View Full Version : Article about Darko

06-10-2003, 09:22 PM
Pretty long read but good.

Darko Milicic walks out of the locker room and into the light for a shootaround. "Walk" is a less precise description than his entrance deserves. Milicic is a museum piece. He's seven feet. His hair is a twisted shade of faded orange, resembling not at all the pedestrian brown seen in the few available photos. His biceps incorporate a sinuous sine curve of visibly rigid flesh. When he shakes your hand, he consumes a good measure of your body mass. Milicic will likely be the second player selected in the upcoming NBA draft. He is Serbian and still only 17 years old. But the vital statistic, of course, is where his head stops.

As he steps into the glare of the practice session, his cloud-white high-tops chew huge portions of hardwood. A teammate tosses him a ball. He pinches his toes, his long arms spin like helicopter blades above his head, and he heaves a three-pointer into the bucket from press row.

Milicic's premier league team, Hemofarm, has traveled to this dreary Serbian town of Nis to compete in a late-season tournament called the Korac Cup. Daylight pours down from windows jammed into the lid of the small circular arena, daubing the parquet in drab morning reflections. Workmen on their knees affix a logo to center court. The pounding of basketballs slaps toward the lofted paint-chipped ceiling. "S'up, baby?" -- three black players swat each other's open palms. Darko has moved down to the far end of the court to shoot lonely, arcing foul shots.

The Hemofarm coach patrols the sideline, his knuckles going white as he dents a box of Davidoff cigarettes with a series of involuntary squeezes. His name is Zeljko Lukajic, but they call him Electricity. A subtle shock wave ripples through the fluffy brown hair piled forward on his crown. Electricity carries bags of worry and scurvy under his eyes. He exudes an air of lousy cafeterias. He is 44, going on dead. As I make a move toward Darko, he beelines for me, screaming in Serbian, cutting the air with a chopping backhand. The translation comes in a second: "Whyareyoutryingtof--withmyteam?"

Hemofarm has suffered a few early-season losses, and Serbia's largest pharmaceutical company, which owns the team, is concerned with the bottom line. Maybe Electricity's head is on the block. Maybe I'm the last person he wants to see.

He says he won't grant access to Milicic during the tournament, and that my presence is too distracting. Considering that I've booked five nights in late April in a town where they burn garbage on their front lawns, this is not comforting news. Someone says Coach was "outrageously insulted" by my request to ride on the team bus, and by my argument that this kind of access is fairly standard in the NBA. "The NBA?" Electricity huffs. "The NBA is entertainment. Basketball in Serbia is business." He wheels on a heel and stalks off.

A few minutes later, Hemofarm's captain, Dragoljub Vidacic, a grim, ring-eyed veteran of the Yugo leagues, leans in to explain that everyone on the team would "get jealous" if I talked to Milicic. Clearly, everyone is having trouble grasping reality. In a few months, Milicic will be throwing cash up in the club. The rest of these guys are consigned to getting recognized down at the fruit stand.

The trip has only just begun, and I'm already coming down with Old World fatigue. So I retire to the Press Caffe across from the locker rooms.

The man at the bar pulls me a local. Darko continues to shoot his lonely foul shots at the far end of the court, as forbidden to me as the captain of the cheerleaders.


His name first hit the papers back home around All-Star weekend, when his agents sought a ruling on a vaguely worded portion of the NBA handbook concerning draft eligibility for international players. Milicic will turn 18 on June 20, six days before the draft, and it wasn't always certain he'd be allowed in. After a brief public battle, the NBA caved, and Darko was granted his payday a year early.

He can certainly use it. Milicic grew up in Novi Sad, Serbia's second-largest city. His dad is a burly patrol cop ("All he's good for is beating people up," Darko had confessed to my advance people); his mother is a 6'3'' cleaning lady. The family is poor -- an uncle took them in a few years back, only to kick them into the street in a drunken rage. At 13, all knees and elbows, Darko began his pro career with a team located across the Danube from the dirt court behind his house. When NATO bombs knocked out Novi Sad's three bridges, Milicic had to take a barge to practice. His parents didn't think that was such a good idea, so eventually Darko was shipped off to play for Hemofarm, in Vrsac, a tiny town an hour's drive from Belgrade. NBA teams have been scouting him since he was 14.

