The visitors’ locker room in an NBA arena is meant to be a joyless space, devoid of color or comfort. Reporters step over piles of sweat-drenched laundry on their way to cramped lockers, where they listen to visiting players explain, more often than not, exactly where and how it all went wrong. This is no space to linger. It is a space from which to flee.
And yet, late on the afternoon of April 21, the Philadelphia 76ers appear positively delighted to hang out in the underbelly of Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena, surrounded by pale walls and postgame stench, squeezing past a throng of media there to document the Sixers’ commanding Game 4 win over the Heat. Rookie point guard Ben Simmons bobs his head and smiles at no one, seemingly lost in his own thoughts, moments before making his second-ever trip to a postseason press conference lectern. All-Star center Joel Embiid sits before a mass of microphones with his jersey still on, taking question after question until long after Sixers PR announce that he’s done, seeming to luxuriate in the chance to ruminate on Philadelphia’s series lead (then 3-1). Backup guard T.J. McConnell hunkers over a plate of chicken and veggies. Fellow guard Marco Belinelli stands alone in a corner of the room, unable to reach his locker through the scrum and seemingly unbothered by this fact, taking in the scene.
Most leisurely of all, though, is Dario Saric. The second-year forward emerges from the shower well after the room has finally begun to clear out, taking his time getting ready for the flight back home. Over the course of this season, Saric has emerged as a critical building block on an ascendant and ahead-of-schedule Sixers team, finding the perfect role as a complementary scorer and playmaker next to Philly’s young stars, Embiid and Simmons. In these playoffs, he’s scored 20 or more points in three of Philly’s five games, serving often as his team’s thumping heart.
“I love the guy,” says McConnell. One reason why, McConnell explains: “He really—like, really—loves to win. I’ve been around plenty of guys who love to win, but Dario doesn’t really care about anything else, and that’s rare.” So after a Game 4 victory, Saric takes his time, enjoying the moment. As he gets dressed, he hears a voice call to him.
He looks up at a team staffer standing on the other side of the room who begins unzipping his jacket to reveal a Sixers T-shirt. For the last two games, visiting Philly fans have walked around Miami’s arena in a wide range of shirts that celebrate this thrilling moment in the team’s history. There have been “Trust the Process” shirts and “Philly vs. Everybody” shirts and a few that eulogize former general manager Sam Hinkie, proclaiming, “Hinkie Died for Our Sins.” But now Saric’s eyes light up as he recognizes the shirt the staffer had chosen: It’s emblazoned with “The Homie Dario” and a picture of Saric’s face.
“Oh, shit!” Saric says. He laughs and shakes his head. “Those are expensive, man.”
Actually, they were free. The Sixers gave away 2,500 of them before a game last April. Since then, though, the market for Saric merchandise has flooded. There is Supreme-logo Homie and Croatian-flag Homie, suit-wearing Homie and facial-hair Homie; there is Dario the Super, Dario the brother, Dario in 8-bit pixels. On a team packed with tantalizing young talent, in a city drunk with success after the Eagles’ and Villanova’s 2018 titles, the import from the Dalmatian coast has carved out a place for himself among Philadelphia’s newly christened sports icons. He is deadly from 3 and skilled in the post, a pinpoint passer and solid rebounder with a lust for competition in any and all forms. “Nobody’s ever going to question his heart or his toughness,” said Philadelphia coach Brett Brown in 2016.
During the course of his nine-year professional career, Saric has been a savior in Croatia and a myth in Philly, an irritant, a folk hero, a meme. This month, he’s getting his first taste of the NBA playoffs, along with the rest of this young Sixers core. His scoring and intensity keyed big moments in Philadelphia’s romp over Miami and will be critical to its chances in the second round against Boston.
Now, national TV fans are getting a glimpse of the Dario Saric experience that Philadelphians, and Croatians before them, already love: a range of winning plays, all punctuated by flashes of unbridled and often goofy intensity. On the court, he is all giddiness and no guile. He has been known to say “Fuck you” during interviews and to sing and dance during free throws. (He apologized, extravagantly, for the profanity. He stands by the singing and dancing.) Entering timeouts, he is a sentient high-five in search of a target. To opponents, he can be obnoxious—once prompting Cleveland’s Jordan Clarkson to pelt him with the ball after Saric dunked at the end of a blowout win over the Cavs in March. On what feels like the perfect young team, he is the perfect young role player, someone who demands to be loved.
Right now, Saric’s motivation is simple: “I want to keep playing basketball,” he says, sitting courtside before practice one afternoon in Miami. The deeper the Sixers advance, the more he gets to play. “I love to play basketball,” he says. “I love to practice. I love to be with my team. To fight with each other, compete with each other, and grow up together as a team. Everyone should be as lucky as me, to be able to do this every day.”
