Dejan Milojević

Grief-stricken Warriors hope to honor Milojević in ‘Deki' fashion

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SAN FRANCISCO – The tears have dried among the Warriors, but the images are indelible and haunting. Rarely is death welcome, but it’s utterly chilling when you see it suddenly steal a young man so energetic and popular.

The organization spent last Tuesday night praying and pleading in vain for a miracle that could spare Dejan Milojević.

The cherished assistant coach died of cardiac arrest Wednesday at University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City. “Deki,” as everyone called him, was 46.

Five days passed without activity from the Warriors. Recognizing the trauma inflicted upon the team, the NBA postponed Golden State’s next two games. There were no practices, and no desire.

It wasn’t until Monday morning that coach Steve Kerr tried to restore a sense of normalcy and, even then, there was Deki. Before getting onto the court, the team watched video of thousands of fans that gathered to celebrate his life before a basketball game in Serbia, his homeland, where he had been a star player.

“We got better sense of just what Deki meant to his countrymen,” Kerr said. “And, of course, how much he meant to us and to (wife and children) Natasa, Masa and Nikola. It’s been just a devastating week.”

The Warriors took an hour after the video to “process the emotion of what we watched,” per Kerr. Only then, did it feel somewhat proper to begin practice.

Six days after seeing Milojević lose consciousness and five days after he was pronounced dead, they remain in deep mourning. How can they not be?

“It’s a pretty terrible thing to witness,” Kerr said.

Only 12 hours earlier, much of the team’s traveling party was enjoying dinner when, suddenly, Deki was in distress. There was no defibrillator at the restaurant, nor at the business next door. Lifesaving measures could not bring him back.

“Everybody on our team and everybody in our organization is traumatized,” Kerr said. “Part of life it that 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. And 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.”

Milojević was assigned to coach Golden State’s big men, so no one on the roster spent more time with him than Kevon Looney. From the time Deki was hired in the summer of 2021 until last week, the two would break from practice for one-on-one drills. They could be seen before games sitting next to each other on the bench studying video.

Though Looney was not at the dinner to see his coach lose his life, the last six days have been particularly difficult.

“The first couple days it was more of a shock than anything,” Looney said. “You hear there was an emergency, and you don’t know what’s going on. Then, (Deki’s death) was more of a shock. And then it comes through a lot of pain.

“The last couple days have been a little weird, just reminiscing, trying to surround yourself with love and family. That's I've been trying to do.”

Loon and Deki typically are the first Warriors seen whenever the doors to the practice floor at Chase Center open. They always – always – worked out at the hoop a few feet inside the entrance. On Monday, though, without Deki, there was no Loon.

He chose a hoop at the opposite end of the floor for his post-practice session. Grief sent him to a different space.

“It’s weird not having him here,” Looney said. “But it's also just nice to have your guys that you go to war with every day supporting you. We’re always together. It's not like we are by ourselves. That makes it a little bit easier.

“It’s something that we got to keep dealing with, something that is still fresh. But when we stay together, we’ll be able to heal.”

The healing is going to take a while, and the Warriors know it. They organization has made counseling available to its employees, most of whom had at least a passing relationship with Deki. To the players, he was like a funny and frank favorite uncle. To the coaches, he was like a funny and smart brother.

Or, as Deki would say, braté. Which translates to “brother” in his native tongue.

Players and coaches on Monday wore black T-shirts with “BRATE” printed across the chest. Just above and to the left, was a heart sketched around Milojević’s initials: “DM.” On the back was his nickname.

“Some of the guys had the idea of the shirt,” Kerr said. “Braté is what he called everybody. Brother. He called all his fellow coaches Braté. And we wanted the heart because he was so full of love, full of joy, for all of us. And vice versa. And then his nickname on the back.

“We're sending these shirts out to all over the league so all the people who knew him and loved him will have these shirts as well.”

There will come a time when all the things that a week ago seemed to matter so much to the Warriors and their fans will feel important. The silly turnovers, the lousy defense, the curious rotations, the perpetual lineups will once again irritate the team and activate the most strident keyboard gangsters within the fan base.

On Wednesday night, when they take the floor at Chase against the Atlanta Hawks, we’ll get the first glimpse of the post-Deki Warriors. We’ll get some sense of their overall mental state.

What’s clear is Deki still is with this team. His spirit and humor and presence exist inside them. The effects of grief are real, but they know what he would want.

Said Kerr: “I literally could picture Deki smiling and laughing and saying you m-----------s need to go win the basketball game.”

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