I'm sipping my beer when a man lands in the next seat over, an orange Hemofarm pin stuck in the lapel of his blue suit jacket. He says he has known Darko for a long time. It isn't two minutes before his eyes start crinkling at the sides. "His head is already in America," the man says, sighing. Apparently, Milicic has begun trading words with coaches and bumping opposing players during games. "Now he cares about mobile phones, jewelry, clothes." Maybe they're keeping me away from Darko for a good reason, after all. It's beginning to sound like Milicic is killing time.

The man swings his head round to a TV screen that flickers in the corner of the lounge. "I have known Darko for long time," he says again. "He is changing. He and his family. For half year. They are all about money now." The man pauses. "It's very pity," he continues, "because he's okay person. But it's hard to be okay person when you have not okay guy around you."

The not okay guy is not far from view, roaming the halls outside with the awful patience of a predatory fish. He wears a black shirt beneath a suit of gray polish. His hair is done in white flecks; on his face it's worn in a thin goatee that runs up the sides of his mouth like a reverse drip. He looks like the movie director James Cameron. He scans everything without moving his eyes. Dragan Delic is Milicic's Serbian rep, partner to a man back in New York named Marc Cornstein. He wrangled Milicic a handful of years ago, when it became clear that the kid had basketball and cash in his future. Later, Delic would reveal to me how he gained Darko's trust. Leaning back in his seat, the fabric of his suit coat peeling off his chest, he says, "Personality," drawing out the word as if it's a punch line. The corners of his mouth stand down into a sneer.

Milicic eventually makes his way onto the team bus, but not before trading daggers with Electricity, who's gulping his Davidoffs in the tight hallway between the lounge and the echoing showers of the locker rooms. I hang around and keep quiet, and once the players filter through the exit, Electricity begins to amp down. With practice behind him, and Hemofarm's first Cup game a whole day away, his frame loosens, if only by a degree. He nods his head in my direction: "Would you like to go to a press conference on a raft under a bridge?" The business of basketball is strange here.


Darko scores the first points of the next night's game on an elegant finger roll. As his teammates chug up the court in the opposite direction, the parquet claps together where it doesn't fit correctly.

The edge of the court is littered with the dead black matches that have set fire to hundreds of cigarettes in the arena. The players huff it through blue clouds of smoke, with more get-up than in any NBA game. The season is only 42 games long, and with a tiebreaker based on point differential, there is no garbage time. Each possession holds the immediacy of a first kiss. Throughout the game, Electricity chews and roars from the far side of Fellini.

The last time Hemofarm played Buducnost, in Montenegro, fans threw cell phones at Milicic. When he dunks early on tonight, it is with reprisal on his face. He doesn't run like a seven-footer. His flesh and bone are proportioned as though by a knowing hand. Flicking his fingers in the air, he blocks a shot gently enough to control it, then fires the ball upcourt for an easy lay-in. The fans begin a rolling, rising chant.

There are only 4,500 seats, but the arena has more vigor than the United Center, the Staples Center and any other Center with waiter service and self-flushing toilets. Milicic looks like the one who doesn't fit. His game incorporates vast stores of petulance and impatience. He glares at refs. His shoulders sag when calls don't go his way. He elbows the opposite center in the throat and tosses the ball at another opponent following a whistle. At times, he stalks the court with a leering grin on his face. It may not be the kind of behavior considered classy around here, but that doesn't really matter: Darko is about to move on. After 10 minutes, Milicic leaves the game with eight points, but he had spent much of the time setting high screens, since his teammates rarely pass him the ball. As the game clock ticks on, it becomes clear that Hemofarm is all but ignoring the only lottery pick in the country.

