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OutletPass
05-23-2003, 10:30 AM
Darko's date with destiny
By Chad Ford
NBA Insider
Send an Email to Chad Ford Friday, May 23
Updated: May 23
11:32 AM ET


What does a 17-year-old kid from the war-torn town of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, do on the day the fate of 13 NBA lottery teams would be decided? ESPN Insider Chad Ford spent Thursday with Darko Milicic in New York City. As you would expect it was no ordinary day.


NEW YORK -- I wrote this once and I'll write it again: I believe the good stories really don't have an end, or even a beginning. Karma throws fate in the dryer of life, hits the button and starts an eternal spin.

So when 17-year-old Yugoslavian phenom Darko Milicic bumped into Pistons president Joe Dumars at a New York practice facility on Thursday, I had a vague premonition the gods of fate were about to go to work.

Lotteries might be about luck. But the NBA Draft Lottery on Thursday night was about more than that. It was about destiny.

John Jay Gym, Manhattan, 11:06 a.m.
Darko Milicic has been in the United States for a grand total of 67 hours and already he's in the practice gym, stretching out, preparing for what is supposed to be his first light workout in the U.S.


A private workout Thursday turned into an audition for the team that wound up with the No. 2 pick.
The plan is for Darko to run the floor a bit, shoot some jumpers, go through a few drills and call it a day. He's still battling jet lag, and he looks exhausted. But plans change, and after a few minutes of warm-up, the workout is in for a sudden jolt.

Next door, Detroit coach Rick Carlilse is wrapping up the Pistons' shoot-around in preparation for Game 3 in New Jersey. When they're done, Pistons president Joe Dumars, vice president John Hammond, director of international scouting Tony Ronzone and director of player personnel Scott Perry sneak in for a peek at Darko.

Within a minute, Darko's light workout becomes a high-energy audition. The gym is silent as he goes through a series of intense drills around the basket.

He rolls to the left. Swish.

He rolls to the right. Swish.

He puts the ball on the floor, crosses over and attacks the basket. Slam.

He takes the ball on the block, throws a shoulder into his defender and attacks again. Slam.

The trainer throws the ball off the backboard. Darko grabs it in mid-air. Slam. Again. Slam. Again. Slam.

He takes the ball outside the NBA 3-point line, turns to the basket, dribbles once, then glides through the air. Kaboom.

Time stands still for just a second as Darko pauses, waiting for everyone else to catch their breath.

Then he trots to the free-throw line and starts shooting. He is relentless. He continues, pounding the ball inside. He hits a baby hook with his left hand. Then he does with his right hand. Darko seems to use his left and right equally.

A second later he's standing three feet beyond the NBA 3-point line. Swish. Swish. Swish.

Forty-five minutes later the trainers are sweating. Everyone has seen enough. More than enough.

Darko looks to his agent and asks, "More?"

"No."

He shrugs his shoulders and begins running laps around the gym.

That is how you ace an NBA workout.

Most teams will tell you the individual workout is highly overrated. Workouts over-emphasize speed, agility and quickness. They do nothing to measure the intangibles that are the lifeblood of the game. But with Darko, it will be different. Teams already knew he could play. When a 7-footer tests like that in individuals, you take him to the bank.

That's a freak of nature right there. And he's just 17. Seventeen, Chad.
Joe Dumars
Rick Carlisle looks stunned for the entire 10 minutes he watches. Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton shake their heads in amazement. Joe Dumars' mouth didn't close the entire time. His jaw was on the floor. Whenever he wasn't typing notes in his PDA, he was whispering quiet exclamations. "Damn!"

"That's a freak of nature right there," Dumars says after the workout's over. "And he's just 17. Seventeen, Chad."

"We could really use him," Hamilton says. "That kid can play. Too bad he can't suit up tonight."

Sharp-shooter Jon Barry agreed. "He'd be perfect for us. Perfect. The thing I like about kids like this is they only have one agenda, and that's to play. They take this job seriously. It's their way out of a bad situation, and they're not going to squander it."

Another scout was more specific. "He's a different breed of European than any we've ever seen. I'm not sure how anyone guards him the pros. That combination of size, speed, power and coordination is remarkable. Did you see how explosive he was around the basket? What's not to love?"

Fifteen minutes after the workout, Darko is still running around the gym.

"He didn't want that workout shut down," Ronzone said. "That kid just wants to keep pushing. He came to play."

46th Street, 1:15 p.m
Darko emerges from the gym, decked out in AND 1 gear. He smells his sweatshirt once or twice and looks concerned.

"Marc," says Semi Pajovic, Cornstein's partner. "We need to get Darko to a big-and-tall store. He needs clothes."

Cornstein nods as we pile into Pajovic's car. Everyone is hungry, though, and shopping will have to wait. The topic of the discussion over lunch -- the topic for most of the day, in fact -- is the upcoming lottery. Cornstein knows his client will go either second or third in this year's draft, and he already is mapping out each scenario. Where will Darko fit? Who has a coach who will develop him? Where will he be received by the fans? Cornstein keeps talking, but Darko is too busy picking at his food.

