Miserable at every NBA stop, Darko Milicic has found peace as a farmer

The sky was the limit for Darko Milicic. (Getty Images)
The sky was the limit for Darko Milicic. (Getty Images)

Back in 2012, when Darko Milicic was a 10th-year veteran still collecting an NBA paycheck, I was a beat reporter covering the Boston Celtics. I didn’t have much interaction with the former No. 2 pick, other than the time a locker room attendant was warning players to be careful driving home in a Nor’easter and Darko responded, “I’m doing 90 tonight.” It might’ve been funny had he not sounded so serious.

He couldn’t have been serious. Even for a dude named Darko, that’d be some dark stuff to be saying.

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Then again, Milicic was a child of the Yugoslav Wars whose entire career Stateside was framed by the fact he was selected second, after LeBron James, in a 2003 draft that also saw Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade taken with pick Nos. 3-5. All you need to do is look at his nickname on Basketball Reference, “The Human Victory Cigar,” to get a feel for how he’s remembered in NBA circles.

And the guy began his Celtics career by telling reporters, “I’ll do whatever it takes, whatever I need to do to help this team. So now, if I have to go kill someone on the court, I’ll kill someone on the court.”

So, maybe he was serious? Either way, I didn’t make much of it. Milicic played all of five minutes in one appearance for the Celtics and was unceremoniously waived two weeks later with the following statement by the team: “Darko has asked us to release him so he could deal with a personal matter.” We were told he returned home to Serbia to care for his ailing mother, so more power to the guy.

Milicic has since popped up from time to time, first at the World Carp Classic fishing tournament, then as a professional kickboxer who lost his first fight, only to declare his invincibility afterwards, and finally shirtless, singing patriotic folk music with some Bosnians and feeding beer to tattoos on his stomach of a pair of alleged Chetnik war criminals from World War II. So, yeah, maybe he was serious.

Darko’s here again. He conducted an interview with Serbian news website B92.net, portions of which were translated by the fine folks at r/NBA, and he sounded like a man more comfortable in his skin. Milicic discussed each of his NBA stops with the sort of honesty you’d expect from the 7-foot Serbian.

***

Detroit Pistons

Young Darko. (AP)
Young Darko. (AP)

“I’d do a lot of things differently now. It’s true I ended up on a team trying to win a ring, which rarely happens to a No. 2 pick, but in the end we’re all looking for excuses. I could say I didn’t get a proper chance, but that’s simply an excuse; it’s up to a young player to prove himself, work hard and wait for his chance. My approach was completely different. As a No. 2 pick coming from Europe, I thought I was sent by God, so I got into fights, got drunk before practices, spiting everyone, but I was spiting myself.

[…]

“So yeah, I was the problem. That initial dissatisfaction probably led to me starting to hate and not enjoy playing. There were some situations where I’ve already scored 20 points, but in my head I’m thinking, ‘When will this game finally end, come on, let’s pack it up and go home.’ I just had to feed my ego. I couldn’t care less what’s going to happen the following week. My whole approach since coming to the US was just wrong. I could say I was too young back then, but I chose to go there myself and I obviously wasn’t prepared for what the league would require from me.”

Feeding his ego came up several times during Darko’s response to questions about his Detroit days, and he suggested games against the Tim Duncans or Pau Gasols served as motivation, while outings opposite “a center that’s 10 times weaker” were of little interest. Milicic averaged 1.6 points and 1.2 rebounds and never scored 20 points in two-plus seasons on the Pistons, so the numbers don’t bear this out until later in his career, but you get a feel for his mentality from the beginning. Coaches preached consistency, “but I simply couldn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t ready or willing to put in the work.”

Orlando Magic

Orlando will always have the Darko/Dwight combo. (AP)
Orlando will always have the Darko/Dwight combo. (AP)

“I really enjoyed it there since Day 1. Physically I was fresh since I hadn’t really played for three years. Unfortunately, the coach just didn’t see me and Dwight [Howard] playing together, although I thought it could easily work out. He’d stuff the paint, I’d be a threat from outside; it would’ve been great. I had some nice games in a year and a half there, so I was expecting some nice offers. No offers came though, since everyone was thinking I had mental issues and was a risk. That’s where I got disappointed even more.”

