How the Warriors have prepared for their return to Utah after 'Deki' Milojevic's death

ByKendra Andrews ESPN logo
Monday, February 12, 2024

KEVON LOONEYCALLS it the "big man hoop."

Located on the far side of the Golden State Warriors' practice facility, the hoop faces away from the weight room. Looney never previously worked at it, but when Dejan Milojevic joined the team as an assistant coach in 2021, it became their spot.

Under Milojevic's mentorship, Looney had the best rebounding seasons of his career. He went from averaging four rebounds per game through his first six years in the league to 7.3 rebounds during the 2021-22 season, when the Warriors won their most recent NBA championship. Last season, Looney averaged a career-high 9.3 rebounds.

But Looney and the Warriors carry a heavy heart. It's been less than a month since Milojevic died on Jan. 17 after suffering a heart attack at a private team dinner the night before Golden State's scheduled game against the Utah Jazz.

"[He taught me] a different mentality," Looney said after Milojevic's death. "Not settling for being average, but being elite, being great at something. I had the best two years of my career playing under his coaching and getting advice from him."

The team will be without coach Steve Kerr for Monday's game, who, along with several assistants and front office personnel, will attend Milojevic's memorial service in his native Serbia.

Milojevic's death at age 46 was a shock to the team and to the basketball world. Fondly known as "Deki" and formerly a star player and successful coach in Serbia, Milojevic was in his third season on the Warriors staff. He was known for mentoring players such as Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic and NBA centers Ivica Zubac, Goga Bitadze and Boban Marjanovic.

For Warriors forward Dario Saric, the chance to develop under Milojevic was partly why he joined the Warriors as a free agent this past summer. Saric had known Milojevic long before arriving at Golden State; the two were former MVPs in the Adriatic League.

Working out together at every practice and warming up ahead of games, Saric quickly developed a bond with his position coach.

"These feelings, you need to be professional ... go through it and try to adjust to the new situation," Saric told ESPN of being back in Salt Lake City, "but obviously [Milojevic] is somewhere in my mind."

Looney and Saric have vowed to keep up Milojevic's practices, and have stressed the message to the Warriors' assistants.

"We always talk about the bigs as a group on this team," Looney told ESPN. "We just try to bond together and continue our workouts -- all of the footwork, the smiling, the talking s---."

Looney and Saric have dealt with Milojevic's death by telling the other assistants to adhere to his most important lessons: Don't sugar coat messages. Call them out when they deserve it. Hold them accountable on everything, big and small.

But after Milojevic's death, Looney also felt it was time to move on from the "big man hoop."

"It felt weird being over there, acting like it's all the same," Looney said. "I wanted to switch it up ... I couldn't act like it was the same."

THE WARRIORS WILL never forget the events of the night they lost their dear friend Deki.

On Jan. 16, the team gathered for dinner at the Valter's Osteria restaurant in Salt Lake City, a favorite spot for the Warriors. Milojevic was sitting at a table with two fellow assistants -- Chris DeMarco and Ron Adams -- along with Saric.

It was there that Milojevic suffered a heart attack. He was hospitalized that night, and died the next day.

After Milojevic's death, the game on Jan. 17 against the Jazz was postponed, as was the Warriors' following game at home on Jan. 19 against the Dallas Mavericks.

The team regrouped at their practice facility on Jan. 22, where they met with Milojevic's family. Milojevic's daughter, Masa, addressed the team and Milojevic's son, Nikola, spent some time with Warriors guard Klay Thompson shooting and rebounding.

"Just to be able to tell him how much I loved his dad, all the great memories we built and made together, I just told him how grateful I am for his family and how proud of them [Milojevic] was," Thompson told ESPN.

When the Warriors returned to action on Jan. 24 at home against the Atlanta Hawks, players from both teams stood on the sideline of the Chase Center court with matching shirts that read "Brate," Serbian for "brother." The Serbian national anthem was played, as well as a tribute video, and special jerseys placed on Milojevic's vacant chair.

Since the tragedy, Saric and members of the coaching staff periodically check in with Milojevic's widow, Natasha.

"I lost a really good friend. I lost a coach who was really there for me, who knows what to tell me at the right moment, who knows my culture, who really knows what's going on in my mind," Saric said. "I miss him a lot, from a friend standpoint, and for basketball, he was a really good mentor.

"Maybe the best mentor I've ever had."

FOLLOWING SATURDAY'S THRILLING 113-112 win against Phoenix Suns, capped by Stephen Curry's last-second 3-pointer, the Warriors began their two separate journeys to honor Milojevic ahead of Monday's game in Utah.

Kerr -- with DeMarco, Adams, team advisor Zaza Pachulia, general manager Mike Dunleavy and director of team medicine Rick Celebrini -- departed on Sunday for the Serbian capital of Belgrade for Milojevic's memorial service. Assistant coach Kenny Atkinson stayed behind to serve as acting coach in Utah.

"This trip, it's going to be tough," Kerr told ESPN. "In some ways, this still hasn't been real."

Kerr and the staffers will return for the Warriors' home game against the LA Clippers on Wednesday. The Warriors return to Utah once again on Thursday to make up the originally postponed game.

The Warriors are slowly turning their focus back to basketball since last month's tragedy -- something that Kerr feels remains a challenge.

"Once we had the ceremony before the [Hawks] game, you just get back into the routine [of games and travel]," Kerr said. "Every once in a while, for everyone, it just hits you and you stop and think, 'I can't believe this is real.' [Attending the service] will make it way more real."

The team is staying at the same Salt Lake City hotel from the previous trip, despite trying to change it. There was a room at the hotel for players to watch the Super Bowl together, though some made their own plans to watch the game.

"It's going to be tough to walk back to those [hotel] rooms, remembering those feelings -- the roller coaster going on in that moment in our minds and hearts," Saric said before Monday's game. "It's going to be tough for all of us, especially those of us who were at the dinner."

The team does not plan to return to the restaurant. "Never going back there again," Kerr said.

Players like Thompson understand Monday's game will be unlike any the Warriors have prepared for.

"I have no idea how to approach this [game]," Thompson told ESPN after the win against Phoenix. "We, as a team, have never dealt with anything like this."

During the 2022 postseason, Warriors forward Draymond Green played a playoff game just one day after the death of his college teammate. He is preparing to take the same approach to Monday.

"You just try to make yourself aware that this is going to be different," Green told ESPN. "Your emotions are going to be different. ... You try to control your emotions the best you can."

For Looney, it will be about carrying on those lessons he learned with Deki under that "big man hoop."

"Just being intentional about having that time together," Looney said. "Remember what he taught us and keep his name and legacy alive."

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