I hear it's all just a horizontal myth
This piece was originally solicited by a second-tier McSweeney's operative for his painfully unfunny corpse-fucking cronies at Cracked magazine, who may or may not owe us money. As today is the day of Darko's potential liberation, we're giving it to you now. We rest easy in the knowledge that this will reach a much broader audience this way.
Darko: The FuturePlease, if you will, kindly follow my footsteps into the year 2012. Gongs clang harmoniously, dogs howl in the throes of love, basketball reins the world over. Football has gone the way of the Republican Party, whose values fueled its brief stranglehold on the American market; baseball, once this country’s dearest love, has drained itself of brawn-enhancing juices and crawls ever closer to a standstill; soccer, once the international pastime, cannot match roundball’s swirl of activity and canny dread of futility. Yet at the heart of it all, a lone figure looms over this new full-court order. Seven feet, one inches, from the palms of his feet to the blonde frosted tips of his hair, he has in less than a decade ascended from a running joke amongst sports fans, to basketball’s elite superstar, uplifting with him an entire generation of non-American ballers who would each aspire to be king on their own terms as well.
Like George Mikan, the legendary be-spectacled center whose sheer physical size forced the National Basketball Association to change its rules to curtail his dominance, perennial MVP-candidate Darko Milicic has altered the landscape of professional basketball. When he switches directions under the hoop, leaving multiple defenders at a loss, or leaps across the floor to thwart a fast break, Detroit cheers; America cheers; Serbia cheers; the planet cheers. This game is theirs, and Darko their great, staggering chieftain. To be sure, he has his peers: hulking arch-rival Andrew Bynum, dizzying virtuoso Shaun Livingston, human wrecking ball Amare Stoudemire, and kamikaze scorer Dwyane Wade. But they belong to another age, a time of closed minds and endless ruin. Darko has given the sport, and the planet, a language for all to share.
The NBA was not always an international melting pot of athletic prowess. For much of basketball's history, it was unthinkable that a player of European origin could attain the status of true NBA superstar. Europeans in the Association embodied the spirit of team basketball, sticking open jumpers, boxing out for rebounds, and making the extra pass. Euros essentially came to the NBA as prepackaged role players, having honed their craft in the various pro leagues scattered across their home-continent and arriving fully formed: grown ass men with the five o'clock shadows to prove it. The European was a silent and invisible assassin, yet completely lacking the menacing dark style of the ninja. The most style a European player could muster during this first era of European NBA influx was Sarunas Marciulionis flaunting his mustache with a zeal befitting a recently liberated Lithuanian (whose national team, damningly enough, earned the formal endorsement of the Grateful Dead in the 1992 Olympics).
This new breed of international contributors remained undetectable off the court as well. Sports fans never heard of mid-1990s Euros like Aleksandr Volkov and Dino Radja staying out until dawn at bouzouki nightclubs with Greek callgirls the night before games or spewing racial epithets at Miami policemen like their modern-day counterparts Vladimir Radmanovic and Vitaly Potapenko. Even our hero himself, Darko, upon returning to his home country shortly after being drafted, showered Slavic strippers with Detroit Pistons jackets, exemplifying his status as the Euro of a new and edgier day.
The PromiseWe carry you now, aloft, to the year of 1998. Enter Dirk Nowitzki, an outsized German technician of the game, who could rebound with the rough-hewn efficiency of early Kraftwerk, and whose jumpshot was commanding as a Wagnerian overture. Not only did Dirk’s mere existence turn conventional basketball wisdom on its ear; unlike his Euro forefathers, he came into the NBA a mere twinkle in the eye of the Dallas Mavericks’ scouts. Trained in the Black Forest by a mysterious basketball guru, whose unorthodox methods included teaching his one and only pupil the secrets of the saxophone, Dirk dared to enter the NBA as an entirely unknown quantity, a draft pick that would foster the deployment of countless NBA scouts to the shores of the Baltic Sea and eventually further to the Eastern Bloc, in search of treasure. On that cool June draft night, Dirk’s potential seemed ripped from the pages of a Brechtian drama, his future an endless sea of gambling, twinkling krill. It took two years for him to blossom into an NBA star, but from only a year later ESPN, claiming the mantle of "the worldwide leader in sports," hired an expert in intercultural conflict resolution to write columns exploring the intriguing rise of international basketball prodigies.
