After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is Banana Boat Week. We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun
Darko Milicic’s only mistake was that he was ahead of his time. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I mean, yeah, he sucked at basketball, didn’t really give a shit about anyone or anything, and never showed a tangible desire to improve. I guess some might classify those as mistakes, too. Not me. I’m jealous of Darko, to the point that I’m only half-joking when I say I’d rather have had his career than the careers of the four other players — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade — who also went in the first five picks of the 2003 NBA draft.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Darko wasn’t a bust. Even if he wasn’t taken before three future Hall of Famers, the 7-footer would still be considered one of the biggest busts of all time. He was a “wrong place, wrong time” type of guy who might have had a completely different career under other circumstances — had he not been drafted by the Pistons, or played for Larry Brown as a rookie, or broken his hand in the 2004 Finals and missed an entire offseason of potential development, or entered the league when he was 18 — but whatever. He had plenty of chances to prove himself and averaged a lowly 6.0 points and 4.2 rebounds in his 10-year NBA career. His bust label is entirely justified. All I’m saying is this: Have you ever stopped to think about Darko from another perspective?
What if, instead of treating him as a trivia answer or another tally in the “overrated European lottery picks” column, you thought about Darko the human being? He was a teenage prodigy who was selected second overall, won an NBA title as a rookie, and made more than $50 million in his career. He never had to work particularly hard at anything, retired when he was 28, and now is doing whatever the hell he wants. Take basketball out of the equation and his life is pretty much the pipe dream of every 20-year-old who has seen The Wolf of Wall Street.
All those other guys who went in the top five of the 2003 draft? They have legacies to worry about. They can’t go out in public or have a presence on social media without getting hounded or shit on, and they put their bodies through hell in an attempt to move up a couple of slots on the all-time greats list and/or try to win the same championship that Darko won as a teenager. Meanwhile, Darko came to America, barely bothered to learn English, broke a sweat maybe 12 times in his career, conned a bunch of rich men into paying him millions for almost a decade, and then got the hell out. When you stop thinking about him as a miserable foreign dude who became a colossal bust and start viewing him as someone who pulled off a legendary heist, you just might wonder if the man is actually a genius.
I know comparing professional sports to other lines of work is almost always a false equivalency, but humor me for a second: How many of us are trying to become the absolute best in our professions? Are you driven to be the best accountant, or the best bartender, or the best cashier at a mall Spencer’s? Even if those aren’t fair comparisons, it still seems strange how many of us do the bare minimum to earn paychecks and won’t work overtime if we can help it, all so we’ll have more time to sit around, watch sports and yell at the players who took the entire summer off and/or won’t dive on the floor to chase loose balls. I get why we love the guys who bust their asses, but playing in the NBA is a job, and Darko was basically the guy who managed to land a cushy office gig right out of college, failed his way into one promotion after another, spent seven of his eight daily work hours browsing Reddit, and somehow convinced everyone in his company that he was important and his shortcomings were other people’s fault.
He’s like the real-life version of Big Head from Silicon Valley. How is this man not universally beloved as a hero?
I’am convinced that Darko would have had a cult, Brian Scalabrine–esque following if he had been drafted in 2013 instead of 2003. There still would have been a ton of people who ragged on him for failing to produce after being the no. 2 overall pick in the draft, but I like to think that Darko would’ve been embraced by plenty of the Twitter generation of NBA fans who love players that don’t fit a particular mold off the court. Just watch this interview he gave after Serbia’s national team lost to Greece in EuroBasket 2007, when he called the referees “pussies” and “shitheads” while threatening to have sex with all of their mothers and daughters. No, seriously, watch it. Darko tells the refs to “suck my dick” and everything, then calmly walks away like the single most insane rant I’ve ever seen from an athlete was just another routine press conference for him.
If that interview were to happen today, it would get shared all over social media, some people would get pissed at Darko for being so disgusting, and then the backlash to the backlash would come to his defense as others would point out how refreshing it is to see an athlete speak freely without a filter. It wouldn’t matter whether Darko crossed a line with his comments (which, I think it’s fair to say he definitely did). What would matter is that he was a celebrity willing to say whatever he was thinking at a given moment; plenty of people eat that up. Hell, even if Darko turned into a wrestling heel who just made fun of America every time a microphone was in his face, he still would’ve had a sizable fan club. And if he didn’t win people over by getting paid millions to sit on the bench or not giving a single shit about anything, maybe competitively fishing carp, tearing his jersey out of frustration, or saying, in context, that he would “kill someone on the court” if it would help his team win would’ve done the trick.
Or maybe chugging a beer, shirtless, without holding the bottle in his hands, before pouring some of another beer into the “mouths” of the two Serbian World War II leaders he has tattooed on his stomach would have pushed him over the top.
And, oh yeah, there’s this from a 2013 Jonathan Abrams article:
Imagine if a Serbian with frosted tips got drafted next June, ripped his suit off to reveal the jersey of the team that took him, and then spent the next decade getting fat, saying whatever the hell was on his mind, racking up garbage-time minutes with the nickname “The Human Victory Cigar,” collecting $52 million and a championship ring, driving around in an RV to fish carp, and chugging bottles of beer without using his hands. Try telling me with a straight face that guy wouldn’t be a cult hero. He’d be like Ron Artest, Scalabrine, Steven Adams, J.R. Smith, and Vlade Divac all rolled into one.
LeBron and Co. can have their banana-boat parties, where they talk about being NBA royalty and their aspirations to become billionaires. Just don’t feel sorry for Darko when he’s not invited. He got what he needed out of the NBA, cashed out, and then took his millions back to Serbia to try his hand at kickboxing and fruit farming. You might see Darko as nothing more than a punch line and one of the biggest busts in NBA history. All I see is a man living the dream.