When the Warriors landed in Salt Lake City on Sunday for a game against the Jazz on Monday night, it was impossible to avoid the painful memories of their last trip to Utah.
For it was there, on Jan. 16, that Dejan “Deki” Milojević, their gregarious and beloved assistant coach, sustained a heart attack that claimed his life the next day.
The experience shook the entire traveling party and was particularly traumatic for those who witnessed Milojević in distress before he was taken to the Intensive Care Unit at University of Utah Hospital.
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Nearly four weeks later, it’s still raw and it still hurts. Not on the trip were coach Steve Kerr, assistants Ron Adams and Chris DeMarco, general manager Mike Dunleavy, consultant Zaza Pachulia and vice president and health and performance Dr. Rick Celebrini. They were in Belgrade, Serbia to attend the memorial service for Milojević.
So, assistant coach Kenny Atkinson moved into the head coaching seat and chose to address the inescapable thoughts within the team.
“It's obviously not the ideal situation in a lot of senses,” Atkinson told reporters before tipoff against the Jazz. “Obviously, there’s the personal standpoint. And adding on that we're here in Utah, where Deki had the incident. It's tough.
“But this is what we do in our jobs as professionals. We’ve got to move forward but, also, remember it. We talked about it this morning with the players.”
Golden State Warriors
The message was for everyone to always remember Milojević and what he stood for as a man and a coach – but also remember the purpose of being there as a team.
The tragic events of Jan. 16-17 changed Milojević’s family – wife Nataša, son Nikola and daughter Maša – but also changed Golden State’s routine in Salt Lake City. For the better part of a decade, trips to Utah usually meant dinner at Valter’s Osteria, an upscale Italian eatery in downtown Salt Lake.
No longer. And not because the quality of the food has declined. It’s because going back would stir harrowing memories of their last visit. For it was at Valter’s on Jan. 16 that Milojević was stricken.
Going to Utah twice this week – there is another trip Wednesday night for a game scheduled on Thursday – forces the Warriors to face the lingering feelings they can only hope fade with time.
Which is why Atkinson felt it necessary to address the matter Monday morning. It was important to try to get a read on the team’s emotions.
“Winning helps,” Atkinson said. “The team was upbeat this morning. I think when you're start doing a little bit of a win streak, you want more. So, there was that enthusiasm.
“We also know we’re behind the 8-ball a little bit, so there’s an edge to us. But a positive edge because we’re winning some games now.”
The Warriors took the floor at Delta Center with a four-game win streak and having won seven of their last 10. They’ve moved from 11th to 10th in the Western Conference standings, but realize that’s still well short of their desired position ahead of the NBA playoffs.
The return trips to Salt Lake City this week represent challenges that go beyond the usual. They’ll remember Deki, and they’ll also know he would want nothing more than to win both games.