ESPN The Magazine
They tried to hold Darko Milicic down in Europe. It didn't work there—and it's not going to work here.
WE FIRST SAW Darko Milicic when he walked out of his team’s locker room for a shoot-around. “Walked” is a less precise description than his entrance deserves. His seven feet were a museum piece. His hair was a twisted shade of faded orange, not at all resembling the pedestrian brown we had seen in the few available photos. Milicic was no stick figure seven-footer. His biceps incorporated a sinuous sine curve of visibly rigid flesh. When he shook hello, he consumed a good measure of his acquaintance’s body mass. It was like he ate with his hands, as opposed to his mouth. He turned and stepped into the light of the practice session, his cloud-white high-tops chewing huge portions of hardwood. A teammate tossed him a ball, he pinched his toes, his long arms spun like helicopter blades above his head, and he heaved a three-pointer into the bucket from a position in the cheap seats.
Darko Milicic will be the second player selected in the NBA draft this year. He is still only 17 years old. He is Serbian. The vital statistic, of course, is where his head stops. And he still suffers from frequent and stabbing nocturnal pains along his drawn and extended infrastructure.
Out on the court, he joined his Serb premier league team, Hemofarm, which had traveled to this dreary town of Nis to compete in a mid-season tournament called the Koraca Kup. Daylight poured down from windows jammed into the lid of the small circular arena, daubing the parquet in drab morning reflections. Workmen were on their knees, affixing a logo to center court. “S’up, baby?”—there were three black players swatting each other’s big open palms. The cuff of pounding basketballs slapped toward the lofted paint-chipped ceiling.
The Hemofarm coach patrolled the sideline, his knuckles going white as he dented a box of Davidoff cigarettes with a series of involuntary squeezes. Darko was down at the far end of the court shooting lonely, arcing foul shots through white-knit netting.
The coach bee-lined for us, screaming in Serbian, cutting at the air with a chopping backhand. The translation came in a second: “Whyareyoutryingtofuckwithmyteam?”
His name was Zeljko Lukajic. They called him Electricity. A subtle shockwave rippled through the fluffy brown hair that piled forward on his crown. Electricity carried bags of worry and scurvy under his eyes. He exuded an air of lousy cafeterias. He was 45, going on dead.
Coach did make us laugh. But this was no reciprocal relationship. Hemofarm had suffered a few early-season losses. Serbia’s largest pharmaceutical company owned the team, and its shareholders were concerned with the bottom line. Maybe Electricity’s head was on the block. Maybe we were the last thing he wanted to see.
He said he wouldn’t grant access to Milicic during the tournament, that our presence was too distracting. Considering the fact that we had booked five nights in a town where they burned garbage on their front lawns, this was not comforting news. Someone told us Coach was “outrageously insulted” by our request to ride on the team bus, and he was equally moved by our explanation that this kind of thing was standard practice in the NBA. “The NBA?” Electricity huffed. “The NBA is entertainment. Basketball in Serbia is business.” He wheeled on a heel and stalked off, owner either of an incredible sense of timing or a troubled relationship with the way things are.
A few minutes later, Hemofarm’s captain, Dragoljub Vidacic, a grim, ring-eyed veteran of the Yugo leagues, leaned in and explained that everyone on the team would “get jealous” if we talked to Milicic. Was this charm school? Clearly, everyone was having trouble grasping reality. In a few months, Milicic would be throwing cash up in the club, and these guys were consigned to getting recognized at the fruit stand.
Grapes were once a delicacy. In some parts of the world they still are. We were coming down with peasant fatigue, and the trip had only just begun. This was all a little too much to bear, and we retired to the Press Caffe across from the locker rooms. Darko continued shooting his lonely foul shots at the far end of the court, as forbidden to us as the captain of the cheerleaders.
THE MAN AT the bar pulled us a local while we arranged our thoughts on Milicic. His name first hit the papers back home around the All-Star weekend, when his agents sought a ruling on a vaguely worded portion of the NBA handbook, concerning draft eligibility for Europeans. Milicic will turn 18 on June 20, six days before the draft, and it wasn’t clear whether he’d be allowed in. After a drawn-out public battle, the NBA caved, and Darko was granted his payday a year early. He can certainly use it.
Milicic grew up in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city. His dad was a burly patrol cop (“All he’s good for is beating people up,” Darko had confessed to our advance people); his mother was a six-foot-three cleaning lady. The family was poor—a drunk uncle took them in a few years back, only to kick them into the street quickly thereafter. At 13, all knees and elbows, Darko began his pro career with a team located across the Danube from the dirt court out back of his house. When NATO bombs knocked out Novi Sad’s three bridges, Milicic had to take a barge to practice. His parents didn’t think that was a good idea, and eventually Darko was shipped off to play for Hemofarm, in Vrsac, a tiny town an hour’s drive from Belgrade. NBA teams had been scouting him since he was 14.
