When the Nets face the Magic Wednesday, Nenad Krstic and Darko Milicic will renew old acquaintances and an old rivalry. Milicic will finally be getting more than garbage time and the matchup long anticipated by Serbian basketball fans will take place.
It won't be the first time.
It was the spring of 2003 and the basketball world was hardly focused on a basketball game in Belgrade. The NBA appeared ready to crown Darko Milicic as its next great big man, the second best player in the draft class headed by Lebron James. It was a given that 17-year-old Milicic was the best young big man in Europe and maybe the world, in spite of averaging fewer than 10 points a game for Hemofarm. No matter. Word was Milicic wasn't getting time on the court in Vrsac because his coach preferred playing veterans.
One Serbian player, however, was not that impressed, a 19-year-old 7-footer named Nenad Krstic. Milicic had received all the hype for more than a year. All Krstic had done in that same year was: be drafted by the Nets in the first round after being pursued by the Spurs and Kings, average a double-double in the FIBA European Under-20 championships, win the co-MVP of the 2002 Global Games [with Chris Bosh] with Milicic on the bench, and average nearly 14 points a game for his team, KK Partizan, a perennial Serbian and European power.
In fact, Milicic had gone out of the way to show how much better he was. He had spent the spring gleefully showing American reporters a videotape of the first game between he and Krstic, one in which Milicic dunked over the Nets' draft choice in a move described as reminiscent of Vince Carter's famous Olympian slam over Frederic Weis. Krstic's team had won the game, however.
ESPN's Chad Ford described how Milicic brought the tape to his hotel room and showed it with pride.
"Then comes the dunk. After Partizan scores, the team inbounds the ball to Milicic just a bit before mid court. Milicic puts the ball on the floor and brings it up against pressure to around the 3-point line. There he takes Krstic off the dribble, penetrates into the lane and throws down a thunderous dunk over the helpless Partizan defender. The crowd goes wild. I stop the tape and rewind it. Play. Rewind. Play. Rewind. One more time. Well, maybe one more."
It was that tape that helped push Ford to annoint Milicic as a can't-miss prospect and Joe Dumars as a genius for taking him over Carmelo Anthony, DywaneWade and Chris Bosh. Never mind that Krstic had just come back from a leg injury when the tape was made.
But in the semifinals of the YUBA League tournament, played on April 26, Krstic was faced with a difficult situation, one that transcended the two teenagers' personal pride. His team was without its best player, Milos Vujanic. Vujanic, the Knicks' second round draft choice in 2002 and Europe's best scoring guard, was injured and Krstic was facing off against Milicic. Partizan had twice beaten Hemofarm in the regular season, but that was with Vujanic running the court. Now, he had to step up.
By the time the game was over, Milicic's Hemofarm team had won, but not before Krstic proved something. In the battle of the two big men, Krstic stepped up big and hit for 29 points and 9 rebounds in 32 minutes, while Milicic had only 7 points and 2 rebounds in 18.
It's not known whether Krstic knew of Milicic's gloating before the big game, but he certainly didn't show any love for Milicic in an interview six weeks earlier.
In the interview, with Hoopshype's Jorge Sierra, Krstic had been low-key about any personal aspect of their rivalry. "I'm one of the players in my team, and my team beat his team twice…" he told Sierra when asked how he had done against Milicic.
In the same interview, Krstic was asked if he thought Milicic should be drafted high. He declined to give his unqualified endorsement. "I cannot answer because I don't know the rest of the candidates. He has talent. I guess NBA guys know what they are doing."
Beyond point totals, there were some other positives for Krstic in the stat line from that battle between the two 7-footers. Krstic, known for his athleticism more than his physicality, mixed it up underneath, getting 18 trips to the line, missing only one shot. Milicic's low productivity was due in large part of his inability to guard Krstic. The darling of the draftniks played only 18 out of 40 minutes and fouled out. Krstic fouled out too, but played almost twice as many minutes. Krstic also hit for 6 of 9 from the field and 5 of his 9 rebounds were offensive. Neither of Milicic's rebounds came off the offensive boards.
At the time, it was viewed as an anomaly. Krstic was a good player, but Milicic was destined for greatness. Today, the two are in the NBA, one a successful player on playoff bound team, the other a candidate, along with LaRue Martin, for worst draft bust ever. They are both members of the Serbian national team and had some success playing together, with Milicic playing defense and Krstic offense.
Now, with Milcic's exile in Detroit over, it will be interesting to see what happens when they go head-to-head again, this time for real in the NBA.