SAN FRANCISCO — The first basket of the game was a perfect tribute to Deki. But probably not for the reason you think.
On the first possession of the first game since Golden State Warriors assistant coach Dejan Milojevic’s death, Stephen Curry drilled a 3-pointer 21 seconds into the first quarter to open the scoring. Seemingly everyone in an incredibly emotional Chase Center cheered, screamed … maybe even cried a little.
“That was my main message before the game was just, try to lose yourself in the game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the 134-112 win over the Atlanta Hawks. “I think getting out and playing is probably the very best thing that, for players, you can do to get their minds off of the sorrow that we’ve all felt this past week.”
But that emotional bucket wasn’t Curry’s initial attempt. Seconds earlier, he had missed the first shot of the game, temporarily deflating a crowd ready to explode.
The only reason he got the second look was because of a trademark, no-jump, one-handed offensive rebound from Warriors center Kevon Looney. And who do you think Looney has credited with his rebounding improvement over the past three seasons? In that moment, you could almost feel the warmth of Coach Deki’s ever-present smile, which Kerr and others have referenced repeatedly over the past week.
“As soon as we met, we kind of hit if off,” Looney said in the tribute video played prior to the game. “He wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was wrong, and I kind of built that confidence in him and started building that trust and building a relationship with him since Day 1.”
After pretty much every single 3-pointer that he makes — and there have been a lot — Curry pounds his chest and points one finger to the sky. He developed the gesture with the help of his mother while playing at Davidson, a grounding reminder of his family and faith. After making the first bucket on Wednesday night, he raised two fingers and flexed them to the heavens in honor of his fallen coach.
The Serbian word for brother was written across the chest of black shirts worn by both the Warriors and Hawks before the game. And never was the basketball brotherhood — within the Golden State organization, among the NBA family and across international borders — more evident.
Klay Thompson and Draymond Green teared up during a heartfelt pregame ceremony for Milojevic, who died last week at 46 following a heart attack. Hawks assistant Igor Kokoskov and guard Bogdan Bogdanovic stood at center court during the video tribute to honor their fellow Serbian. Kerr and others told stories of Milojevic greeting visiting European players, always with a smile on his face.
“This business is unique — playing, coaching, the fact that it transcends borders, transcends cultures,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said before the game. “There are shared experiences there that we all feel.”
On a night where the Warriors honored their lost family member, the physical representation of unity was fervently alive.
Seven Warriors scored in double figures. Every available Golden State player got into the game. The outstanding trio of Curry, Thompson and Green played in their 400th game together. The Warriors sold out their home arena for the 500th consecutive contest.
Dario Saric, among the closest Warriors to Milojevic, went through his pregame routine without his trusted coach for the first time on Wednesday night. He’d spent the past week helping, as best he could, to console Milojevic’s widow and two children.
“The whole weekend was, for me, emotionally like a roller coaster,” Saric said after the game. “Sometimes I’m fine, sometimes I want to cry. Sometimes you remember good moments.”
At the end of the day, the Warriors have to get back to thinking about basketball — it’s, according to them, what Deki would want more than anything. On Wednesday they took the first, all-important step, beating a struggling Atlanta team without its best player. It may seem trivial, but the Warriors have lost to much more feeble opponents.
But, of course, this game wasn’t just about adding a win to their record and attempting to climb into the play-in race.
It was about remembrance. It was about grief. It was about forcibly beginning the healing process, however long it will take.
“There’s still a really big hole in our team,” Thompson said after the game. “We miss him every day, think about all the time. … It just sucks because he was such an awesome person, and I miss him dearly.”