After eating Serbian food his whole life, it'll take more than three days to get used to the eclectic nature of U.S. menus. He douses everything with salt and picks through anything that isn't chicken or bread.

He's not interested in the discussion, or at least doesn't appear to be. Darko speaks English. Pretty well, actually. But he's quiet, and frankly doesn't care.

"Where would you like to play?" I ask.

"I don't care about that," Darko says. "I don't have favorites. I just want to play."

Spend a day in the tiny town of Vrsac, where Darko played the last three years, and you'll understand why. He lived in a cramped apartment, played for minimum wage and was relatively unknown until six months ago. His country, fresh off a devastating civil war, was in constant strife. The economy was shot, and basketball was more than a game, it was a way of survival.

Even Cleveland looks like a paradise compared to where he has been.

"I think it's not so much where I want to go, but who wants me," Darko says.

That makes a lot of sense coming from a kid who lives in a place where kids sign lifetime deals when they're 15.

"I will just do my best wherever."

Marc Cornstein's apartment, 4:15 p.m.
We're back from a quick run to the music store. Darko bought a CD walkman and the latest discs from 50 Cent and Dr. Dre.

"I like hip hop when I'm in Yugoslavia," he says with a smile. "But when I'm in America, I like Serbian music too. It reminds me of home."


Darko Milicic refreshed the LeBron Mock Draft window until the Pistons came up.
Once inside, the issue of where Darko will land keeps coming up, and we eventually head over to ESPN.com and begin playing the LeBron Mock Draft.

Before long, Darko has taken over the computer and is giving his analysis of my analysis.

"Is LeBron really that good?" he asks. He's never actually seen LeBron James play. Serbia gets NBA games and the NCAA Final Four, but LeBron's high school games are out of the question.

"I like Carmelo Anthony," he says. "He's very smooth, and he can light it up."

Darko wants to know if T.J. Ford is too small, whether Chris Kaman is really ready for the pros and why we have undersized guys like Mike Sweetney and Dwyane Wade rated so high.

He does have a favorite among the group. "I love Kirk Hinrich, he's tough and he can shoot the ball."

He has a harder time with the international players. All the other top international prospects suffer from the same disease. He's much more intrigued by the players he's never played against.

Darko's not impressed with Mickael Pietrus or Victor Khryapa. He swears that Sofaklis Schortsanitis is really only 6-foot-8, and he reserves his harshest judgment for Pavel Podkolzin, who he played against last year.

"Pavel can't even walk," he says with a grin. "So how can he play in the NBA."

Darko then starts refreshing the mock draft web page.

With the No. 2 pick in the draft, the Denver Nuggets select Darko Milicic ...

"Kiki is cool," is his only response.

With the No. 2 pick in the draft, the Miami Heat select Darko Milicic ...

"Pat Riley can't yell as much as my last coach."

With the No. 2 pick in the draft, the Detroit Pistons select Darko Milicic ...

He stops and smiles. Darko likes the fit. Countryman Zeljko Rebraca, also a 7-foot center, is on the roster, and Darko knows the team needs help scoring in the paint. But he's worried about practicing against Ben Wallace every day.

"I'll get a lot of bruises."

8 p.m.
A camera crew from ABC has rearranged the Cornsteins' living room in an effort to get a live shot of Darko's reaction to the lottery.

It's just one of many media annoyances Darko has to put up with suddenly. Reporters from the U.S. and Yugoslavia call constantly. He's in the process of scheduling photo shoots with GQ and ESPN The Magazine, and people are starting to recognize him on the streets.

That's not bad for a kid who wasn't recognizable on the streets of Belgrade, let alone New York six months ago. Still, Darko's confused why the cameras are there.


Darko watched the lottery with agents Marc Cornstein (left) and Semi Pajovic.
"How am I supposed to react?" he asks me.

"Just be yourself," I reply.

"But that means I sit here and say and do nothing."

"That's OK, just be yourself."

"But that's pretty boring. Should I act surprised?"

"Are you surprised?"

"No." Then lets move on.

The living room of Cornstein's penthouse apartment is quiet, even intimate. There are no screaming throngs of fans. No bands playing in the backcourt. No product placements. No entourages, no advisers or childhood friends to tell Darko how good he is. It's just Darko, his two agents and their wives on a couch and two chairs. He wants it that way.

Three years ago, Milicic left his parents behind in Novi Sad to become the youngest player ever to play professional basketball in Yugoslavia. He left behind family, schoolmates and the familiar places he grew up with to pursue a dream and help provide for his family. He's been on his own for a long time. Tonight, nothing is different.

The camera is rolling, waiting for his reaction. When NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik reads the list of top lottery teams, Darko barely cracks a smile.

To him, it is just another day in the life of a kid who's made an amazing journey from obscurity to the pinnacle of the NBA Draft. He's as cool as the other side of the pillow.

8:19 p.m.
The bombshell drops. Cleveland wins the first pick in the draft, and Darko finds out that, in all likelihood, he'll spend his NBA rookie season in Detroit. As expected, he doesn't even blink.

