SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Before the Golden State Warriors returned to the practice floor Monday following an extended break to grieve, they gathered to watch a tribute a world away in Serbia, where two teams in Belgrade celebrated beloved former coach and player Dejan Milojević.
The Warriors assistant coach died last Wednesday in Salt Lake City at age 46 after suffering a heart attack at a team dinner a night earlier.
“It’s a pretty terrible thing to witness," an emotional coach Steve Kerr said at Chase Center.
Kerr estimated four or five players were at the restaurant and he was there along with other coaches and staff. He praised vice president of player health and performance Rick Celebrini for his poise, care and professionalism through the ordeal.
“Everybody on our team, everybody in our organization is traumatized,” Kerr said. “Part of life is you experience loss. Everyone is going to experience loss at some point in their life. But it doesn't often happen in front of you. It doesn't often happen to someone with kids and it doesn't happen often where it's someone who is so beloved worldwide. So everything that's happened over the last five days has been just jarring, just incredibly emotional, powerful, and more than anything heartbreaking.”
The Warriors have made counseling services available.
Kevon Looney worked especially closely with Milojević.
“It’s been tough. Just trying to be around my family and teammates as much as possible, just remembering him, telling stories about him, things like that,” Looney said. “Not trying to run away from it, but trying to embrace it and talk about him and what I’m going through with people close to me.”
Referring to the coach's family, Kerr reiterated the Warriors “are grieving with and for Natasa, Masa and Nikola because our lives are all affected by this. Their lives are affected dramatically more than anyone's forever, and that's not an easy thing to process.”
Dario Saric has played a key role supporting the family, Kerr said, and Milojević helped influence the power forward's decision to sign with the Warriors.
On Monday, Kerr wore a black “BRATE” T-shirt with Milojević's initials DJ inside a heart. Brate means brother and was what the coach called everybody on the Warriors.
The team learned a little more about how much their dear “Deki” meant back home in his native Serbia.
The moving tribute came before his former team Partizan hosted the club he coached and helped produce 11 NBA draft picks, Mega. The cross-town rivals only play twice a year during the ABA League regular season so the timing was truly remarkable.
The ceremony lasted approximately 10 minutes and included video highlights of Milojević as both a player and coach, his No. 13 jersey on one chair of the bench and a lengthy standing ovation from both teams and the capacity crowd. Fans in black T-shirts with Deki's likeness on front and name on back chanted his last name over and over again for more than three minutes while clapping as a large image of him was lifted in the stands. A moment of silence preceded tip-off as the starters for both teams came together at mid-court.
“We needed an hour to process the emotion of what we watched and what our guys are all feeling as they get back out onto the court for the first time without Deki for practice,” Kerr said.
Kerr noted that last week — Jan. 18 — marked the 40th anniversary of his father Malcolm being killed serving as president of the American University of Beirut.
Now, Kerr knows, he must get back to leading the team for games.
Golden State's games Wednesday at the Jazz and Friday at home against Dallas were postponed, and Kerr thanked the NBA and those teams for their thoughtfulness in allowing the Warriors to work through the shock and mourn even though it complicates the schedule given the games must be made up later.
“There's no way any of us could have walked out onto a court and played a basketball game either Wednesday or Friday,” Kerr said. “... So I want to thank everybody. I also want to thank the University of Utah. Every single person who we came across that night, the night of Deki's heart attack, was just incredible. The care that they gave to Deki and gave to all of us was amazing and if any of their staff is watching I want to say a sincere thank you. They were remarkable.”
The Warriors were still meeting Monday to finalize details for how they will honor Milojević on Wednesday night facing Atlanta.
“Wednesday will be unbelievably emotional for our players, for our organization, for our fans, for Deki's family. There's no handbook for this,” Kerr said. “We will honor Deki the best way we know Wednesday night. We'll be there to play a basketball game. We will find a way to mourn and grieve and play all in the same evening.”
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