The league-certified "Next Nowitzki" emerged in the form of Spaniard Pau Gasol. Gasol was the son of a physician and perfectly content to follow in his mother’s footsteps, even attending one year of medical school before realizing that America beckoned with untold riches and blind enthusiasm. When Gasol won the 2002 Rookie of the Year award outright, NBA scouts now believed that skilled seven footers lurked in every damp corner of Europe, just waiting to be shoved into the severe light of the arenas of the NBA. The year 4 A.D. (After Dirk) saw the next "Next Next Nowitzki" drafted fifth overall by the Denver Nuggets: Georgian Nikoloz Tskitishvili, affectionately known as “Skita.” Although hailing from a rugged former Soviet republic and trained in the delicate art of his native land’s folkful dances, Skita’s fleet-footedness did not carry onto the basketball court, and he failed to fulfill the fantasies of scouts who sang his praises after watching merely 20 minutes of Skita’s workouts. Others, like the mellifluously named Zarko Cabarkapa and the Polish prodigy Maciej Lampe, suffered the same fate: full of potential, but soft and undeveloped, they have all languished on the bench since arriving in the league as the martyrs of what was to be a new era of European dominance in the NBA.
Darko: The Gift and The Curse
From his first days on earth, Darko was groomed to be the ever-definitive Euro. Of Cro-Magnon urge, Darko began playing basketball at age 10 on a dirt court in Novi Sad, Serbia Montenegro during the brutal Balkan Civil War that followed the dissolution of the Yugoslav Republics. Violence and violence’s malevolent mistress, poverty, constituted the scenery of Darko’s youth. Before Darko was 10, his father went off to war. Just as Allen Iverson’s mother bought her son the sneakers he prized in lieu of paying the electricity bill, Darko’s mother once sold the family car for a cow just so her children could drink milk. At age 14, Darko moved 100 miles from home to join an organized team, becoming the youngest professional basketball player in Yugoslavian history and playing for KK Hemofarm in the town of Vrsac, where NATO bombs could be heard exploding outside the team’s practice facility. While playing for Hemofarm Vrsac against much older players—“They would pinch me and try to hide the ball from me. I would chop them,” he says of his elder competition—Darko caught the attention of NBA scouts, who hailed him at age 17 as an athlete fastened of divine providence, one who would change the sport of basketball as we knew it.
Draft night 2003: Selected by the Detroit Pistons second overall behind otherworldly teen hoops idol, LeBron James (a player some scouts predicted Darko would eventually surpass), Darko’s future seemed phosphorescent. But although his Pistons team won a world championship his first season in Detroit, head coach Larry Brown, the slick Semitic basketball legend, barely played Darko. Our hero took the court only at the end of games already decided, earning him the name, “The Human Victory Cigar.” More often, Darko was found at the end of the Pistons’ bench, with an expression absent of emotion but for subtle discontentment deep in the corners of his eyes. Darko struggled to meld culturally with his Pistons brethren, claiming to enjoy rap artists like Nelly and Eminem, but criticizing the Fugees, stating—as if rejecting his own status as a refugee within the American hoops infrastructure—“the Fugees, I do not like.” Stylistically, he struggled to assimilate as well, as when he pierced his own ears and they became infected, forcing him to don slits of Kleenex on each ear before one finals game. His confidence had been whittled at by Coach Brown, and by the end of that championship season, Darko was a shadow of a man. His second season, in which the Pistons returned to the NBA Finals but lost to the San Antonio Spurs, was all too reminiscent of his rookie year. Coach Brown left the Pistons soon after, opening the door for the clockwork of the future to begin its inexorable motion.
Darko now wipes his size 17 Nikes at the doorstep of destiny. He has the opportunity to make men of foreign-born NBA players from Roko Ukic to Sasha Vujacic, history out of a tradition that to this point has spawned little more than closet xenophobia and draft dorkery, a cottage industry of internet pundits, quick to praise the game of any 7-foot-Euro with a pulse. Not yet a man himself, Darko faces the task of becoming the legend. And thus, a proclamation echoes across the globe, one as defiant as the PROUD TO BE SERBIAN bumper sticker that graces his BMW X5: Free Darko. So we can all be free.