I’m a homer. I can’t deny it, I won’t even try. But unlike most homers who follow their favourite teams through thick and painfully thin, my love is devoted, not to a franchise, but to a single player. That single player just signed a three-year contract with the worst team in last year’s NBA.
Stop for a second and try to defend a player who’s career averages cap off at 15.0 minutes and 5.0 points per game. Tough huh? But I’ve never loved Darko Milicic for what he’s brought to the court, performance-wise anyway.
I recall May 22nd, 2003. There I sat, a die-hard Pistons fan with a dear friend and the only long-time Grizzlies fan on the planet (except for maybe Bryant Reeves’ mom), in my living room watching the NBA Lottery. It was, as I’m sure you remember, the LeBron James sweepstakes, kind of like the Greg Oden sweepstakes, but on crack. We watched Russ Granik list off picks 13 through four, a fairly uneventful event. Then came the commercial break. You know, the one they always put before the final three picks are announced.
With three teams left in the running to snag King James, Denver fans waited impatiently in their homes throughout the country, meanwhile Cleveland fans lost their mind about the prospect of LeBron staying in Ohio. And then there was Memphis. There we sat silently, my friend, myself, and the ghost of Otis Thorpe.
For those who don’t remember, the Vancouver Grizzlies (emphasis on Vancouver) gave up a protected first-round pick in order to weasel Thorpe away from the Pistons just prior to the 1997-98 season. Since the pick was protected, it meant that if the Grizzlies did happen to win the lottery they would keep the pick and honour their commitment to Detroit the following draft. Anything shy of the first overall pick, though, and it was being sent to Michigan as compensation for the 47 games the Grizzlies got from Thorpe in 1998.
Granik returns. The third pick in the 2003 NBA Draft is awarded to the Denver Nuggets.
I remember seeing the look on my friend’s face and thinking it symbolized hope. Here, a long-time sufferer of sub-30 win seasons and the aforementioned Big Country, was just one pick away from nabbing the extremely coveted LeBron James in the following month’s draft. I, on the other hand, was just a spoiled Pistons fan coming fresh off an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Then, without further ado, Granik returned and announced that the second pick would be awarded to Memphis and subsequently Detroit. LeBron James was staying home, Grizzlies fans world-wide lost all faith in life, and I was running around my house, twirling a Ben Wallace jersey in the air and chanting as if Canada had just won the World Cup.
As karma would have it, Joe Dumars passed on Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Even Kirk Hinrich and Josh Howard. But that’s okay because we got the biggest punchline in the NBA, an 84-inch Serbian victory cigar.
After two and half disappointing years in Detroit, Dumars quickly realized his alleged mistake and shipped off Milicic to the Orlando Magic for Kelvin Cato and the 2007 draft pick that became Rodney Stuckey.
I’ve been asked countless times how I can root for a player like Darko, my peers and colleagues constantly call him selfish and a primadonna. They’ve asked how a player can take offence to playing in garbage time without having played the entire game, and why he expects everybody to treat him as though he’s already paid his dues in the NBA.
Rooting for Darko Milicic is like rooting for an underdog that everybody hates. But the best part is that Milicic doesn’t care. He’s Kobe Bryant without the accomplishments. He’s that foreign kid you think is arrogant because they refuse to conform to North American traditions.
He’s the one responsible for this quote from last year’s European Championships about his newest teammate…
“We’ll destroy them all — Spaniards, Greeks, Lithuanians, Russians, Frenches, Italians … All of them! They’re good, but we can demolish them all,” Milicic said. “Spain is not unbeatable. I like to play against Pau Gasol, he’s soft. If we win gold medal in Spain, I’ll take my shirt off and then I will jump from Parliament.”
He’s the one who sat on the Pistons’ bench with a dirty mustache and slicked-back, bleached-blonde hair just weeks before his trade to the Magic.In a time where we’re seeing more and more foreign players succeed in the NBA, Milicic embodies some much needed European flair. But since Darko’s attitude contrasts with what we’re used to on this continent, we’re turned off by it.
He doesn’t say all the things we expect to hear from a converted American like Dirk Nowitzki, and he hasn’t married an American popular culture icon like Tony Parker, but his bizarre passion to show that he belongs on the court anywhere with anyone is shared by North Americans at every level.
On a team as desperate as the 2007 Grizzlies, Darko will be given an opportunity to prove himself as a legit big man. And while he may never prove his worth as the second overall pick in the best draft in recent history, there’s still plenty of hope for the four-year-vet who turned 22 years old less than a month ago.
And if not, he’s still one of the most intriguing personalities in the NBA.