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American horror story: ESPN's oral history of 2003 NBA Draft and why Detroit took Darko over Melo, Bosh, Wade

If you can stomach it you can hear from their own words how the Pistons blew the best draft in a generation by selecting Darko Milicic second overall.

Christian Petersen

At the very beginning of part 2 of ESPN's mega oral history of the 2003 NBA Draft, we get this statement:

The 2003 NBA draft took place on June 26 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. Many who work in the league called it one of the deepest drafts in history. It has ended up producing nine All-Stars, a handful of franchise players and two Finals MVPs, and seven years later, it spawned the greatest free-agent class ever.

What could come next but doesn't are the words " ... and Darko Milicic."

In fact, throughout the piece you could put that at the end of just about every statement about how great this draft was, as Pistons fans are so painfully aware.

Of course, no. 2 draft picks bust all the time in the NBA. The fact that Milicic didn't live up to his draft status isn't exactly shocking.

Even if you only look at draft picks from 2000, the following players have been selected second overall: Derrick Williams (2011), Evan Turner (10), Hasheem Thabeet (09), Michael Beasley (08), Marvin Williams (05), Jay Williams (02) and Stromile Swift (00).

In fact, after compiling that list I'm starting to think that the second overall pick might be cursed. Watch out, Orlando Magic fans.

But this was the draft of the can't-miss prospects. If you were picking in the top five you were supposed to get a star. And everyone did ... except the Detroit Pistons.

The Pistons didn't have a chance to pick the player who might go down as the best ever. LeBron James, the Akron, Ohio-born prodigy whose high school games were broadcast by ESPN, went first to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But Detroit had a choice between the following players: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, David West ... and Darko Milicic.

They selected Milicic.

While most Pistons fans are all too familiar with the process that led to the selection of the 7-foot Serbian stiff, if you believe in good karma as we head to another uncertain lottery (and ideally the last one in Detroit for several years), you owe it to yourself to read all the gory details.

A little pain for hopefully a lot of gain on draft night on Thursday.

The whole thing is a great read but as a public (dis)service, I've excerpted all the Darko- and Detroit-pertinent sections.

It wasn't just domestic players, either. With Dirk Nowitzki becoming a superstar and Yao Ming a superstar in the making, teams began jetting off across the world to try to find the next international star, and a 17-year-old with bleach-blond hair named Darko Milicic became an obsession for many who did.


The lottery was also on the night of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals between the New Jersey Nets and the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons went to John Jay College in Manhattan, N.Y., a popular spot for visiting NBA teams, for their morning shootaround.

Marc Cornstein (Darko Milicic's agent): I remember it so well. It was the day of the lottery and we used the gym at John Jay as our draft training gym. The Pistons were there, too. It wasn't set up as a workout for the Pistons. It was a regular day where Darko was working out and our other guys who were in the draft were on the road so he was in the gym by himself. He was just out there with a trainer. It was the same time we did it every day. It had nothing to do with the Pistons. It was a pure coincidence.

Chad Ford (draft analyst, ESPN): Darko had just arrived in New York a few days before that. There's just a curtain that was separating the two gyms and I walked over to (Pistons president) Joe Dumars and asked if he knew who was working out next door and he said he didn't. I told him Darko was over there. He asked Cornstein if he could come over. It was an impromptu workout.

Chris McCosky (Pistons beat writer, Detroit News): I don't think it was a coincidence. I remember they were talking about it the day before.

Cornstein: A number of guys filtered over to the other gym. Every shot, every move, he just looked phenomenal. Everyone from the Pistons was there. Joe Dumars, [coach] Rick [Carlisle]. Top to bottom, they were all there.

Ford: Darko was just phenomenal. It couldn't have been more perfect in a certain way. At some point the coaches got involved and asked to see particular things. And Darko couldn't miss and was aggressive and rose to the moment with the players watching. I was sitting next to (Dumars). He's not expressive, he plays everything close to the vest. But Darko was just so impressive. It was literally the best workout I've ever seen. I've seen hundreds and it was the best. When you have a 7-1 kid, who is 17 years old, doing the things he was doing, it was a "wow" moment, especially for a team that needed a big man. There was just a buzz afterward.

Tony Ronzone (Pistons executive, 2001-10): Our guys were like, "Oh my God, look at this guy." One dribble from the foul line, dunk. Lefty hook. Quick feet. He had great lateral quickness for a big. He had spin moves. It was unbelievable. He was a freak athlete at 17. He runs like a deer. He jumps. You were saying "wow." You could check off everything on the list.

Jon Barry (Pistons guard, 2001-03): I remember Joe Dumars saying we're working him out. I think half a dozen of us went over to watch. Dumars, he was telling me this guy is going to be the deal. Said "he's better than Dirk. He's going to be an absolute stud." So I said, I'm going to go check him out.

