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Ball Don't Lie

Darko Milicic, currently on NBA hiatus to attend to his family, reminds us that he was a basketball pro at age 13

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Darko Milicic, five years into his professional career, one night into his NBA career (Getty Images)

Darko Milicic played four and a half minutes in Boston's Nov. 2nd loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. He pulled in a rebound, didn't score, turned it over twice and committed a personal foul. After sitting on the Boston bench for two weeks, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski first reported that the Celtics center will be returning home to Serbia to attend to his ill mother. The former No. 2 overall pick from the star-laden 2003 NBA draft "most likely," according the Boston coach Doc Rivers, won't return to the team this season.

As a result, after a career filled with disappointments playing for every team along the way that had hopes for Darko to act as a consistent contributor in the middle (either or as a star or stopgap), it appears as if his NBA career is probably finished. Considering that Milicic turned 18 just six days before that 2003 draft, it seems a ridiculous notion that someone who is seemingly just entering his athletic prime at age 27 could walk away from it all.

Then you find out that Darko Milicic is a 14-year vet. A 10-season veteran in the NBA, which is jaw-dropping enough, but someone that has been playing professional basketball and living away from his parents since he was 13 years of age. And that he didn't begin that pro career this early to chase riches or fame or low post development, but instead because his family depended on what Darko has been able to send home over the years. Here's the story, from CSN New England's Jessica Camerato:

It was a coach who ran a youth team nearby Milcic's home that spotted the towering child. "He saw me tall and said I should come," Milicic recounted. He began playing organized basketball when he was around 10 years old. Three years later, he was offered a contract to play for another team two hours away from his family.

The 13-year-old would have to live on his own and learn how to support himself. Milcic made the move.

"[I lived] by myself," Milicic, now 27, said. "I was making money then playing basketball, I signed a contract when I was 13. It's easy [to support yourself] because we go through a lot of [stuff] as young guys back home, so we are by 13 already grown. You can go by yourself. It wasn't hard for me. During the bombings we went through a lot of [stuff]. For me, it was good to play basketball. I didn't think about  [being on my own] because it was just two hours from home."

Nine and a half NBA years of being looked at as "the guy that was picked before Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony" is wearying enough. Fourteen years of pro ball, working amongst adults years before most stateside professionals are asked to? That's a full career, regardless of the knowledge that Milicic is months away from turning 28.

Regardless of the disappointment of his career, as well. When basketball turns into something you have to do, as opposed to something that comes naturally that you want to do, things tend to shape the way you look at the game.

It could mean chucking away at an AAU tournament or feuding with your high school or college coach about minutes, as you attempt to find your way to the pros in order to secure things for your family. It could mean going out of your way in a contract year towards the end of your career in order to grab one last multi-year contract.

Or, in Darko's case, it could mean turning basketball into a factory job — a factory job worked two hours away from your struggling family — years before you could be accurately be described as a "young adult."

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Darko during what could be his last NBA game (Getty Images)

How that could mess — to use a word we're allowed to print — your mind up; the possibilities are limitless. Without even getting into the poverty issues and civil war strife that Darko's home was working through back then.

The cynical take is that, as young wage-earners go, Darko had it easy. Yes, it was a job at age 13; but it was playing a sport for a living. Most kids that age attempt to earn a little dough — yours truly had a VERY illegal job washing dishes 25 hours a week at a sports bar; paid in cash so that the owners didn't have to report their 13-year old employee while circumventing minimum wage laws. That gig, like most others that anyone reading this probably worked at that age, was probably more physically taxing than playing basketball for a living as a tall kid with hops.

The problem with that comparison is the fact that I took that cash and bought guitar strings, movie tickets, and Jolt Cola. Darko sent that money home to his poverty-stricken parents, living two hours away. Nearly a decade and a half later, it appears as if he's ready to go home.

This doesn't excuse Milicic's lack of NBA development, his unprofessionalism at the NBA level, or his churlishness on and off the court. The news, thanks to Camerato, does go a long way toward understanding where it all went wrong, and why Darko Milicic is probably sick of it all.

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