In this modern era of sports, where every season that doesn’t end in a championship is considered by some to be a failure and every team that isn’t winning at the moment might as well be hitting the reset button and starting over, we have become quite adept at attaching labels to players as well.
One of the most common words you will hear — though not a new term it is used far more often, far more quickly and far more casually than it was used in the past — is the four-letter term of shame to describe a player who didn’t achieve the level of greatness predicted for him or her: “bust.”
It’s a natural byproduct, one supposes, of the attention paid these days to drafts and prospect development. We hear so much about players now by the time they reach the top level of sports that judgment comes quickly and harshly when they are deemed to have underperformed.
This brings us to the Timberwolves, who have employed in their history many players who could be labeled “busts” based on their performance relative to projections. Some of the most notable cases weren’t actually drafted by Minnesota, a quick listing of which goes something like this:
Joe Smith (1995 No. 1 overall pick of the Warriors who never achieved stardom and was merely OK in Minnesota), Michael Olowokandi (1998 No. 1 overall pick of the Clippers who played parts of three non-descript seasons here), Darko Milicic (2003 No. 2 overall pick of the Pistons and later a David Kahn experiment with the Wolves) and Anthony Bennett (2013 No. 1 overall pick of the Cavaliers who is now out of the league).
The most fascinating of those players has always been Milicic, who was drafted just behind LeBron James and just ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Darko became even more interesting thanks to a recent ESPN.com piece that also stood as a promotion to an upcoming special (8 a.m. Sunday, ESPN) on his life after basketball.
In the piece, one thing stood out above all else: Milicic is comfortable talking about his failure and is, in fact, trying to take back the power of the word “bust.”
Author Sam Borden writes: “During our interview, which runs nearly three hours, he peppers the conversation with ‘bust,’ occasionally breaking it up with appropriate synonyms, like ‘disaster.’ At one point, he says ‘bust’ three times in about 15 seconds.”
He seems to do it for precisely the right reason, too: it’s not his fault. Sure, Milicic could have been a better NBA player. But he wasn’t the one who decided he was worth the No. 2 pick. That was the Pistons. He didn’t ask for any of it, in fact. “I wasn’t the one that asked to play basketball,” Milicic says at one point.
Like Smith, Olowokandi, Bennett and so many others, Milicic will forever be defined by his draft position. But if the intent is to denigrate Darko by calling him a bust, you’re too late.
By the way, you should read the entire fascinating piece — which includes this detail: Milicic still has a ton of cars that he bought during his NBA days, including a Porsche that still has Minnesota license plates even though he hasn’t played here in more than five years.