Cornstein: The Pistons walked away impressed but depressed. They thought when everyone else eventually saw him there would be no way they'd be able to draft Darko.


No team was in a more awkward position on lottery night than the Memphis Grizzlies. After going 28-54 in the 2002-03 season, Memphis had the sixth-best chance (6.4 percent) to get the top overall pick. But that's all the Grizzlies could hope for.

In 1997, then-Vancouver Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson traded a future first-round pick to the Pistons for Otis Thorpe. The pick had various protections on it, but by 2003, the only way the Grizzlies would keep their pick was if it was No. 1 overall.

The Pistons made the move, at least in part, because Thorpe clashed with then-coach Doug Collins at the time. Thorpe, who was 35 at the time of the trade, played 47 mostly unhappy games with the Grizzlies before being traded to the Sacramento Kings for Bobby Hurley just before the trade deadline in 1998.

Memphis also owned the Houston Rockets' No. 13 pick from the 1999 Steve Francis trade. But that pick only had a 0.5 percent chance of moving up to No. 1. It did not. Memphis ended up taking Marcus Banks with that pick and trading him on draft night to Boston.

Jerry West (Memphis Grizzlies general manager, 2002-07): I hate the lottery; I think it's a terrible thing. And I say that knowing it has worked reasonably well. You have to rely on hope.

Ford: I'm surprised Jerry wanted to be there. I think Memphis had a 6 percent chance of getting the top pick; anything else and it would immediately lose the pick to Detroit. Any other result than getting No. 1 would've made it a disappointment. Maybe it would've been better if Stu Jackson (by then a vice president with the league office) had to be there. That trade was horrible.

Shane Battier (Grizzlies forward, 2001-06): We knew the whole year that we weren't going to get an impact player in the draft because of Otis Thorpe. It became a running joke. I don't think Stu Jackson could've come to a Grizzlies game that year because the fans of Memphis knew it, everybody knew it.

West: For a trade that, when you look back in history, was made for whatever reason, it was hard to imagine that a trade like that would've been made and not protect a team that hadn't proven its worth yet. I'm not going to bad mouth anybody but that was an ill-advised decision.

Tirico: The thing about the lottery is it is both tense and very boring. Teams with very little chance of moving up are called off. But things changed when (NBA Deputy Commissioner) Russ Granik opened the envelope for the sixth pick that was supposed to be the Grizzlies. It wasn't, it was the Clippers logo and we knew we'd just had something dramatic happen. The Grizzlies had moved up.


Anthony: At that point I was pretty sure I was going to Detroit. I thought I was going to definitely be that No. 2 pick if Cleveland was taking Bron as it looked like.

Dumars: When they drew the Nuggets card at No. 3 my heart stopped for the 60 seconds it took Russ Granik to reveal who was No. 2. It didn't start until I heard Memphis' name at No. 2. 3

Cornstein: The stars had aligned. It was surreal. Eight hours earlier the Pistons were dreaming of getting Darko and then they had the No. 2 pick. By the end of the night I'd heard from the Pistons and were pretty sure they were going to take him with that pick.

Ronzone: We were like, "Can you believe this guy just fell into our lap?"


Within 10 days, Brown had resigned as coach of the 76ers and was hired to replace Carlisle as coach of the Pistons. Brown led the Pistons to a title the next season.

Cornstein: After the lottery, we all went out to dinner at Mr. Chow's. And then Mariah Carey sat down at the next table. I mean, this day was surreal, you couldn't make this stuff up.

Ford: Darko had never had Chinese food before. He was upset because he wanted bread. They brought him out some Mu Shu pancakes. He was like, "What the heck is this?" That's when you realized how young he was and how new this all was to him. He was discombobulated. It was funny at the time but it was one of those little signs of how hard the transition was going to be for him.


There was no drama with the first pick, but the rest of the draft lacked such certainty.

Ford: About a week after that Darko workout in New York, the Pistons brought him to Detroit and he worked out again. It wasn't as good as the first one but he was impressive and they pretty much committed to him then. Will Robinson was this legendary scout for the Pistons. He had discovered Grant Hill, Joe Dumars and many, many others. Will compared him to a young Wilt Chamberlain. I wrote his quote but people always seem to attribute it to me.

Will Robinson (Pistons scout, 1976-2003): [Darko] is going to own the game. Own the game. We're going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman. 5

Ford: Turns out Darko's two greatest moments were those workouts for Detroit. And I could never watch another workout again without a high degree of cynicism.

Cornstein: We canceled all other workouts. He was going to Detroit. It looked like a great situation on paper. There was a void there. It really made sense. At the time, we didn't think the Larry Brown hire would affect Darko at all. We were wrong.