Milicic shot one 3-pointer in 110 games on the Magic and missed all six of his career 3-point attempts. But Orlando under coach Brian Hill took fewer than 10 3’s per game as a team in 2005-06, which is rather remarkable considering Stephen Curry now takes that many on his own, so maybe Darko was playing in the wrong era. Or maybe that Dwight/Darko combo was never destined for greatness. Either way, it’s disheartening to hear how perceived “mental issues,” real or not, further fed his self-doubt.

Memphis Grizzlies

Darko reached a new low in Memphis. (AP)
Darko reached a new low in Memphis. (AP)

“The only thing I told my manager was I’ll go anywhere but Memphis. Just don’t send me to Memphis. Of course I went to Memphis, where I went through two years of classic depression. I was just crossing the dates off the calendar because I couldn’t function anymore. Physically you’re there, but mentally you aren’t. Whatever you do, there’s no chance of being successful. It was really hard. Mentally, I was completely worn out. Everyone has bad periods in their careers, but it was harder for me since my whole experience was negative and that wasn’t what I expected.”

Milicic signed in Memphis as a free agent, so maybe he trusted the wrong manager. He did get a three-year, $21 million deal from the Grizzlies, which might’ve been the “nice offer” he was looking for at the time, and they gave him his first real shot at starting, but you can’t buy your way out of a depression.

New York Knicks

The Darko Knight comes to Gotham. (AP)
The Darko Knight comes to Gotham. (AP)

“After that, I went to New York, where I continued doing stupid stuff. The coach finally got fed up, so I was doing push-ups and sit-ups during games and drinking milkshakes in the gym. So, I decided to go back to Europe. I was young enough and could still get back on track.”

Why the Knicks wanted Milicic in Mike D’Antoni’s system is beyond me, which can be said about a lot of their moves, but they traded Quentin Richardson for him in a 2009 draft-day deal. Darko played eight games in New York before they gave up on him in favor of Brian Cardinal at the 2010 deadline — the going rate for a guy “drinking milkshakes in the gym.” Milicic was 24 years old at the time, and he’s still just 31, so you wonder how things might’ve panned out had he returned to Europe then.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Do not cross Darko. (AP)
Do not cross Darko. (AP)

“I met with [then-Wolves GM] David Kahn and told him: ‘Don’t trade for me for the love of God. I don’t want to play in the NBA anymore. I’ll ruin your team. I’ll f*** up the team chemistry. Do not trade for me. When it’s not working it’s not working.’ He told me to join them for two weeks, and if I’m not feeling it I’m free to leave. My first year there actually went great.

“My experience in the NBA was a catastrophe, because I’m a born winner. I don’t like losing, even in card games. That’s the Darko that came to the U.S., but after Detroit I spent time on teams that were classic gangs going from city to city and losing games, and sadly you kinda get used to that. Minny wasn’t bad, but we were dead last in the standings. Other than a couple of good games, there’s nothing positive in that.”

Milicic suggested his production in Minnesota, which was the best of his career, fizzled when the Timberwolves replaced Kurt Rambis with Rick Adelman as coach. But that’s neither her nor there.

Darko Milicic didn't mince words in a recent retrospective.

A post shared by Ball Don't Lie (@yahooballdontlie) on Mar 14, 2017 at 6:41am PDT


Think about this story for a second. Darko actually told the GM, “Don’t trade for me for the love of God,” because “I’ll f*** up the team chemistry,” and the Wolves still dealt for him. They didn’t give up much, but they did hand him a four-year, $20 million deal a few months later. Perhaps we should have expected this from Kahn, who infamously drafted two point guards ahead of Curry in 2009 and once compared Milicic to Chris Webber — on a broadcast with C-Webb. Still, this is next-level bad GM’ing.