Oh yeah, and Milicic liked 50 Cent, which meant that at least he had aptitude.
We were sipping the beer when a man in blue landed in the next seat over. An orange Hemofarm pin stuck to the lapel of his suit jacket. He said he had known Darko for a long time, and it wasn’t two minutes before his brow started worrying itself. “His head is already in America.” The man sighed. Apparently, Milicic had begun trading words with his coaches, bumping opposing players during games. “Now he cares about mobile phones, jewelry, clothes.”
Maybe they were keeping us away from Darko for a good reason after all. It was beginning to sound like Milicic was killing time. The man looked disappointed, and he swung his head round to the TV screen that flickered in the corner of the lounge. “I have known Darko for long time,” he said. “He is changing. He and his family. For half year. They are all about money now.” The man paused. “It’s very pity,” he continued. “Because he’s OK person. But it’s hard to be OK person when you have not OK guy around you.”
The not OK guy was not far from view, roaming the halls with the awful patience of a hurtful fish. He wore a black shirt beneath a suit of gray polish. His hair was done in white flecks, and on his face it was worn in a thin goatee that ran up the sides of his mouth like a reverse drip. He looked like the movie director James Cameron. He had that quality of scanning everything without appearing to move his eyes.
Dragan Delic was Milicic’s Serbian agent, in partnership with a man named Cornstein back in New York. He was the one who had wrangled Milicic a handful of years ago, when it came clear that the kid had basketball and cash in his future.
Later on, sitting over a small cup of deep dark liquid, Delic revealed his method in gaining Darko’s trust. He leaned back in his seat, the fabric of his suit coat peeling off his chest to reveal the place where the beating went on. “Personality,” he said, drawing out the word like it was the end of the show. The corners of his mouth twisted to stand down a sneer.
Milicic eventually made his way onto the team bus, but not before trading daggers with Electricity, who gulped his Davidoffs in the tight hallway between the lounge and the echoing showers of the locker rooms. We hung around and kept quiet, and once the players had filtered through the exit, Electricity began to amp down. With the practice session behind him and Hemofarm’s first Kup game a whole day away, his frame loosened, if only by a bantam degree. Electricity nodded his head in our direction: “Would you like to go to a press conference on a raft under a bridge?”
DARKO MILICIC SCORED the first points of the game on an elegant finger roll, and his teammates chugged up the court in the opposite direction, the parquet clapping together where it didn’t fit right.
The edge of the court was littered with the dead black matches that had set fire to hundreds of cigarettes in the arena. The players had to huff it through blue clouds of smoke, and they did so with more get-up than in any NBA game. They played only 25 times a season, and with a season-ending tiebreaker based on point-differential, these teams had no use for short-tugging or clearing out. There was no garbage time. Every possession held the immediacy of a first kiss. Throughout the game, Electricity could be seen chewing and roaring from the far side of Fellini.
The last time Hemofarm played Buducnost, in Montenegro, fans threw cell phones at Milicic. It appeared as though he recalled the treatment, dunking early in the game with a look of reprisal on his face. Milicic didn’t run like a seven-footer. His flesh and bone were proportioned as though by a knowing hand. He flicked his fingers in the air like a puff, blocked a Buducnost shot gently enough to control it, and fired the ball up-court for an easy lay-in. The fans began a rolling, rising chant.
Milicic’s game incorporated vast stores of petulance and impatience. He glared at refs. His shoulders sagged when things didn’t go his way. He elbowed the opposite center in the throat. He tossed the ball at an opponent following a whistle. At times, he stalked the court with a leering grin stuck on his face. This may not have been the kind of thing they considered classy around here, but Darko was about to move on. After 10 minutes, Milicic led the game with eight points, though curiously it wouldn’t be a terrible misapprehension to assume that his greatest value to his team was in setting high screens.
And here’s why.
Among the Serbian population, there is a water-borne understanding of basketball, even as it is played among the swaying towers of the NBA so many kilometers away. Sit for an astronaut cut (the only cut on offer) in one of Belgrade’s barber shops, and the man behind the swishing scissors will summon a question from his faltering handle of the English tongue: “So … what is story with LeBron James?” Move from the center, and the Serbian fascination with basketball only deepens in texture, as it does when traveling from Bloomington along the dust-bound corridors of Indiana.
And when the name Darko Milicic is uttered, it is invariably followed by a round of severe head shaking. Serbs don’t want to believe that Milicic will be drafted so highly. They want to think that the Americans haven’t quite got the value right, like the loudly dressed fellow pulling his wallet wide over the junk stash in the market. But there is something more than disbelief in all their words and worry, and it smells a lot like spite.
