View Full Version : Darko Milicic article--NY Times

01-19-2003, 10:13 AM
January 19, 2003
Age and Ethnicity Hinder a Prospect

When he heard about LeBron James's new ride last week, the 7-foot prodigy from Yugoslavia felt a pang of envy. If only Darko Milicic could join the N.B.A. in June, too, maybe he could one day live the glamorous life of Akron's prep legend.

Maybe he could one day own a $50,000 pewter-colored Hummer H2 equipped with three televisions, like the one James's mother purchased via a loan for his 18th birthday.

"First, my mother would never be able to get a loan in Yugoslavia," Milicic said through an interpreter on Wednesday. "Maybe LeBron James is wealthy overnight, who knows?"

Like James, Milicic will be 18 days before the N.B.A. draft in June. Like James, he has been on the N.B.A.'s radar since he was 15. Salivated over by scouts hoping to deliver the next great foreign player to David Stern's basketball-without-borders league, Milicic is the consensus No. 2 pick.

Yet unlike James, the American schoolboy star and everyone's No. 1 in June, Milicic (pronounced MIL-uh-sitch) will not be a millionaire in a few months. Unless Stern has a change of heart and overrides the league's lawyers, Milicic will wait another year simply because of his nationality.

Any American high school senior who graduates with his class is eligible for the draft. But a two-decade-old rule regarding foreign players will prohibit Milicic and another talented big man, the Greek center Sofaklis Schortsianides, who also turns 18 in June, from realizing their dream this year.

Article X, Section 6(c) of the collective bargaining agreement between owners and players reads in part: "A foreign player who is at least eighteen (18) years old and who has not exercised intercollegiate basketball eligibility in the United States shall become eligible to be selected in an N.B.A. draft held prior to the calendar year in which he has his twenty-second (22nd) birthday if he expresses his desire to become eligible to be selected in the next N.B.A. draft by written notice to the N.B.A. at least forty-five (45) days prior to such draft."

Marc Cornstein, the Manhattan-based agent for Milicic, believes the language is ambiguous at best and confusing at worst. "Do you have to be 18 to perform the act of expressing your desire?" he said. "You could also read it and say, `You have to be 18 by the next draft day.' There is merit to both arguments. It's very ambiguous."

But the league is certain.

"Our feeling is that's it's very clear that you have be 18 before the filing deadline, which is 45 days before the draft," Russ Granik, the deputy commissioner, said in an interview last month. "The C.B.A. has very specific language. He doesn't make it. You feel bad when someone misses by a short period of time, but what can you do?"

The players union has yet to decide whether to push forward for an arbitration case, waiting till All-Star Game weekend next month in Atlanta to bring it up with its executive committee.

"When you take a step back and don't look at it as a lawyer, what do we care if he's 18 by the draft day?" said Ron Klempner, a players union lawyer. "Unless you have a real reason not to let him play, why not? If he's the No. 3 pick in the draft, the guy he's taking a job away from is another college kid. If he's shortening a veteran's career, it's one thing."

Klempner added that while the union had yet to decide whether to take Milicic's case to arbitration, he thought it might be an opportunity to show the European players "they're important and worth fighting for."

"But that's just me talking," Klempner said. "A lot of other people have to decide on this."

Milicic's situation is not merely an eligibility issue about age, though Stern has pushed hard the past four years for a minimum age of 20 for incoming rookies.

It also touches the core of other sensitive issues: xenophobia and the marginalizing of American players, who for the past three decades have been about 80 percent black. This could put Billy Hunter, the union's executive director, in a tough situation. If he takes up Milicic's cause, he could be seen by some American players as working against them.

Hunter said he would do for Milicic what he would do for any member of the union. "If he's got a problem, I'm going to step up and help him like everybody else," he said.

Michael Curry, the players union president, said the influx of European players did not bother him. "It shows the game is growing," Curry, who plays for the Detroit Pistons, said. "It's not about the race of the players; it's about the skill level and the work ethic. I don't get caught up in the color. I think pro sports is about one color: green. It's as simple as this: If you want job security, you better find a way to help generate revenue and be a good employee."

Not one foreign player holds a spot on the union's executive committee, though Curry does not believe that will influence the union's decision. He said there was talk of James's declaring himself eligible for last year's draft as a high school junior, but he had to abide by the rules.

There are no amateur leagues in Europe to compare to American college basketball. Milicic has played professionally for three years and, like many young European players, is locked into a long-term contract with his club, Hemofarm in Yugoslavia. To void the deal, he must buy his way out. But if he isn't a first-round N.B.A. pick, he will not have the money to do so.

"We didn't make the rule to discriminate," Granik said. "We did it to approximate the best we could the high school experience in Europe. The concept of graduating high school is not universal."

How good is Milicic? On the Web site NBADraft.net, which is not affiliated with the league, Milicic is projected as the No. 2 pick behind James and before the Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony. Don Nelson and his son, Donn, pioneers in the international scouting movement, were suspended for two games for illegally working out Milicic last summer in Europe.

In his office on the Upper East Side, Cornstein inserted a tape into his VCR. The tape shows an agile, cocky 7-foot forward with peroxide-blond hair driving hard toward the basket from the left side of the key. He elevates suddenly from one foot inside the free-throw line, tomahawk-dunking over Nenad Krstic, the Nets' No. 1 pick last June. Aside from Vince Carter's clearing the 6-foot-11 frame of Frédéric Weis of France to dunk in the 2000 Olympics, it is one of the more impressive game dunks on film.

Milicic does not want to get caught up in the politics of the N.B.A., but he knows he may be a victim of something larger than a legal loophole.

"Right now, I got a small apartment," said Milicic, who makes the equivalent of less than $20,000 a year and lives in the underdeveloped town of Vrasac, an hour-and-a-half drive from Belgrade. "I'm still young. One day, when I come to N.B.A., I will have the glamour and nice apartment."

Milicic is trying to get an insurance policy, but delays in obtaining his medical records have held up the process, Cornstein said.

"Certainly it's an enormous risk factor to stay over another year," Cornstein said.

"Everyone is talking about the legality, but what's being lost is the human side of the story. Darko is living in terrible conditions, far worse than anything you could imagine in the U.S."

The deadline for declaring for the draft this year is May 12. Milicic turns 18 on June 20, six days before the draft. He has seen a list that is distributed to N.B.A. general managers. In big, bold letters next to an asterisk, it states that Milicic "is not eligible for the 2003 draft."

If Stern allows Milicic to compete, it will contradict his stand on age restrictions. If the union does not take up Milicic's case and bring it to arbitration, it will contradict everything Hunter has been preaching about letting the most talented players play when they are ready, not when they are old enough.

How a 17-year-old turned the N.B.A. on its axis, Milicic is not sure. All he knows is, he is tired of being called the LeBron James of Europe.

"I would like to be Darko Milicic, not LeBron James," Milicic said. "I would like to send LeBron James to play a couple weeks with the professionals in Europe. I would like to come play a couple weeks with the high school kids. We will see how this would look."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

01-19-2003, 11:17 AM
Time for the lawyer jokes to start....along with the player's Association jokes. Too bad the kid's not going to be allowed to play this year. Makes me dislike my brethren even more.

01-19-2003, 12:04 PM
I wonder if the NBA is willing to take this to court. Milicic could acquire a vicious attack dog lawyer and sue the league. Everybody sues in America.

01-19-2003, 06:27 PM
<< &quot;I would like to send LeBron James to play a couple weeks with the professionals in Europe. I would like to come play a couple weeks with the high school kids. We will see how this would look.&quot; >>

IŽd like to see this too.