Boston Celtics

Proof Darko played in Boston. (Getty Images)
Proof Darko played in Boston. (Getty Images)

“I don’t even want to talk about Boston. I didn’t want to go there, and I told my manager what’s going to happen. The people in the U.S. are obsessed with stats as a nation. They simply look at the stats, and that’s it. Although, I think they have the full right to do so. The guy looks at my stats and sees me as a role player who’s happy to get his chance, but that’s not who I am. I run away from that; for my whole life I’m going to be the No. 2 pick who didn’t live up to the expectations, but I am what I am. I’m different from other busts. They wanted to, but couldn’t, and I could when I wanted to. That’s the issue in my head, but no one wants to dig deeply into it. They just look at the stats and tell me I’ve done nothing.”

I’m now totally convinced he was serious about doing 90 in a Nor’easter. That said, “I’m different from other busts. They wanted to, but couldn’t, and I could when I wanted to” is serious self-awareness.

***

Speaking of self-awareness, Darko added, “If you can’t get used to the atmosphere you’re living in, you’ll have a bad time, both as a person and as a player.” And he just couldn’t acclimate to basketball in America, which he described as business-like compared to his European roots. “The lifestyle didn’t suit me at all,” he said. “I’m a very social guy, and I like to hang out.” Case in point from April 2015:

Darko Milicic is a skilled big man. (YouTube)
Darko Milicic is a skilled big man. (YouTube)

Darko also dished on fellow Serbian hoopsters Nikola Jokic, Boban Marjanovic and Milos Teodosic during the interview. His relationship with Jokic dates back to when he played with the budding star’s older brother, and later invited Nemanja to live with him in the U.S. “We were constantly throwing parties,” he said, suggesting Nikola had learned from the errors of their ways “and is now a complete opposite.” Which should comes as welcome news to the Denver Nuggets. As should this evaluation:

“I hear Nikola being compared to Vlade Divac, and I kind of understand that, since Divac is our legend,” said Milicic, once also compared to Divac. “But I don’t buy it. If i remember correctly, Divac scored around 11 points per game, while Jokic can get over 25 if he continues like this. He has a much softer hand and is better in finding solutions in traffic. Divac was a traditional center, while this guy is hitting floaters and doing things small forwards usually do. For me, Nikola is more like Dirk Nowitzki.”

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Darko likened his own experience to Boban’s current situation on the Pistons. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “It looks like he’s paying off my debts in Detroit. I mean, he’s on a team with no real ambition that paid $20 million for him and isn’t giving him playing time, even though he played well when he got the chance. It must be some kind of an anti-Serbian conspiracy.” (I still can’t tell if he’s serious.)

As for Teodosic, “the best international player not in the NBA,” Darko didn’t endorse the Serbian point guard’s plan to seek U.S. employment in 2017. After praising Teodosic’s playmaking, Milicic said, “NBA playmakers are dragons. I’ve seen it time and again. Players of Teo’s constitution simply get bullied in the post by other playmakers; that’s why guys like [Russell] Westbrook are dragons. Mentally he’s ready to play anywhere he wants, but he doesn’t have the physical tools.” He’s nothing if not blunt.

But enough about other Serbians. How is Darko doing now? Inquiring minds would sure like to know.

“I’ve gained 90 pounds since I stopped playing,” he said. “I’m at 350 right now. I’m working at my farm and enjoying that kind of production. I take walks through my fields and watch the process, which makes me really happy. I’m still pretty inexperienced at this, so I like to learn, seek guidance, go to seminars. I’ve created my own peace of mind, and I’m enjoying it. There are always problems like in any other field of work, but I’d rather do this than build skyscrapers in the city, because I’d end up shooting myself. I think this is the most positive story of them all — food production and food in general is the future in every sense.”

Now that’s serious. And encouraging. Except for that whole “because I’d end up shooting myself” bit. It’s nice to see Darko’s life as a farmer after basketball isn’t a bust. And you can’t do 90 in a tractor.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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