Memphis Grizzlies, not the New York Knicks. This one’s on Darko and Darko alone.
More on Darko Milicic, and a surprising apologist, after the break…
That’s why I was a bit surprised to read Kelly Dwyer’s quick take for Ball Don’t Lie on the trade-deadline deal that sent Milicic to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Dwyer, one of the best, hardest-working NBA writers out there, essentially assumed somewhat of an apologist role in assessing the 7-1 Serbian:
They didn’t play him at all in his rookie year, which made sense on paper because the Pistons went ahead and, you know, won the damn championship that year, but they could have handled him better. Instead, Larry Brown artlessly handled what could have been Detroit’s ticket to multiple championships, failing to mix up his minutes, playing Darko only in garbage-garbage-garbage time.
A broken hand suffered in the last game of that year’s Finals knocked out his offseason, allowed him to sulk, and continued iffy minutes in 2004-05 contributed to Darko’s mood. Was he a knucklehead? Could he have suffered through it? But Larry Brown was the adult in this situation, and he had a choice. He could show tough love, and hand Darko the minutes he deserved (which weren’t many, or any), or he could teach the poor kid to fish, deal with being let down at times in the process, and think pound-wise for the first time in his coaching career.
Instead, Darko never played. And he got angrier. And he never got over it. Never stopped blaming others. Never fulfilled his potential. I can’t tell you how important the lessons learned in the first two years of a player’s career are, you’ve just got to handle these projects the right way, or you risk losing them forever.
Now, I don’t want to misstate what (I think) Dwyer is getting at here, and I’m sure he understands I’m hardly trying to pick a fight. He knows Milicic squandered away his opportunities, and acknowledges Milicic’s piss-poor attitude. Still, to describe Darko as a “poor kid”, to misappropriate blame to Brown and the Pistons organization, and to assert that Milicic “could have been Detroit’s ticket to multiple championships”… these are all impossibly huge stretches and more apology than Milicic has earned or deserves.
Could the Pistons have handled Milicic better than they did? Probably, but c’mon now. Darko did nothing in Detroit to show he was serious about his career other than saying he was. If he came to the NBA with expectations for big, meaningful minutes right off the bat, that’s his fault (or his agent’s) for entertaining ridiculous delusions of grandeur. He was fortunate to be in that situation, to be compensated with millions of dollars with little else expected of him beyond working as hard as he possibly could in practice, developing his talents, watching his championship-caliber teammates in action, and learning.
They didn’t ask him to pout about his lack of playing time, or to give totally half-assed efforts during those rare opportunities for minutes, or to get overly, detrimentally, caught up in his new lifestyle abroad. At the end of the day, the Pistons made him an incredibly wealthy young man, gave him a championship ring, and ultimately a new lease on NBA life by trading him to the Magic. All in all, a pretty sweet deal.
In Orlando, for a few minutes, he looked pretty good. He didn’t look like Dirk Nowitzki Jr., but at a minimum, we saw a player who could, theoretically, be a force on the glass and an intimidating shot-blocking presence. He could have been Marcus Camby.
After 1 1/2 seasons, the Magic chose not to sign him and instead throw their lot with Rashard Lewis, so Milicic signed a 3-year deal worth over $20 million with the size-needy Memphis Grizzlies, a mediocre team which at that point was starting to trend towards just being a bad one. Perfect opportunity for Milicic to seize the day and be the man he was born to be.
Long story short, it didn’t work out, and after Marc Gasol arrived on the scene and began playing like a starting NBA center should play, Milicic became an afterthought and was eventually dealt to the New York Knicks for Quentin Richardson. (“Marc had taken the job,” Griz general manager Chris Wallace said, explaining his motivation behind the deal. “Darko would not have been a happy camper with the depth chart.”)
Darko Milicic Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Many thought that playing in Mike D’Antoni’s offense-friendly system was finally the magic tonic that would get the big baby going. Except, well… it wasn’t. Milicic appeared in 8 games as a Knick, totaling 16 points, 18 boards, and a handful of steals and blocks. You can bet it wasn’t his fault though; he just needed a chance!
“The NBA, all around the league, same shit: ‘Your chance is going to come,’ ” said Milicic. ” … I’m going home to Europe.” He asked the Knicks to buy him out–shocking that someone of his character would ever ask for a handout–so he could cower his way back home, as opposed to quietly riding out the rest of the season in a suit and cashing that silly $7.5 million paycheck he’s getting. It was truly a tough life for Darko in New York, I know.
The Knicks didn’t bite, instead choosing to trade him to Minnesota, which in Darko’s eyes is just another underserved bad break. Nevermind that the T’Wolves have come out and essentially said they’ll give him minutes right off the bat, no questions asked, and hence yet another opportunity to show he belongs. No, Darko doesn’t seem interested.
“He sees this latest trade as just one more incident that has befallen him,” GM Randy Kahn said. “In the abstract he’d love to play right away, but he’s worried about not being in game shape anymore. Darko has a lot of pride.”
“Darko has a lot of pride.” That one just kills me, especially after hearing that he graciously chose to show up for his team’s home game against the Chicago Bulls Friday night, participated in the morning shootaround, then voluntarily chose to be inactive.
Pride defined, right there: this kid is clearly in it for the love of the game. He just wants to play, at any cost. He just wants a chance. Won’t somebody help the poor kid out?