Mention Dario Saric to people within the 76ers organization, and their eyes are bound to light up. Spending just two years in Philadelphia, Saric left an undeniable imprint, and his return to the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night will be emotional.
“I get emotional just talking about Dario," Brett Brown said.
The Sixers' head coach, who reportedly shared a tearful goodbye with Saric, invested a lot of time, emotion, and energy into the Croatia native’s career. While Saric, 24, spent two years under contract in Turkey after being drafted in the first round (12th overall) in 2014, Brown maintained contact and even made a trip to Spain with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Michael Carter-Williams to watch Saric play.
Though being traded is always a possibility in his profession, Saric never considered what life might be like away from the Sixers, and when he got the news that he’d been packaged with Robert Covington and Jerryd Bayless in a trade for Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, he didn’t know how to react.
Saric was getting coffee with one of the Sixers' player-development coaches on the day of the trade in November. He unknowingly missed a call from Brown, who immediately called the development coach to get hold of Saric.
“It was weird. I didn’t know if I should be happy,” Saric said. “There was the some kind of big saga with Jimmy and if he was staying or going or wanted to leave. I was shocked, I felt like my stomach hurt, and I just felt really weird.”
He went over the last couple of months in his head. Saric knew he’d had a slow start to the season, but he said he’d just started feeling like he was getting back to normal. He started to doubt himself and wonder if he’d done something wrong and that was why he was traded. But after a couple of hours, he said, he calmed down and decided to embrace his new opportunity.
Since the trade, Saric has done his best to adapt to his new life. He made finding a new place to live his top priority, and by the end of his first week with the Timberwolves, he had accomplished that goal. Although things with the Timberwolves have been turbulent — from Saric’s limited bench role to the firing of president and coach Tom Thibodeau — Saric is starting to find a groove and things are getting back to normal. He is averaging 10.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 23 minutes per game.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, there has been a void.
In addition to everything Saric brought on the court, he was a huge part of the brotherhood the Sixers created off the court. Known as the funniest guy on the team, Saric added levity and joy to the locker room.
“It’s going to be weird to see Dario and Cov and Jerryd in different uniforms,” T.J. McConnell said. “Dario brought energy off the court, too. We miss his spirit.”
Embiid, who spoke to both Saric and Covington on Saturday, said he’s excited to have his old teammates back in the Wells Fargo Center.
“Dario, that was a funny dude,” Embiid said. “Around the locker room, he was loved. There’s a big hole. There’s someone missing; we definitely miss that."
Saric’s personality on and off the court endeared him to Sixers fans, who adopted Saric as one of their own before he was even in Philadelphia. Saric said he appreciated the honesty of the fans. He joked that on nights when the Sixers played well he felt like a king, and after they played poorly he was afraid to leave his house the next day.
Saric has been looking forward to his first game back in Philly, knowing that it will be an emotional day. He hopes that Tuesday, Sixers fans will remember how hard he played and that the reception will be warm.