Steve Kerr

Warriors find victory through their grief in win vs. Hawks

NBC Universal, Inc.

SAN FRANCISCO – T-shirts, black with white lettering, were worn all over the Chase Center floor as players and coaches worked out several hours before tipoff Wednesday night. The Warriors were wearing them and so were the visiting Atlanta Hawks.

Across the chest of every T-shirt was a single word: BRATÉ, which translates to “brother” in Serbian. This was a tribute to the late Warriors assistant coach Dejan “Deki” Milojević because that’s how he greeted every man, every day.

This was a night for Deki, from the emotional pregame ceremony to the muted satisfaction with a 134-112 victory.

After bobbing and weaving through the first half, the Warriors hit the afterburners in the third and fourth quarters. Deki would have loved the last 24 minutes.

Milojević, felled by a heart attack during a team dinner at a Salt Lake City restaurant, was only 46 years old. A man of limitless zest who radiated warmth, he was adored and respected by every coach and player. By most anyone who had the pleasure to know him, which required only a few minutes.

So, the Warriors’ hearts were heavy. They were playing in front of their home crowd for the first time in two weeks. They were playing basketball, anywhere, for the first time in nine days – the last seven of which followed Milojević's sudden death.

“It’s very emotional just to walk into the building for the first time on a game night without Deki,” coach Steve Kerr said in his pregame news conference. “Obviously, we’re all wearing our shirts. And there’s images of him with his ever-present smile. It’s very emotional because it’s all still very raw and surreal in a lot of ways.”

Assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, standing in a hallway an hour before tipoff, spoke of the “pain” everyone is experiencing.

“It’s real,” said Atkinson, who skipped that fateful dinner to go to bed early. “We all feel it. [The coaches] will always miss him as a man, and we already miss him as a coach. He challenged us. He made all of us better.”

Assistant coach Kris Weems could only shake his head and describe his feelings as “the presence of absence.”

“Deki is going to be in my head for quite some time,” Dario Šarić, the Croatian forward who was extremely close to Milojević, said after the game.

This is, for the Warriors, a death in the family. Not just any death, but one some witnessed in real time. Not just any member of the family, but everybody’s favorite, perhaps because his love of humanity was so palpable.

This is, for the NBA, a death in the extended family. Milojević, who built his legend of off his gregariousness and three consecutive MVP awards in Serbia, has friends all over the map. Two members of the Hawks – guard Bogdan Bogdanović and assistant coach Igor Kokoškov – were particularly close to him.

“I had a chance to speak with Igor in the immediate,” Atlanta head coach Quin Snyder said. “And you can feel the emotion and the pain. Both have been very stoic but it’s not difficult at all to recognize the depth of emotion and how they’re mourning.

“In some ways, to be here tonight and for those guys to be able to participate, in this evening, in the celebration of Deki’s life is a good thing – for us and for them knowing how close they were.”

The pregame ceremony, with a video tribute, was unusual in that Kerr took the microphone, and opted not for a ritual moment of silence but rather that the sellout crowd (18,064) “give Deki an ovation that he can hear up in heaven.”

The roar lasted about 40 seconds. Deki’s widow, Natasa, in the building with their son Nikola and daughter Masa, was brought to tears.

“It was very emotional,” Kerr said. “A lot of guys were in tears as the ball was being tipped.”

The Warriors are no closer to a consistent starting lineup, and the rotations continue to look like a lab experiment. They’re still two rungs below the NBA elite and one below teams good enough to avoid the play-in tournament. This was, essentially, an encouraging effort toward high-quality hoops.

“Getting out and playing is probably the very best thing that the players can do to get their minds off the sorrow we’ve all felt this past week,” Kerr said afterward. “It’s good to finally get out on the court, but we needed all that time over the past week to prepare for this.”

This game was, in many ways, dedicated to Deki.

This night was, in every way, an expression of love for him.

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