Can you blame Serbia? That’s doubtful. Wedged in the way of every European power of the last fifteen centuries, Serbia and the rest of what used to be Yugoslavia have hosted a parade of conquerors—the Ottomans, the Huns, the Romans, the Soviets, and every one else who could muster an army. The list is long, and it does tend to confuse. Today the Serbs come off as half Italian/half Russian—they say da for yes and ciao for goodbye.
Poverty breeds a certain kind of collectivity: got nothing, share everything. And over on the flip side, if you’re doing well it’s easy to stomach someone else’s good fortune. Mix those two setups, and it’s a stretch to getting big-hearted about things. After all, Serbia is the ghetto—more so than anything going down in North Philly or Fulton Mall. At least there you have city college and Athlete’s Foot.
Milicic is 17, which means it’ll be many more seasons in the Yugo leagues before anyone runs a play for him, defers to him, considers him—grants him status based on anything other than duty logged. As in, based on natural ability. Right now, he’s subsisting on whatever he can grab for himself, existing as a cog in the greater sense of “team”—even if tenets of that rigid philosophy are disproved on nights when Shaq and Kobe get 35 each, everyone else gets sprinkles, and the Lakers walk off with another gold ball. But let’s not forget—the NBA is entertainment; basketball in Serbia is a business.
Milicic visited the United States once. He was in Dallas last year for the Global Games, playing for the Serbian team. There was a large contingent of NBA scouts at Reunion Arena, and many had come to see what Milicic might some day have for them. After the first game, the Serb coach found out about all the eyes in the stands, and he benched Milicic for the remaining games of the tournament. “Dallas was fun,” Darko said later. “I went to the mall. I bought some shoes.”
“THEY TELL ME that any woman will give it to me.” Darko Milicic was grinning across the table. “In the NBA, you’re popular, you’re rich.”
Hemofarm had made the Kup finals. In victory, Electricity relaxed, though only enough to grant us 20 minutes with Milicic in the café of the team’s hotel.
Darko’s eyes widened over what was to come. “I’ve been told,” he said, his words assuming the heavy hushes of a man stuffing his bags for a very long trip, a voyage, “that every game is a separate story there, a separate spectacle.” He spoke of men in monkey suits, of sprites soaring off trampolines, of buzzards catapulting free merchandise into a crowd. It all sounded a little phony.
Behind Milicic, the front desk clerk dozed in a coat of deep brown checks. He looked like he had killed a couch. The café staff was finishing up, sorting the silverware and ransacking the bar. A red-cheeked kid with a dishrag of brown hair took our order.
Darko asked for water. He had a pubescent peppering of fine hairs on his lip, and his thick dark eyebrows arched symmetrically over his eyes like umbrellas. His smile came easy and soft, and it hung on his teeth for solid durations. But this was not the compliant smile of the peasant. Milicic had spent years hanging with a guy called dragon, learning that it is better to rule than be ruled. (“I am a fucking patriot,” he said when asked about the NATO bombs of 1999.)
Given his northward swell and all the new attention, it was easy to forget that beneath it all, Milicic was still a few years shy of 20. “He gets away with a lot of things here he never will there,” said Michael Campbell, a loose-limbed Hemofarm forward out of Brooklyn. “He throws tantrums to get thrown out of practice, and then—Wow!—gets thrown out.” In the paramilitary realm of Serbian basketball, attitude is cause for dismissal. Considering all the constraints placed on his impulsive teenage aura, Milicic was remarkably affable with the world.
If he portrayed petulance, it wasn’t of the mouthy strain. His protests found venting in shrugs and darting glares. He walked slowly, never rushed, and carried with him a wordless mantle. He made no explanations. Unlike so many of the players around him, Milicic sought conflict. He wanted to show that he was bigger and better and that the issue was forever settled and done. The Serbs may turn down at the mouth at such behavior, but Darko better not have it any other way, because the NBA may suffer fools, but it doesn’t suffer peasants. “The brother’s are gonna respect him,” a pro scout had said to us.
“I know very little about what is expected of me there,” Darko said, his words coming soft and measured. “I’d like a big city, and a club with big ambitions. I would like to conquer something with them, to participate in something for the first time in their history.” There was a crashing in the corner, our waiter contorted around two others on the floor, shuddering with laughter in a rainfall of silverware. The couch-killer leapt from his sleep, then quietly returned to it.
“When I watch NBA games, I think, ‘How will I look in the game there?’” Darko was getting thoughtful now. “I expect to do something there. I don’t want to be a donkey.”
