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Remembering ‘Deki,' who brought Warriors love, soul and good cheer

Remembering ‘Deki,' who brought Warriors love, soul and good cheer originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

Halfway through a season thus far defined by variance and absence and matters vastly more considerable than basketball, the ultimate blow struck the Warriors on Wednesday.

A death in the family: Beloved assistant coach Dejan “Deki” Milojević, passed away at a hospital in Salt Lake City. He was 46.

Milojević suffered a heart attack during a team dinner at a Salt Lake City restaurant Tuesday night, was rushed to a hospital and could not be revived. He is survived by his wife Natasa and children Nikola and Masa.

“Their loss is unfathomable,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr, in a statement issued by the team, said of Milojević’s family.

There is no doubt Kerr is distraught. Or that the rest of Golden State’s coaching staff and every player on the roster – they all witnessed Milojević in distress – are devastated.

For no one on the franchise payroll exhibited a deeper love of life than Milojević. The range of his moods seemed always to exist between great and fantastic. He was a jokester. In the two-plus years I was around him, his face offered only three expressions: Laughter, grinning, talking – if not all three simultaneously.

“We are absolutely devastated by Dejan’s sudden passing,” Kerr said in a statement. “This is a shocking and tragic blow for everyone associated with the Warriors and an incredibly difficult time for his family, friends, and all of us who had the incredible pleasure to work with him.

“In addition to being a terrific basketball coach, Dejan was one of the most positive and beautiful human beings I have ever known, someone who brought joy and light to every single day with his passion and energy.”

Milojević would bounce up the stairs from the locker room a couple hours before tipoff of games at Chase Center and briskly walk to the floor to assist in pregame workouts for Kevon Looney and Dario Sarić. His humor routinely surfaced during instruction.

Milojević would joke with his guys, yes, they were “his guys,” as part of his teaching process. Even when sitting next to a player studying video on a laptop, his knowledge and direction came with evident cheer.

This is everyone’s loss. Serbia. The Warriors. The NBA. The basketball world.

“Horrific news,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters in Toronto before Miami took the floor.

“A lot of NBA players went through his hands and his influence,” Raptors coach Darko Rajaković, also Serbian, said to reporters a few minutes earlier.

Milojević, who reportedly scored 141 points in an under-16 youth league in Serbia, became a star player in his homeland. As a pro, he was, at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, an undersized big man who thrived because of his determination. Knee trouble ended his career at 32, and he went into coaching three years later.

Aware of Milojević’s influence on Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokić, the Warriors lured him to the United States in 2021 and assigned him to coach their big men. He was given the raw prospect James Wiseman as a project. That experiment was short-lived, largely because Wiseman was plagued by injuries, but Kevon Looney often cites Milojević for his own growth the past two years.

“Deki is one of the reasons I’m able to do what I’ve been able to do,” Looney told me during training camp. “He sees everything. I got to credit him because he’s shown me a lot.”

Yet it’s Milojević’s personality, his charisma, that allowed him to reach people from all walks. Anyone who ever met Deki, for even two or three minutes, couldn’t help but take away fond memories.

Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown worked alongside Milojević for one season, 2021-22, which concluded with the Warriors winning the NBA Finals. Those nine months when the two assistants were together left Brown in awe.

“We’re all kind of like a family,” Brown told reporters in Sacramento on Wednesday afternoon. “You have your ups and downs with a lot of different individuals at different times. He never had an up and down with anybody. He was always ups. That’s a unique skill set to have in this business, especially when you command the type of respect that he commanded.

“He was just loved by everybody. And he loved back.”

It’s altogether likely that when the team gathered for dinner at the famed Valter’s Osteria in Salt Lake City, it was an opportunity for a brief reprieve from a season in which so much has gone awry. The inconsistency. The succession of injuries. The drama surrounding Draymond Green. Being subjected to boos at home.

How much, in this moment, do any of those things register? Barely at all, because real misery has intervened. When a bright light goes out, there is a pall of darkness over everything.

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