Vandeweghe: [Cornstein] said Darko's not going to work out for us because he's going to be gone after the Detroit pick. I was surprised at that point. I was a little skeptical, let's put it that way. In that position, you have to be because everyone is trying to play games. I flew to New York so I could watch Darko work out. I'd seen him play in Europe. One game he didn't play at all, and another game he only played a few minutes. Hard to get a great idea.

Ronzone: Teams kept calling us about the No. 2 pick, offering us all kinds of packages. We had a couple of conversations about Carmelo. Chris Bosh had a great workout with us, and we really liked him. But we were focused on Darko.

McCosky: Right up to the draft, right up to the Pistons going on the clock, the Nuggets wanted to trade up to get the No. 2. Kiki might've wanted Darko. The Pistons just weren't that high on Carmelo. They hadTayshaun Prince and they needed a big guy. If they had traded back and Darko was gone, I think they would've taken Chris Bosh at No. 3 and not even Carmelo there.

Tomasson: Kiki never publicly gave us his personal order but several Nuggets front-office members I talked to before the lottery said they had Darko ranked ahead of Melo. They worked out some other guys but I think they were pretty locked in on Melo after the lottery. Lottery night it was reported the Pistons were probably going to take Darko No. 2.

Vandeweghe: I called about trading for the No. 2 pick; teams behind us called about trading for our pick. I wasn't really sure what Detroit was doing and wanted to investigate all options.

Anthony: I was flat-out told by somebody that I was going to be the No. 2 pick and go to Detroit. But something happened. To this day, I don't know what it was.

Ford: It was just a moment when the unknown had eclipsed the known. Many of the younger GMs had this international fever. There was a mania to find the next Dirk. There was a realization by these NBA guys that these Euro players could play. As scouts were bemoaning the state of basketball in the U.S. because of AAU, here are these Euros who were so skilled and had been drilled in all the arts. Scouts were flocking over to Europe. Jerry West was the one voice who was consistently calling me and asking me why Darko was rated so high. I thought he was being xenophobic. He was old school.

West: We did our research. There's no way we would've taken Darko at No. 2.

The Pistons, of course, took Milicic in what became one of the biggest mistakes in draft history. He played less than three seasons with the Pistons, averaging fewer than two points and two rebounds in 96 games. He went on to an unremarkable career with five other teams, never averaging more than seven points and six rebounds over the course of an entire season.

Dumars: Absolutely, it was a mistake. I could give a dissertation on [background research] now. After I drafted Darko, from that point on, the amount of background we do on every single player that you see us draft is ridiculous. We do as much or more background than any other team in the NBA because of that. The background on Darko was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn't know half of the stuff you needed to know. With Darko, we may have had two sources of information. That was it. We may have talked to a couple of guys over in Europe. That was it. 6

Darko Milicic (center, Hemofarm Vrsac, Serbia): They did waste a pick, you know. Why did they take me? Who knows if I really had a chance to play like these players that play like Dwyane Wade or Carmelo, those guys are incredible players. So for me, being a second pick, I don't get why they didn't play me at all. Why did they take me? You should take someone that they really think was going play right away because just taking someone to sit on the bench, you waste a pick and you waste the guy's time. So I just didn't get it. I guess they thought they were going be champions forever. I don't know. 7

Cornstein: We don't live in a vacuum. We know what has happened since. You have to remember, he was as impressive-looking physically and what he could do in a workout as anyone I've ever seen. I'm sure now if you asked everyone in the lottery that year, all 13 would tell you they'd have taken Melo second. Not only is that not true, more would've take Darko at No. 2 than not. I know that for a fact. He was 17, had an incredible body for his age. He was very mature for his age, which I know may sound odd now that you look back. Look, you can have lightning in a bottle.

And he was a monumental bust.

I've never been too depressed about this massive failure on the part of the Pistons. Yes, they could have selected Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade. They could have won multiple championships and been perennial contenders like the unstoppable San Antonio Spurs.

But then again they might not have.

The Pistons won the championship the following season. And to win a championship a hell of a lot has to go right. If Detroit selects Bosh or Anthony maybe something that needed to go right would have gone wrong.

I'm confident the team's championship window would have stayed open longer, but I'm less confident it would have been able to seal the deal and walk away with a championship. Because back in reality the number of titles won by Bosh and Anthony with their original teams is zero.

So while the Pistons thought the stars had aligned and they were getting a player better than Nowitzki, instead they got one of the biggest busts in the best draft in a generation.

And while I think maybe Detroit's most recent lottery pick, Andre Drummond, is the true bit of good fortune Detroit deserved after the Darko debacle, it would be especially comforting to think that on the 10-year anniversary of that awful decision the player the Pistons select this year will be a major contributor for years to come.

So if and when we hear the name Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. McCollum, Trey Burke or Cody Zeller on draft night just remember, nothing is set in stone.