Try as he might, and he didn't often seem to try that hard, Darko Milicic could never find a home in the NBA. The 7-foot Serbian selected second overall in the vaunted 2003 NBA draft — one pick after LeBron James, one pick before Carmelo Anthony, ahead of fellow likely future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — never even got close to validating Joe Dumars' faith and living up to his lofty lottery position, drifting for a decade without making much of an on-court dent for any of the six NBA teams that employed him.
He saw his confidence destroyed as a sparingly used rookie with Larry Brown's championship-winning Detroit Pistons, repeatedly struggled to rediscover it over the years (despite David Kahn's best efforts) and, a brief flash here or there aside, failing to inspire faith as anything more than a roster-filler with fast-diminishing upside. To the extent that he still exists in the minds of NBA fans, he does so less as an actual player than as the answer to a trivia question, a perpetual punchline, the dictionary definition of "bust."
When he announced last summer that he wouldn't seek continued NBA employment after leaving the Boston Celtics to return to Serbia in the fall of 2012 to take care of his ailing mother, I sort of expected Milicic to catch on with a club closer to home and continue his career in Europe; he's still just 29 years old, after all. He didn't, though, sitting out last season entirely, which maybe shouldn't have been particularly surprising, given the relative lack of passion he tended to show for the game he'd been playing for money since age 13 and his apparent preference for other professional pursuits, like carp fishing. If he really was done with basketball, though, the question remained: What would Darko do next?
Now, it seems, we have our answer ... and, as befitting one of the more singular characters in recent NBA history, it's a pretty bizarre one. Lloyd Dobler once famously called kickboxing "the sport of the future," and according to a translation of a report by NBA Serbia, it also appears to be the sport of Darko's future:
The top-ranked Serb in the history of the NBA draft, Darko Milicic, will officially become a kickboxer on Wednesday at the Falkensteiner Hotel in Belgrade, when he will officially sign a contract with the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations (WAKO).
Milicic will sign a contract with Barbara Falsoni, director of WAKO PRO, who will also announce the famous basketball player's first kickboxing match.
For the last year and a half, Milicic has not played basketball, but only done individual training and various strength and conditioning programs. There is no doubt he will have a lot of work to do to find his way around in the ring. However, he is not the first Serbian basketball player to dedicate himself to combat sports. Before he did it, so did Igor Rakocevic, former captain of Red Star Belgrade.
Nor is Milicic the first NBA luminary to veer into the fight game. Fifteen-year NBA vet Kendall Gill traded in his high-tops for boxing gloves after his retirement, rolling up a 4-0 record as a professional boxer. Toronto Raptors forward James Johnson is a decorated competitive kickboxer. Plenty of NBA players, including Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, have begun implementing MMA training in their summer conditioning programs to prepare for the grueling 82-game NBA season. Former All-Star Glen Rice has even tried his hand at promoting MMA events in Florida.
While countryman Rakocevic has yet to test his Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills professionally, though, it appears Darko is eager to test his kickboxing mettle as soon as possible. Here's what the 7-foot, 275-pound former center looks like in training, thanks to Eurohoops.net:
I won't pretend to be a kickboxing expert, so I'll leave dissections of the form and potency of his leaping knees, combinations and spinning backfists to others. If nothing else, though, both the intensity of the clips and the interest in getting into the ring quickly suggest Milicic is passionate about making a real go of his second (or, if you count carp fishing, third) athletic career; given how often he seemed to just be going through the motions in the NBA, that's something, at least. Maybe the brand of showmanship that once nearly translated into a draft-night Superman-style jersey reveal and once did result in a full-on Hulk Hogan jersey rip will make Milicic a favorite among fight fans. He's already got a pretty perfect ring name, thanks to former teammate Rasheed Wallace; I mean, I know I'd sure think about buying a "Serbian Gangster" walkout T-shirt, so long as it wasn't all Affliction'd up.
If he can combine his mile-long reach with a proper channeling of the hot temper that led him to say horrific things about FIBA referees and say he'd be cool with killing someone on the court, he might have what it takes to be more successful in this endeavor than he was in his last. I'd say it'd be hard for him to be less successful, but being on the receiving end of a bell-ringing knockout high kick would probably make being called a bust seem like a pretty desirable state of affairs. Good luck, Darko. Keep your hands up out there.
- - - - - - -