View Full Version : ESPN INSIDER - Vlade & Darko Milicic (2/4/03)

02-04-2003, 03:05 PM
LeBron James is on everyone's mind these days. But for all the wrong reasons. What's he wearing? (Wes Unseld?? C'mon, LeBron.) Who's he hanging out with? (Keeping company with Allen Iverson might not be good for your career.) What's he driving today? (Hummer should just give him the car after all the free pub they've gotten lately.) Basketball? That will come later.

Darko Milicic, 17, is seven feet tall and has a full complement of skills. If NBA commissioner David Stern had his way, basketball in the NBA would come much later for James. In Stern's world, James would have to wait another two years before entering the draft. Were it not for a collective bargaining agreement that gives high school players the right to enter the draft after their senior year, James would be traveling with Globetrotters, firing up 3-pointers for Bennetton Treviso in Italy or, even worse, playing pick-up ball with Lenny Cooke for the next couple of years.

Sure, you feel sorry for James now. But we all know his fate. He'll hang out for a few months, start negotiating with a shoe company, shoot a commercial or two, make enough benjamins to buy 50 Hummers, and then he'll stiff everyone trying to work him out before the draft, and barring some career-threatening injury while playing golf, he'll still be the first player taken when Stern strides to the podium on draft night. Oh, to be LeBron James. But while James' NBA future is largely resolved, the future of the world's other teen phenom is in much more doubt.

Yugoslavian big man Darko Milicic, the kid Insider traveled halfway around the world to see in December, is waiting anxiously by the phone. Since Stern can't stop King James from polluting the NBA with his athleticism, well-rounded game and mature demeanor on and off the court, he's taking his wrath out on a 17-year-old with a lot less leverage. For those of you who have missed our reports over the last few months, the NBA has determined that Milicic and another young phenom, Greek big man Sofaklis Schortsianides, are ineligible to declare for this year's draft.

At issue is an arcane section of the collective bargaining agreement that puts a limit on when international players are eligible to be drafted. ARTICLE X, Section 6(c) 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 NBA 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 NBA draft by written notice to the NBA at least forty-five (45) days prior to such draft."

Both Milicic and Schortsianides will be 18 before the June 26 draft. But the league's interpretation of that section -- that a player must be 18 when he officially declares for the draft -- has created a small firestorm. Here's the problem: The deadline for declaring for the draft this year is May 12. Milicic turns 18 on June 20. Schortsianides turns 18 on June 22. "Our lawyers feel that the language is very clear," NBA spokesperson Tim Frank told Insider. "You've got to be 18 years old to declare for the NBA draft if you are an international prospect."

Just about everyone else in the NBA disagrees. Insider spoke to several GMs around the league who claim they were shocked by the ruling. "The language isn't clear," one GM told Insider. "I don't see why we are going here. These kids are professionals. They are more prepared to play than many of the college and high school kids we'll let in the draft. I think it's going overboard. I don't know of a GM out there that doesn't want to see these kids in the draft." The agents for the two players, Marc Cornstein and Mark Fleisher, believe the section simply means you must be 18 by draft night. They've petitioned the NBA Players Association to file a collective bargaining grievance on their behalf. The union spent about a month studying the issue, then threw it to the players' executive committee for a decision.

The initial call, which took place a little over a month ago, didn't go well. While NBPA president Billy Hunter seems to be all for fighting it (it's consistent with his ongoing feud with Stern over age limits), the players weren't sure why it was such a big deal. The committee is made up of NBA veterans. Pistons small forward Michael Curry is the president, and veterans such as Ray Allen, Alonzo Mourning, Antonio Davis and Theo Ratliff serve as vice presidents. Why can't the kids wait another year, they reasoned? Why spend the union's time and resources to get jobs for kids who will quickly replace a veteran who is already in the league?

It's not a surprising response. The players, understandably, look out for themselves. The committee plans to meet formally on Saturday in Atlanta to give Cornstein and Fleisher its decision. But the situation has raised some tensions among international players already in the NBA. Several people have pointed out that there aren't any international players on the union's executive committee. There have been subtle accusations from some that the NBA's decision is xenophobic. That American players, still stung from Team USA's loss in the World Championships, aren't as willing to open the floodgates to international players. They point out that had Milicic been an American, he would've been in the same high school class as LeBron and would've been eligible for the draft.

NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik told the New York Times in an interview a few weeks ago, that the league isn't discriminating. "We didn't make the rule to discriminate, we did it to approximate the best we could the high school experience in Europe. The concept of graduating high school is not universal."

Curry denies the accusation that Milicic and Schortsianides won't get a fair shake in front of an all American executive committee. "It's not about the race of the players; it's about the skill level and 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."
How passionate are some international players on the issue? I got a call from Vlade Divac Monday night. Divac believes the players should fight the NBA's decision to keep Milicic and Schortsianides out of the draft.

"They should let them [Milicic and Schortsianides] play if they want to play," Divac told Insider Monday night. "He's a professional. He plays in the top league in Yugoslavia and more than holds his own. He isn't some high school kid." Divac knows a thing or two about starting your professional career early. He signed his first pro contract in Yugoslavia when he was 16. He owns the Partizan team in Belgrade, which has players who signed contracts as early as 15 years old. "That is the way it is over there, but I don't think it makes a difference. In many ways it's better. Here, LeBron James gets suspended for getting a couple of jerseys. But it's different in Europe. We don't hold kids back if they think they're ready."

Indeed. Milicic has been playing professionally for more than two years. He already has signed a shoe deal with AND-1. He knows what it's like to play on the road, practice every day, deal with an agent and a throng of adoring fans. But is he really ready? Divac has seen Milicic play a number of times, but refused to speculate on how he'd do in the NBA. "It's hard to tell. But that's not the point. He should have the chance. They let kids like Kobe, KG in. The league should treat international players like everyone else. If he thinks he's ready and NBA teams are willing to take him, what does that say? Who is the NBA protecting by keeping him out. Everyone thinks he'll go No. 2 in the draft. That's your answer right there."

Still, the sentiment right now is that the NBPA won't file a grievance. If it doesn't, Fleisher and Cornstein have two choices. They can drop it and wait another year before entering their clients' names in the draft. Or they can move forward without the support of the union. Based on precedent, Fleisher told Insider on Monday night that the 17-year-olds would have standing to challenge the NBA's ruling. According to bylaws, they could appeal the ruling to a system arbitrator. However, there's a catch. Right now the league doesn't have one. If there isn't an arbitrator, Fleisher and Cornstein can take their case directly to federal court.

Fleisher says he'll move forward with or without the NBPA's help. "We'd like them to support us on this, but we have other options if they don't." You can expect the league to put up a fight if that happens, but whatever the outcome, one source inside the league office feels the NBA will have won. "We've been consistent in our stance that players are entering the league too young," he told Insider. "If an arbitrator or court feels differently, there isn't much we can do. But at least we've been consistent." Tell that to Milicic, who remains holed up in the sleepy, ice covered town of Vrsac while King James prepares to reap untold fame and fortune in the NBA.

02-04-2003, 04:57 PM
Thanks for the article OP. This issue with Milicic sounds like David Stern's attempt to split a hair on a gnat's ass.

02-04-2003, 06:12 PM
Can't they just get a note from their parents?

02-04-2003, 07:06 PM
<< Can't they just get a note from their parents? >>

So long as it's noterized by a left-handed Jewish Notaray public born on an odd day, an even month, and a year divisible by 3. It also has to be signed during the 3rd full moon of the Chinese year between 12:00 PM and 12:03 PM GMT.