In only his second year in the league, Saric seems to have found the perfect role for his skill set. A versatile power forward on a team rife with positional weirdness, he floats comfortably between the perimeter and the paint. He hits 3s and finds cutters. (He shot 39 percent from deep and averaged 2.6 assists this season.) He can feed Embiid in the post or score deftly from the block on his own, sliding around the court to any spot required to give his unicorn center the space he needs to go to work. Saric also has a knack for understanding Simmons’s movements and preferences with the ball in the point guard’s hands. During the regular season, Simmons delivered more passes and more assists to Saric than to any other player on the team, with Saric finding himself on the receiving end of more than a fifth of Simmons’s assists, according to stats from NBA.com.
As the Sixers emerge as a potential long-term contender, Saric now looks like a critical piece, someone who can play off of both of his team’s potential future MVPs. In Game 3 against Miami, he showed the full range of his abilities: all smart cuts and deft floaters, smooth passes and tough rebounds.
The series could have been a disaster for Philly. Miami was fast and physical, at times almost violent, a team perfectly built to grind a talented-but-inexperienced opponent to dust. The Heat threw elbows and shoves and out-of-nowhere Justise Winslow 3s, and yet, every time Miami seemed ready to seize control, the Sixers responded. As often as not, Saric was heavily involved. In Game 3, when James Johnson blocked his shot, he recovered the ball and scoop-passed it to Simmons for a dunk. When Johnson got in his grill in transition, Saric finished with a tough lefty layup. When defenders closed out a split second too slow, Saric punished them; he hit four of seven 3s. He finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. And on a night when this series looked like it might go seven games, Saric keyed a 32-14 fourth quarter for Philadelphia, turning a grinder into a blowout. The team thrived on its talent but fed off Saric’s energy, his post-bucket fist pumps and post-whistle screams.
“He’s not fazed by the moment,” Sixers coach Brett Brown tells the media afterward. “Tonight, there was a toughness. There was a skill package. You could see the passion that he had, his facial expressions and his body language coming off the floor. I thought he was fantastic.”
For Sixers fans, Saric long existed largely as a rumor, a supposedly skilled and hypercompetitive big man who could be all theirs, if only he’d ever get on a damn plane and come to the United States. The team acquired him in a 2014 draft-night trade that sent Elfrid Payton to Orlando, just days after Saric signed a three-year contract with Anadolu Efes of the Turkish league. While Philadelphia spent the next two seasons in and around the NBA’s basement—including a 10-win 2015-16 season that nearly set an NBA record for futility—Saric remained on the banks of the Bosporus, leading Efes to the quarterfinals of the EuroLeague.
Sixers fans caught glimpses of Saric via YouTube highlights, but some local media wondered if he might remain in Europe. If Saric chose to play one more season in Turkey, he would have come off the rookie pay scale and likely been able to sign a far more lucrative contract with Philadelphia. Now, though, he says that he never seriously considered staying in Turkey. “I always wanted to be here,” Saric says. “This is the NBA. It’s the best players in the world. Of course, it was always my dream. Ever since I was a little boy.”
Long before it became his career, basketball served as a tool to calm down Saric. He started playing as a small child, when he was, he says, “annoying” and “hyperactive.” His mother, Veselinka, would spend time with friends over coffee and conversation each afternoon, but every day she faced the same problem: Dario wouldn’t shut up. “She would go to a friend’s house, and she would say, ‘OK, let’s push him out on the basketball court,’” Saric remembers. “‘Let him use up all his energy, and then when he’s done, he’ll be tired and calm.’”
Saric was born in the town of Sibenik in 1994, a small city in a basketball-obsessed country, nestled in a region that had long been at war. Both of Saric’s parents, Veselinka and Predrag, had grown up as basketball players in the former Yugoslavia, a country that produced NBA players Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac and won gold in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow; silver in 1968, 1976, 1988; and bronze in 1984. “You grow up there,” Saric says, “and all you hear are stories about those teams, how amazing they were.”
In 1991, Croatia declared independence, beginning a decade of war in the region, as Yugoslavia eventually split into seven distinct republics—Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Approximately 20,000 people were killed in Croatia’s war against the Yugoslavian army. By the time Saric was born in 1994, though, the war was nearing its end, Croatia’s independence intact.
Saric grew up in a peaceful Croatia, and as a boy he spent almost every day training at a basketball academy named in honor of former NBA star Drazen Petrovic. By 15, he was a pro, drawing comparisons to Petrovic, the greatest talent the former Yugoslavia has ever produced. A 6-foot-5 two-guard who lit the NBA on fire from 1991 to 1993 before dying in a car crash in Germany, Petrovic has become something of a legend in international basketball circles as a player with outrageous competitiveness who didn’t live long enough to get his due. In 2002, Petrovic was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 2009, Croatia’s Super Kosarka magazine was hailing Saric as his country’s next great hope, calling the adolescent “a playmaker as tall as Toni Kukoc and as talented as Drazen Petrovic.”