Everyone else is overjoyed. Cornstein had identified Detroit and Denver as potentially the best fits for his young client.

Three days ago, Darko was still in Yugoslavia. He had neven been to the U.S., much less Detroit. He still hasn't seen an NBA game in person. Still shaking off jet-lag, he is tired and overwhelmed. He's a stranger in a stranger world.

For Darko, Thursday wasn't about milestones or endorsement deals. It was about basketball and survival.

Dinner, 10 p.m.
The Cornsteins' have a private party for Darko at their favorite restaurant, Mr. Chow's. Milicic is seated right next to Mariah Carey. He's a long way from Belgrade.

Milicic picks at the gourmet Asian food with his fork.

"Where's the bread?" he asks politely.

Cornstein orders him some Mu Shu pancakes, the closest thing to bread Mr. Chow has. Darko eyes it suspiciously.

Yugoslavians eat large quantities of bread with every meal. Darko is struggling to adapt his diet to the new conditions.

At one point Darko smells his shirt again, and Pajovic tells Cornstein that Darko really needs to go shopping. Natasha Cornstein, Marc's wife and business partner, offers to wash Darko's clothes for him. Then the 17-year-old reveals the problem.

He left Yugoslavia with, literally, only the shirt on his back. After three days and one sweaty workout, you can image the problem.

"He has just one outfit," Pajovic explains. "Kids."

After the meal, autograph seekers corner Darko on the sidewalk. He signs a few for a man who says his child is a big fan. Once a 7-footer starts signing for one person, more follow, trying to get a piece of the action.

Soon Darko is mobbed by his first throng of fans.

"What's you're name?" one autograph seeker asks.

"Darko Milicic," he replies.

"Who are you?" she asks.

"Basketball player," he responds. She wants the autograph anyway.

Plaza Hotel, 12:47 a.m.
"I'm like a dog in a bone factory," says Dumars, still grinning ear to ear hours after the lottery and despite his team's subsequent Game 3 loss to the Nets.

There were at least two winners in the draft lottery. The Pistons were one of them.

When I saw that kid today, I just had to quit looking. I knew he was too good to be there when I was drafting, and I didn't want my heart broken. Now ...
Joe Dumars, Pistons president
"When they drew the Nuggets card at No. 3," Dumars says, "my heart stopped for the 60 seconds it took Russ Granik to reveal who was No. 2. It didn't start until I heard Memphis' name at No. 2."

The Pistons players in the hotel lobby seem just as psyched.

"We need more help," Rip Hamilton said. "Especially down in the post. Darko would be great down there. I'm upset about the loss, but this is still a big night for us."

Other players, like Barry, seem to be on the bandwagon too, now that they've seen Darko up close for the very first time.

Dumars still can't believe his luck.

"When I saw that kid today, I just had to quit looking," he said. "I knew he was too good to be there when I was drafting, and I didn't want my heart broken. Now ..."

While Dumars maintains that Carmelo Anthony is still in the running, there's a glimmer in his eye that looks very familiar.

It's the same one we saw at 11:07 a.m. at a downtown gym, approximately nine hours before fate would drop Darko Milicic directly into his lap.

Destiny? Dumb luck? No one cares. Fate brought the Pistons and Darko together once. The NBA lottery got it done again. The Pistons better grab him quick, before the spin cycle shakes things up one more time.

Chicago JK
05-23-2003, 10:42 AM
thanks again. Sounds like a very interesting prospect.

LRB
05-23-2003, 12:02 PM
Ah but wouldn't it be nice to see Darko in a Mavs Uni alongside Dirk. We can only dream. i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif

jayC
05-24-2003, 10:12 PM
The dude sounds like everything he is billed to be a bigger stronger faster dirk.

LRB
05-25-2003, 11:28 AM
<< The dude sounds like everything he is billed to be a bigger stronger faster dirk. >>



I agree Darko sounds real good, but I'm very hestiant to believe that he's faster and stronger than Dirk. He may well be, but it's hard to judge when he's been playing against such inferior competition as compared to Dirk.

Bayliss
05-25-2003, 06:28 PM
He could very well be better than Dirk. Definitely at age 17. But what one cannot deny is Dirk's improvement from year to year and his willingness to improve.

When Pau Gasol was drafted everyone said that he would be better than Dirk because Pau is tenacious under the basket. Has Pau gotten any better after this year than what he was when he came into the league? Personally I haven't seen it.

Skita was drafted last year and the scouts said he was more fluid and agile than Dirk. Will become a better player. And in time, that may become true. But will Skita work on his game and improve? That is the big question regarding his game at this point. How much is he going to work in the offseason and what will he add to his game for the coming year.

Darko is going to have to do the same thing. Work on his game in the offseason every year, and come back stronger in deficient areas.

Not that I'm comparing Dirk to Jordan, but that is essentially what made Jordan better than all of the other shooting guards, and Dirk better than all of the Euros... willingness to work on deficiencies and improve in the offseason.