Milicic ran a hand through his dishwater dye-job. He had colored his hair for the tournament, and a few of his teammates had done the same. Apparently, they weren’t aware that it took several go-rounds with the bleach to go platinum. But orange was enough for Serbia. And Milicic was self-consciously proud of the hair now, since he had received a certain amount of grief over the new look. “People talk about me like I’m an imbecile,” he said, rolling his eyes in a gesture of impending impunity. “Some so-called coaches …”
Darko checked his watch and already the 20 minutes were spent. He stood to go. He swung his head around the room, then back in our direction. So some people thought Milicic was a jerk. That had its problems. But in Darko’s onrushing world of tree-choppers and ten-percenters, modesty had its problems too. He inhaled deeply and patted his palms to his chest, making a muffled sound against his sweatshirt. “I live with full lungs,” he said. Then he walked soundlessly off on the balls of his feet, upstairs to a bed that was too short for him.
GUNS WERE EVERYWHERE, big ones with muzzles and banana clips, as the crowd filed into the arena for the last game of the Kup. The Serbian prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, was watching from an open-air box above center court. The previous prime minister had been gunned down a month before. Serbia was in a “state of emergency.”
But the drinks kept coming. There were no seats in the Press Caffe, and no windows either, which led to a situation of cigarette smoke like floating soup, or drapes. Electricty roosted in the tunnel, locking eyes with everyone in his field of vision, looking for an indicator of what may soon come to pass. Dragan Delic brushed past him on the way to the court, and Electricity shuddered as though from an unseasonable gust.
There were several women scanting about dressed identically in tan crepe suits and sky-blue blouses and pumps. They were the tournament hostessa and we had met them at the press conference on the raft under the bridge. We held hands for a few minutes before realizing it was time to get out to the court, where the starting lineups were being introduced under spotlight and early Van Halen.
It was Easter Sunday in highly observant Serbia and near miraculous that all 4,500 seats were filled. Several NBA scouts were sitting under one of the baskets, shaking with laughter over some terrible story from the night before, wearing billowy brand-new sweatpants and windbreakers. The prime minister moved his head ever so slightly and peered out at the world from beneath heavy eyebrows.
Everyone was there. But Hemofarm never showed. Milicic started strong, but then faded with the game. A team called FMP won going away. The air was out of the building by halftime.
Making our way through the crowd to the Press Caffe, we ran blindly into an unsmiling man who stared down at us and mumbled something in Serbian that didn’t sound very good. This was not OK guy. Several large uniformed shapes approached us from the rear, and we distinctly recognized the ratchet of metal. The prime minister was having a farewell swallow in the Press Caffe, so we ducked away and moved along.
The Hemofarm locker room was silent save the squeaking of soles. Electricity accepted our commiseration and didn’t appear to detest us. He walked out the door shaking his head, and we felt a pang go with him. And when Milicic turned the corner and flooded the corridor with his body, he did so with the same measure of reserve he carried with him always. He was steady. And he invited us up to the hotel café after dinner.
Dinner. We looked forward to it as a salve. A way to rid ourselves of this monomania. As our green Skoda skipped down the road, it occurred to us that we had finally found the center. Maybe it was better to watch this circus from a distance, to absorb it all in large movements, especially since the language of these trenches escaped us. We were thinking all of this when a moaning blur fractured into the long side of our Skoda.
The blow sent head and ankle toward each other around the fulcrum of kidney. Vision went corrugated. Glass flew across the car’s interior like five-cent candy. We fell into each other’s laps in strange lost patterns as the car skidded sideways and out of control across the oncoming lane and toward a curb that it jumped by way of popping every tire.
Finally, we were stopped. Through the bombed windshield, we saw a handful of large Serbs pile out of the partner car, all holding different parts of their bodies and looking skyward as though the earth had just uttered a dismal command.
We were on the edge of Serbia. It was 2 a.m. Our organs were lurching toward their former positions. And we had a flight in Belgrade that we weren’t in the mood to miss. When the cops arrived, all they could muster were horselaughs and false indignation. “You are bad luck, American,” they said to themselves, as though this was the height of novelty.
Yielding to the rhythms of the place, we somehow and soon found ourselves in a car that was pointing itself to Belgrade. The car took a few grass paths to the highway. Our hands were having trouble holding steady as we picked the glass out of our hair. The driver smiled too much. He flicked on the stereo and Eminem came out. “Like?” he asked.
Yeah, we liked. We sifted down in the seat, and the driver pressed his shoe into the accelerator. It was warming up outside, and the highway was full of fog. Darko was probably back home in Vrsac by now, sleeping in his own bed, which fit him, as his new life surely will. He was made for this kind of thing. The brother’s are gonna respect him. But that didn’t help us much right then, and the mist swallowed us without so much as a dewy da or ciao.