Still basketball-obsessed, Croatians longed for someone to extend Petrovic’s legacy in the sport. After the success of Petrovic, Kukoc, and former Celtic Dino Radja in the ’90s, Croatia went years without producing a consistent NBA player. Talented players born in the ’80s spent their prime developmental years enduring conflict. Birth rates in the early ’90s plummeted. Players such as Saric and current Magic guard Mario Hezonja represented a new generation of players, born and raised during peacetime, who could restore Croatian basketball to its proper place among the world’s powers.
Saric never embraced the comparisons to Petrovic. “That wasn’t fair from the media,” he says. “He was a different kind of player with a different kind of game. He’s a legend. Everyone knows him in Croatia.” Saric’s father leaned into the comparisons, telling the magazine, “I dare to say my Dario is just like Drazen. Maybe he’s even more talented than Drazen.” The difference, the elder Saric said: “Drazen was a worker like you’ve never seen, while Dario practices three to four hours a day. I’m always telling him to get up earlier and practice, but he doesn’t always feel like it. Simply, he’s not a hunter.”
That quote may seem absurd today, with coaches and teammates gushing over Saric’s passion and intensity as he performs at a high level on the sport’s biggest stage. It fits, though, with Saric’s memories of that time. His father had a successful pro career but never reached the heights of his country’s biggest stars. He saw in Dario the potential to reach levels he could never touch, but he had very specific ideas on how to get there. “He was really hard on me,” Saric says. Predrag regularly questioned Dario’s decisions, criticizing his 2012 move to Croatian club Cibona Zagreb and later publicly questioning his son’s readiness for the NBA, just months before he was drafted.
When they spoke, they fought. For months, they didn’t speak at all. His dad kept sharing his disappointment with local reporters, and Saric kept trying to establish himself as his own man. One day in 2014, Saric remembers, soon before he finally entered the NBA draft, his mom called him and his father together and made them both sit at the kitchen table. “What are you doing?” he remembers her asking. “You’re fighting about basketball. You have been family for 20 years, and yet you’re not talking to each other just because you disagree about where he should play.”
Saric now smiles when thinking back on his fights with his dad. “We are the same,” he says. “We are both—how to say in English—we both have something in our mind where we are very hard and will not change. I don’t know how to explain.”
“Stubborn?” I ask.
By the time Saric entered the NBA draft in 2014, he’d already been pegged as a lottery pick for two years. “My father is very old-school,” he says. “He’s always saying basketball was better in the older generation. And he kept on saying the reason why Kukoc, Petrovic, all those guys were good in the NBA is because they stayed in Europe for a long time, until they were ready.” And so, for two years after the Sixers acquired his rights, Saric remained in Turkey. He now looks back on the move to Istanbul as a baby step, perhaps easing his transition to the NBA. “I got to go through the experience of being a new guy in a new country, with a higher level of competition,” he says. “I had been through that already before I came to the NBA.” Finally, in 2016, he declared himself ready. He boarded a plane for Philadelphia, signing with the Sixers at 22 years old.
Many in basketball circles have long fawned over the European development model, pointing to the fact that kids can turn pro whenever they’re ready, that they practice more than they play, that the emphasis on skill over athleticism makes for a better game. This is the continent that gave us Arvydas Sabonis’s passing and Dirk Nowitzki’s jumper, that turned Petrovic into one of the NBA’s top scorers and sent us wave after wave of stretch 4s before many American bigs had ever dared to attempt a corner 3. Saric, though grateful for his time in Croatia and Turkey, doesn’t buy into the European supremacy talk.
“It’s really hard to grow up as a player over there,” he says. “You make one mistake, you lose the ball, and you get pulled out of the game. So many of the coaches are like that.” Saric averaged 10 and 12 points in his two EuroLeague seasons with Anadolu Efes, both lower than his scoring averages in either of his two seasons in the NBA. “Players’ ability to make decisions there is very low,” he says. “Everything is pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, or it’s structured sets. You don’t have freedom to build your game in isolation.” He shrugs. “Honestly, if I stayed there longer, I don’t think I would be as good of a player as I am now. I needed to come here.”
He points down the court to Markelle Fultz, the Sixers’ immensely talented rookie point guard who sat out most of the season with a bizarre and mysterious shoulder injury that some have suggested was more psychological than physical. “Look at Markelle,” Saric says. “He has amazing potential. Amazing. If he were in Europe, they would cut his potential. He has a special talent, but over there he would have no room to grow. Here, it’s a great situation for him. He gets support and training—everything. He gets to develop into his potential.” Saric keeps scanning the court, then rests his eyes on Simmons. “He would have no choice,” Saric says. “He would have to play power forward or center. A 6-10 point guard? No way. Ben is amazing. He’s unbelievable. But coaches over there are so afraid to take risks. It makes it hard for players to grow.”
