An 18-year-old Darko clearly wasn’t ready to join the Pistons, who got the No. 2 pick in 2003 due to a trade years prior and were already thinking championship by the time they drafted him. That’s a big “what if?” of Darko’s career: What if he were drafted by a bad team better-suited to developing him?
But it would have taken a lot for any team to acclimate Darko to the NBA.
By the time scouts started coming around, Darko saw the NBA as a way out — of financial insecurity, of persistent tumult, of Serbia — more than any kind of childhood fantasy coming true. He liked the game enough. Everyone he met was rooting for him to go. It was all right there in front of him. And who hasn’t walked through a door simply because it was open?
The problem is that wasn’t the narrative we expect from foreign basketball players. We expect them to love the NBA, to have grown up watching it on choppy internet streams or satellite television, to cherish its players and aspire to its trappings. When Yao Ming came to the NBA from China, he made no secret of his longtime adoration of Arvydas Sabonis and Hakeem Olajuwon; more recently, Kristaps Porzingis, a Latvian, made it clear that Dirk Nowitzki was his inspiration, and everyone nodded.
So, as soon as Darko began to get some attention in the U.S., the expected questions began: “Who was your idol? Who did you love to watch?
Kevin Garnett, Darko answered. He told everyone that Garnett, a tall power forward with a wingspan wider than a school bus, was his muse. He told local television stations he liked Garnett. He told USA Today he liked Garnett. He told ESPN he liked Garnett.
Except he had barely seen Garnett play. “I just sort of found him and decided he’s the one,” Darko says now. “It seemed like the player I was supposed to like.”
Darko would go home to shower after practices or games instead of staying in the locker room to clean up; he didn’t realize that in America, the players all showered together.
“So I had to teach Darko,” says Chauncey Billups, who played in Detroit from 2002-08, “like, no, when we’re done playing, when we’re done practicing, you put your towel on and you go get in the shower. That’s what we do here.”
There was wall punching. There was also drinking, and Darko began showing up to practice still tipsy after an overnight bender. “I just wouldn’t sleep,” he says.
It didn’t get much better from there – Darko burning through the Magic, Grizzlies, Knicks, Timberwolves and Celtics before retiring.
How has Darko coped with his failed (failed?) career? I highly suggest reading Borden’s article in full for a compelling accounting of the tale.