And here's why:

Among the Serbian population, there is a roots-deep appreciation of basketball, even as it is played among the swaying towers of the NBA so many kilometers away. Sit for an astronaut cut (the only cut on offer) in one of Belgrade's barber shops, and the man behind the swishing scissors will summon a question from his faltering handle of the English tongue: "So ... what is story with LeBron James?" When the name Darko Milicic is uttered, it is invariably followed by a round of severe head-shaking. Serbs don't want to believe he will be drafted so highly. They want to think Americans haven't quite got his value right, as if they were tourists pulling their wallets wide in the market. But there is something more than disbelief and worry at work here, and it sounds an awful lot like spite.

Can you blame Serbia? Wedged in the way of every European power of the last 15 centuries, Serbia and the rest of what used to be Yugoslavia have hosted a parade of conquerors -- the Ottomans, the Huns, the Romans, the Soviets and everyone else who could muster an army. Today the Serbs come off as half Italian/half Russian -- they say da for yes and ciao for goodbye.

Serbia now is more ghetto than anything going down in North Philly or Fulton Mall. The poverty here breeds a certain kind of collectivity: got nothing, share everything. If, on the other hand, you're doing a little too well, it's a stretch for the rest to get big-hearted.

So it would have been many more seasons in the Euro leagues for Milicic before anyone would run a play for him, defer to him, consider him or grant him status based on anything other than duty logged. Right now, he's subsisting on whatever he can grab for himself, existing as a cog in the greater sense of "team." Let's not forget: The NBA is entertainment; basketball in Serbia is a business.

Milicic was in Dallas last year for the Global Games, playing for the Yugoslav team. There was a large contingent of NBA scouts at Reunion Arena, and many had come to see what Milicic might someday have for them. After the first game, the Yugo coach found out about all the eyes in the stands, and he benched Milicic for the remaining three games of the tournament. "Dallas was fun," Darko says later. "I went to the mall. I bought some shoes."


"They tell me that any woman will give it to me," Milicic says, grinning across the table. "In the NBA, you're popular, you're rich."

After winning two games, Hemofarm has made the Cup finals. In victory, Electricity relaxes, although only enough to grant us 20 minutes with Milicic in the café of the team's hotel.

Darko's eyes widen over what's to come. "I've been told," he says, his words assuming the edgy expectancy of a man stuffing his bags for a very long trip, "that every game is a separate story there, a separate spectacle." He speaks of men in monkey suits, of sprites soaring off trampolines, of huge bugs catapulting free merchandise into a crowd.

Behind Milicic, the front desk clerk dozes in a coat of deep brown checks that looks as if he skinned a couch. The café staff is finishing up, sorting the silverware and touching up the bar. A red-cheeked kid with a dishrag of brown hair takes my order.

Darko asks for water. He has a pubescent peppering of fine hairs on his lip, and his thick, dark eyebrows arch symmetrically like umbrellas. His smile comes easy and soft, and it hangs on his teeth for solid durations. But this is not the compliant smile of the peasant. Milicic has spent years hanging with a guy who's name is pronounced dragon, and he's learned that it's better to rule than be ruled. ("I am a f--ing patriot," Milicic says when asked about NATO bombing his country in '99.)

Given his size, and all the new attention, it's easy to forget that beneath it all, Milicic is still a couple of years shy of 20. "He gets away with a lot of things here that he never will there," says Michael Campbell, a loose-limbed Hemofarm forward out of LIU/Brooklyn. "He throws tantrums to get thrown out of practice, and then -- wow! -- he gets thrown out." In the paramilitary realm of Serbian basketball, his tantrums don't get him what he really wants, which is respect. Considering all the constraints placed on his impulsive teenage aura, Milicic is remarkably affable with the world.

When he does project petulance, it isn't the mouthy strain. His protests are vented in shrugs and glares. He walks slowly, never rushes, and, unlike many of the players around him, he seeks conflict. He wants to prove he is bigger and better, and that the issue is forever settled and done. The Serbs may not approve of such behavior, but Darko better not have it any other way. The NBA may suffer fools, but it doesn't suffer peasants. "The brothers are gonna respect him," a pro scout told me earlier in the week.