After Game 3, Brown sat at the podium and praised Saric’s developmental path, tracing his route from the Dalmatian coast to the Atlantic. “I coached in FIBA basketball for 17 years,” said Brown, who spent a large chunk of his career in Australia. “I know the environment he has played in in FIBA basketball.” He’d been asked if Saric’s experiences overseas, with wild crowds and professional-level stakes, uniquely prepared him to meet the intensity required by the playoffs. “The EuroLeague is high-level basketball,” Brown said. “Playing in the Olympic Games is high-level basketball, playing in the European championships—high-level basketball; world championships—high-level basketball. He’s been groomed since he was 14 to play basketball; he’s from a basketball family. All of those experiences have added up to him pretty much handling this moment.”
It’s true. Before he ever stepped on an NBA court, Saric had posted a double-double against Manu Ginobili and Argentina and blocked Pau Gasol to preserve a win against Spain, both at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He’d seen elite talent and enormous stakes. But when asked whether his trajectory through Europe gives him an edge over young American players encountering playoff intensity for the first time, Saric shrugs. “I guess you could say, in Europe every game matters. Every play matters. Maybe I got some experience like that. Playing in the EuroLeague where you win or your go home. But here, the college tournament is the same way, right? I don’t know.” Saric expresses no regret over the path he took. He just refuses to declare it superior to Americans’ road through AAU and college. He has since repaired his relationship with his father. “Even if we disagree, I realize that I got opportunities to learn the game from him that a lot of players will never get,” he says. “I’m so thankful to have him next to me.”
And besides: Look where he ended up. His eyes scan the court before practice, where throngs of reporters are gathering around a number of his teammates, all there to talk about a game the next night in this arena that will be watched on televisions all across the world. “Nothing,” he says, “is like the NBA playoffs.”
He feels good. He feels right. “I’m comfortable now,” Saric says. “I’m learning how to play my game.” It hasn’t always been that way. When Saric first arrived in Philadelphia, he took his intensity to an extreme. “He didn’t understand the NBA yet,” says McConnell. “He would have a mediocre game and think it was the end of the world. It was like he didn’t realize, ‘Hey, we have another game tomorrow, or the day after that. Just go home, move on, and get ready for the next game. These are the best players in the world. It happens.’”
One night last January, the Sixers traveled to Brooklyn to face the Nets. Saric’s stat line from that evening appears unremarkable—18 points and five rebounds on 5-of-13 shooting—but that was the night, he says, when something started to click. “I had been really struggling,” Saric says, “but that night I figured out how to let the game come to me. I wasn’t chasing the game anymore. I did the simple things: play good defense, look for an easy layup, for free throws. I learned how to not use so much energy in the first few minutes I’m on the court.” Saric went on to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting after averaging 17 points last February and 18 points last March. “He just kept plugging, kept shooting, kept going,” says McConnell. “You could see him growing as a player every single day.”
Some Sixers saw the runner-up finish as an injustice. After Saric scored 29 points against the Lakers last March, an injured Embiid interrupted Saric’s postgame interview to shout, “He’s the Rookie of the Year.” After Simmons established himself as the favorite to win this season’s award, he told reporters, “I feel like I’d kind of be winning it for Dario and Jo for their year. ... I wouldn’t have got to the stage where I’d be considered Rookie of the Year if it wasn’t for them. They make it easy for me.”
Saric entered this season with questions over where he would fit next to ball-dominant Simmons and post-hogging Embiid. He began the season on the bench, with Fultz expected to start. After Fultz’s injury, Saric slotted into the starting lineup and showed the multi-positional versatility that has made him indispensable to this team. “He’s been unreal,” says McConnell.
He’s learned to channel his intensity rather than to let it run amok. He still throws fist pumps with abandon, still gets in the faces of opponents, and is still known to get called for an occasional technical, like he did in Game 4, when he was also caught on camera appearing to say, “Fuck them all,” about the Heat. The hyperactivity that made his mother send him onto a court as a kid now sends him flying all over NBA arenas. The stubbornness that sent him into months-long fights with his dad now makes him a professional basketball irritant, someone willing to do anything to tilt the balance of a game in his team’s direction. All of this has led him here, to the second round of the playoffs, on a team with eyes on playing until June.
“There is nothing like this,” Saric says of the playoffs. “The energy, the crowds, the players—everything is different.” The setting intoxicates and thrills him. “I don’t want this to stop,” he says.