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He's universally known by one name and, in the NBA, that is customarily seen as a sign of respect, esteem and achievement. Kobe is Kobe. LeBron is LeBron.
Over nearly a decade, Darko Milicic has been, simply, Darko, and not because of any All-Star résumé. He does have a championship ring from his rookie season as a Pistons benchwarmer. He can tell his grandchildren that he was drafted as an 18-year-old ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
|After being the second pick in the 2003 draft, Darko Milicic is on his seventh team in 10 years.|
But that's pretty much where the good times end. In Darko's case, the moniker is due more to the unusual first name than to a raft of accomplishments. So his new coach felt it was time for a name change when Milicic's NBA odyssey brought him to Boston, his seventh team in 10 years.
"I tell him every day, 'You're no longer Darko. You're a Celtic,' Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "And one day, we asked him what his name was and he said, 'Celtic.' And everyone just started laughing. All I'm trying to do is get him to forget about trying to be something he isn't -- and just be someone for the team."
Rivers added, "He's got a lot of stuff on his shoulders and we're trying to unload all of that. You go in front of Carmelo and all you're going to do is hear that. That can get old. We're trying to get him to move out of that."
Rivers said he talked to a number of Milicic's former coaches to see if there was some way he could do what none of them had been able to: extract what most feel is serviceable NBA talent on a regular basis from an utterly massive (7 feet, 275 pounds) human being who is still only 27 (just eight months older than Rajon Rondo). He would not share what he learned, only saying, "Look, everyone's tried. If it works here, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't. But we're going to give it a good try."
Toward that end, Rivers not only will use the many motivational tools at his disposal, but also will call on Milicic's new teammates for assistance. In particular, the voluble veteran, Kevin Garnett.
The Celtics center/forward already has worked with the big men in camp. Garnett has a reputation for being able to help underachieving or simply raw big men, with one important proviso: that they listen to him. And listening to Garnett can be an ear-burning, humbling experience in terms of volume, intensity, tone, eye contact and, of course, word choice.
"I'm excited to learn from him, but I'm excited to learn from everybody else, too,'' Milicic said of Garnett. "That's what Boston is all about. It's not about one guy. It's about everybody. Whatever my job is going to be -- if I have to get into the game and kill somebody, I kill him."
Garnett said he has been a Milicic fan for a long time and that he was eager to introduce the center to the so-called "Celtic Way." He sees what Danny Ainge saw when Ainge made the offer (a one-year deal) to Milicic. He sees what Rivers sees. There is talent in there.
"Right now, he probably lacks a little bit of self-confidence,'' Garnett said. "And I will help with that. I'll do as much as I can to influence him and encourage him. But it's going to take something from him, too. He's never been around a team like this. He's never been around guys like this. He's never been in a situation where there is so much energy and encouragement."
Milicic hasn't been on a playoff team since 2007. For the past two-plus seasons, he played in Minnesota. He played reasonably well under Kurt Rambis, averaging a career-high 8.8 points a game in 2010-11. But his playing time and productivity dropped dramatically under Rick Adelman last season. Milicic was hurt. But he also didn't endear himself to Adelman, who called Milicic lazy and out of shape. The Wolves used the amnesty clause to waive him last summer.
"That was tough for Darko,'' Milicic's agent, Marc Cornstein, said. "It's a team saying, 'We no longer want you.'"
Milicic appeared in 29 games last season, 21 of them before the All-Star break. He made it clear that while he didn't see eye to eye with Adelman, he didn't think the situation was insoluble.
"They [the Timberwolves] thought it was my mistake in getting in trouble with the coach. I don't really feel that it was all my mistake,'' he said. "We didn't have any communication. Things I find out, I find out in the newspaper and the media. I find out I'm not going to start. I find out I might not play. I find out I'm not in good shape. I think we are grown men. We should talk. And we didn't."
Milicic said he felt he was expected to apologize to the players and coaching staff over the summer. But he balked at that, saying, "I didn't feel like it was only my mistake. I couldn't do it. It's not fair how they talk about how I was so negative."
Once the Wolves amnestied him, Milicic said he wasn't sure if any NBA team would take a chance on him. He thought he had simply run out of teams and chances. Cornstein said there was interest from a number of teams, but that Ainge had been the first general manager to call once Milicic became available on the open market.
Now it's up to everyone involved to make sure that stop No. 7 for Milicic is, indeed, a lucky one.