"I know very little about what is expected of me there," Darko says, his words soft and measured. It is still several weeks before the Pistons discover they will have the chance to make him the No.2 pick. "I'd like a big city, and a club with big ambitions. I'd like to conquer something with them, to participate in something for the first time in their history." There is a crashing in the corner, and a waiter contorts around two others on the floor, shuddering with laughter in a rainfall of silverware. The couch-killer leaps from his sleep, then quickly returns to it. Darko doesn't flinch. Soon this will all be behind him. "When I watch NBA games, I think, 'How will I look in the game there?'" Darko is thoughtful now. "I expect to do something there. I don't want to be a donkey."

Milicic runs a hand through his dishwater-dye job. He's colored his hair for the tournament, and a few of his teammates have done the same. Apparently, they weren't aware that it takes several go-rounds with the bleach to go platinum. But orange is good enough for Serbia. Milicic is #### proud of his hair now, having received a certain amount of grief over the new look. "People talk about me like I'm an imbecile," he says, rolling his eyes in a gesture of impending impunity. "Some so-called coaches ... "

Darko checks his watch. The 20 minutes are spent. He stands to leave, and again I am reminded of his height, and all that it means.

So some people think Milicic is a jerk. But in Darko's onrushing world of naysayers and 10-percenters, modesty has its problems too. He inhales deeply and pats his palms to his chest, making a muffled sound against his sweatshirt. "I live with full lungs," he says. Then he walks soundlessly off on the balls of his feet, upstairs to a bed that is too short for him.


Guns are everywhere, big ones with muzzles and banana clips, as the crowd files into the arena for the final game of the Cup. The new Serbian prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, watches from an open-air box above center court. The previous prime minister was assassinated a month before. Serbia is in a "state of emergency."

There are no seats in the Press Caffe, and no windows, either, so the cigarette smoke hangs like drapes. Electricity roosts in the tunnel, locking eyes with everyone in his field of vision, looking for an indicator of what might soon come to pass. Dragan Delic brushes past him on the way to the court, and Electricity shivers as though from an unseasonable gust.

It is Easter Sunday in highly observant Serbia, and it's near miraculous that all the seats are filled. Several NBA scouts sit under one of the baskets, laughing over some escapade from the night before. The prime minister moves his head ever so slightly and peers out at the world from beneath heavy eyebrows.

Everyone is here, but Hemofarm never shows. Milicic starts strong, then fades. The air is out of the building by halftime. A team called FMP wins going away.

Making my way through the crowd to the Press Caffe, I run blindly into an unsmiling man who stares at me, mumbling something in Serbian that doesn't sound good. This is not okay guy. Several large uniformed shapes approach from the rear, and I distinctly recognize the ratchet of metal. The prime minister is having a farewell swallow in the Caffe, and so I duck away and move along.

The Hemofarm locker room is silent, save for the squeaking of soles. Electricity accepts my commiseration, no longer appearing to detest me. He walks out the door shaking his head, and I feel a pang of sympathy for him. (In a month, he'd be out of a job.) When Milicic turns the corner and floods the corridor with his body, he does so with the same reserve he carries with him always.

He invites me to the hotel café for one last talk. Finally, now that the tournament's over, he'll have all the time I need. I have a few more questions for him about how he's going to handle the move west.

I hop in the car and head down the road to the hotel, but I never get there, because a blur fractures into the long side of my Skoda. The blow sends my head and ankle toward each other around the fulcrum of my kidney. My vision goes corrugated. Glass flies across the car's interior like five-cent candy. The car skids sideways across the oncoming lane and toward a curb that it jumps by way of popping every tire.

When the cops arrive, all they can muster are horse laughs and false indignation. "You are bad luck, American," they say.

I track down a taxi to Belgrade, and my hands are shaking as I pick the glass out of my hair. That final meeting with Darko is long gone, and as the driver flicks on the radio to Eminem, I realize I understand it all anyway.

Darko is probably back in Vrsac by now, sleeping in his own bed, which fits him, as his new life surely will. He is made for this kind of thing. The brothers are gonna respect him.

By Brett Forrest ESPN