The Sixth Man (cont.)
From the view of Darko Milicic, the seventh-year center of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Laughter might have been heard in dozens of rival front offices last summer when Milicic was re-signed by the Timberwolves for four years at $16 million. But 7-foot Milicic has spent the meantime forming a complementary relationship with power forward Kevin Love, who is listed at an exaggerated 6-foot-10 but, in fact, needs to be paired with a center of length. Milicic has responded by averaging 9.1 points and an impressive 2.5 blocks per game, the second most of any player in the league.
"I'm just trying to work as I did before, and just trying to play basketball and not worry about all the other stuff. That's all I have in my head. I'm not chasing anything, I'm not trying to prove people wrong, I'm just trying to play basketball and whatever happens, happens."
The "other stuff" refers to the original curse of his entry to the NBA as the No. 2 pick of the 2003 draft. He was chosen by the Pistons ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Chris Kaman and Kirk Hinrich -- the next five picks in a famed class headed by LeBron James. Among them Milicic stood out like Christian Laettner in the company of the 1992 Dream Team.
The idea of a "draft" was entirely foreign to Milicic, who, as a 14-year-old, moved 100 miles from his home of Novi Sad, Serbia, to become a semi-professional basketball player for KK Hemofarm in the town of Vrsac. At an age when most Americans are still in junior high, he was living alone in an apartment and practicing basketball in the mornings and evenings with a full day of school in between. In return, he received room, board and $100 a month, much of which he sent home to his parents.
"I was the youngest player on the team, and most of the time in the apartment I was either talking on the phone with my family or watching TV," Milicic told me in 2003 via an interpreter from his apartment in Vrsac as he looked ahead to the draft. "I think this move was much more difficult than the move I will be making next year to the NBA."
Little did he know. Though Milicic averaged 7.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in two years with the senior team at Hemofarm, the Pistons gambled their high pick on his potential to dominant athletically around both baskets. Their mistake doomed him: He was never going to live up to his introduction as a No. 2 pick, and as he moved from Detroit to Orlando to New York he was viewed as a bust.
The decision by Minnesota GM David Kahn to re-sign Milicic this past July at relatively short money -- the average starting center in the league is earning almost twice as much as Milicic's current $4.3 million salary -- is paying off quietly. After shooting 14 percent over the opening two weeks of the season, Milicic has recovered to shoot 43.6 percent from the floor so far this season while averaging 22.0 points over a three-game stretch in late November.
"Here it's more serious than it was at home," said Milicic. "Here you've got to find a way to go out there every night and play. I used to play every third game, that's how I used to do it. But I can't do that. I'm still not there, and it's not going to happen overnight."
It was not so long ago that Milicic admitted to thinking about a return to Europe or a career other than basketball. But he's only 25, and there could yet be a long-term role for him in a league that needs size as badly as baseball needs left-handed pitching.
The biggest complainers. As of Friday morning, a total of 300 technical fouls have been handed out so far this season (not including 23 that were rescinded by the league office).
On the same date one year ago, players had received 217 technicals (not including eight that were rescinded). Altogether, approximately one extra technical per day has been assessed to players in the first season of the league's new ruling in which players will be penalized for overreacting to foul calls.
Here are the current league leaders in technical fouls:
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando 11
2. Carmelo Anthony, Denver 9 (1 ejection)
T3. Richard Hamilton, Detroit 8 (3 ejections)
T3. Stephen Jackson, Charlotte 8 (1 ejection)
T3. Amar'e Stoudemire, New York 8
T6. Chauncey Billups, Denver 5
T6. Andray Blatche, Washington 4
T6. Joakim Noah, Chicago 5
T9. Jason Williams, Orlando 4 (2 ejections)
T9. Kobe Bryant, Lakers 4 (1 ejection)
T9. Gerald Wallace, Charlotte 4 (1 ejection)
T9. Kevin Garnett, Boston 4
T9. Blake Griffin, Clippers 4
T9. Nene, Denver 4
T9. Tyrus Thomas, Charlotte 4
Swim Daily, Elsa Benitez in Montauk
Bears and Cowboys fighting to gain ground in their divisions