By: Will Burchifield
Darko Milicic arrived in the U.S. as an 18-year-old basketball prodigy from Serbia. It all went downhill from there.
Milicic, who quickly flamed out in Detroit after the Pistons selected him with the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, admits, “I’d do a lot of things differently now.”
“It’s true that I ended up on a team that was trying to win a ring, which rarely happens to a No. 2 pick, but in the end, we’re all looking for alibis. I could say I didn’t get a proper chance. However, that’s simply an alibi; 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, while in the end, I was spiting myself.
“I had issues with everyone, and that was caused by me playing just for myself. My goal wasn’t to silence the critics, it was to silence my ego. Tonight I want to feed my ego, so I’ll play a great game against Duncan or Gasol. Tomorrow, we have a totally irrelevant game against a center that’s 10 times weaker so I’ll put up another great game and become a consistent player because that’s what they want from me. But I simply couldn’t, I wasn’t ready or willing to put in the work…
“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.”
In an effort to feel at home in the U.S., Milicic invited the older brother of Nikola Jokić, the young Serb currently playing for the Nuggets, to live with him for a summer. It quickly backfired.
“I’ve been friends with his brother, Nemanja, for a long time. We played together for some time, and one summer I asked him to come with me to the US. He accepted, which was great for me since I was lonely there, but in the end he ruined me (laughs). Yeah, it’s all his fault. It was great, we had a lot of free time since I wasn’t tired from playing and we were constantly throwing parties, with me in the leading role.”
Milicic, wracked with homesickness for much of his NBA career, bemoaned the social and cultural gaps between Serbia and the U.S.
“Only my wife knows how many times I’ve wanted to pack my things and go home. Playing in the NBA is a dream come true for majority of basketball players, and everyone should strive to achieve that. But 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. The lifestyle didn’t suit me at all, I’m a very social guy and I like to hang out. There’s none of that in the US, it’s simply go to work and go home. See you at the practice, see you in the plane, see you in the bus, see you at the gym and that’s it. You live game by game, hotel by hotel.”
Reflecting on his NBA career, an experience he deemed a “catastrophe,” Milicic feels his downfall was his inconsistent effort. In this way, he believes he’s “different from other busts.”
“If you want to play in the NBA, you need to be consistent. You can bring 15 points and 10 rebounds to the table, but you have to bring it every day. I was playing when I felt like it, otherwise it was tough to find any motivation.
“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 they 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.
“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 US, 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.”
Milicic retired from the NBA in 2013. He’s currently living at home in Serbia and working on his farm, where he seems to have found peace.
“I’ve gained 90 pounds since I stopped playing, 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’s 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.”