“Peja” Stojakovic was born in the city of Belgrade, Yugoslavia,
on June 9, 1977. Miodrag and Branka Stojakovic's first boy, Nenad, arrived
three years earlier. Peja’s older brother suffered from kidney problems—and
still does today—that limited him in virtually every walk of life.
Stojakovics owned the grocery store in town. Peja and his brother chipped
in after school, and the family got along better than most in Pozega.
Peja stayed up nights dreaming of a career as a pro athlete. He and his friends played a number of games, including volleyball and handball, but it was soccer that truly captivated him. Peja excelled at the sport—he was taller than most kids, and his long strides initially gave him an advantage. But as his body continued to grow toward its eventual 6-9 height, he could not make the sharp cuts and quick shots required to dominate on the soccer field. By the age of 13, Peja was resigned to the fact he’d have to look for another sport.
The Stojakovic family, meanwhile, was resigned to the fact that it was no longer safe to live where they did. Civil war was erupting in the region, and residing close to a border—any border—was not a good plan for survival. Peja, his brother and his parents journeyed east to Belgrade, figuring they would find safety in a large city.
In Belgrade, basketball was king. When the local coaches got a load of Peja, they got to work. He had always played hoops, but never thought enough of the sport to advance his natural skills or take advantage of his height. Peja liked the praise and attention being heaped upon him, and transferred the joy and work ethic he had formerly reserved for soccer to the hardwood.
With a little technical
tinkering, he developed a feathery outside touch. The rest of his game
fell into place, and by age 14 the word was spreading throughout Europe
that there was an elite-level talent in war-torn Yugoslavia. Peja, who
had always followed the NBA, began wondering whether pro basketball might
be a realistic part of his future.
Red Star Belgrade, the country’s best club, signed Peja and threw him into the fire against top junior competition. A year later, at 15, he made the big club and began competing against the top stars on the international circuit. He was now 6-7 and still growing. And the set and release on his jumpshot was as quick as anyone’s on his side of the Atlantic.
Peja’s trips to various European cities underscored the increasingly desperate conditions in which he and his family were living. He would come home and hear gunshots at night. He would watch the news and see his country being torn apart. When the fighting reached Pozega, the family’s home was destroyed. Everything his parents had worked for was wrapped up in that house, which was now a smoldering ruin.
When his Red Star contract came up for renewal in 1993, Peja said thanks but no thanks. The 16-year-old moved his family to Greece, where he managed to obtain citizenship with the aid of his new team, PAOK Thessaloniki. Peja signed a three-year playing contract and a five-year personal services deal.
Peja sat out the 1993-94 season while waiting for a playing permit from the Greek government, then quickly worked his way into the starting lineup. He dropped in 20 or more most nights, and got to compare his skills to former NBA stars like Dominique Wilkins and Byron Scott. Peja became a huge drawing card for PAOK, both at home and on the road, where visiting teams received a healthy share of the gate.
This was both a blessing and a curse. Peja was treated like royalty by the team’s fans and ownership, but no one wanted to let him go as it became clear that he had NBA-caliber potential. Although his playing contract would soon expire, the personal services pact now loomed over him. If he wanted to keep suiting up in a hoops uniform, he would have no choice but to do so for PAOK.
In the spring of 1996, the Sacramento Kings selected Peja with the 14th pick of the draft. GM Geoff Petrie was crucified in the press when the personal services deal was discovered. Peja had been working through an Italian agent, Luciano Capicchioni, who in turn worked through an American agent, Herb Rudoy. Somewhere, something got lost in translation and the Kings and other clubs were led to believe that breaking the PAOK contract was a mere formality.
It was not. The Greek club refused to consider any financial remuneration for Peja’s departure. Now standing 6-9, the youngster was truly coming into his own, and team officials knew it. When the validity of Peja’s contract was challenged on the grounds that his father had signed it on his behalf as a minor, PAOK GM Vasilis Economidis contacted FIBA, which sided with the club.
The disappointment of getting stuck in Greece for the 1996-97 campaign was compounded by a broken leg that limited Peja to just 20 games. He bounced back in 1997-98 to average more than 23 points a game, win league MVP honors, and take PAOK all the way to the league finals, where the club lost to Panathinaikos.
With his obligations fulfilled, Peja was free to join the Kings, whose fans had all but forgotten about him. The NBA was in the midst of a bitter labor feud that ended up reducing the season to 50 games. Unable to workout with his new teammates until January of 1999, Peja never gained his rhythm. When the season started, he found himself in a new role: that of benchwarmer.
Going from league superstar to 10th man—while his skills improved—threw Peja for a loop. Every time he took the court, he was looking over his shoulder at coach Rick Adelman, wondering whether a missed shot or blown defensive assignment would earn him a seat back on the bench.
Not that the Kings
were a bad team. On the contrary, Sacramento had the makings of an excellent
club. Big men Chris Webber and Vlade Divac teamed with rugged Corliss
Williamson to form a formidable front line. Slick-passing Jason Williams
paired with meteoric Vernon Maxwell in the backcourt to round out the
starting five. Peja played about 20 minutes a game, shot under 40 percent
and, at least on paper, contributed little more to the Kings than eight
points a game. The team finished fourth in the Pacific Division at 27-23
and lost to the Utah Jazz in an extremely tight five-game series.
Overall, the Kings were satisfied with Peja’s truncated rookie season. He showed versatility, flip-flopping between 2-guard and both forward positions. He also exhibited a flair for the game, as other Eastern Europeans had, combining good fundamentals with the occasional playground move. Peja saw the court, hit the open man, and was willing to work on his defense, which would be his biggest obstacle in claiming a starting role.
The disturbing backdrop to Peja’s whirlwind rookie campaign was the situation back home. Yugoslavia was being decimated by its monstrous dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, and every night the news painted an increasingly chaotic picture. Though his immediate family was safe in northern California, Peja’s grandparents and other family members were still overseas, where NATO bombing raids threatened to destroy the country’s infrastructure. Without Divac, a fellow Yugoslav Serb, nearby, Peja would have gone crazy with worry. It was great to have someone with whom he could share his fear and anxiety.
Divac was a godsend for another reason, too. An established star in the NBA, he told Peja how he had had to wait for a couple of season before the Los Angeles Lakers felt confident enough to give him 40 minutes a game. It was simply part of the maturation process.
That process continued through the 1999-2000 season, when Peja once again served as an all-around sub for Adelman. He boosted his minutes slightly and discovered the range on his jumper, raising his scoring to just under 12 points a game. He saved his best work for the division-rival Lakers, who he burned for more than 20 a game in their regular-season meetings. The Kings, who finished with a 44-38 record, were still finding themselves, but they gave Los Angeles all they could handle in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out.
Though Peja struggled in the playoffs against the Lakers, Sacramento was satisfied he was a small forward the club could bank on for years to come. The Kings promoted him to the starting lineup, and in September traded Williamson to the Detroit Pistons for Doug Christie.
MAKING HIS MARK
The 2000-01 Kings
were simply awesome. They challenged the Lakers all the way to the finish,
missing the division crown by one game. After eclipsing the Suns in the
first round, they met Los Angeles in the conference semifinals, but were
humiliated by Shaq, Kobe & Co. in a four-game sweep.
Though disappointed, Peja had every reason to feel good about his first year as an NBA starter. He established himself as one of the league’s premier shooters, and his outside scoring opened the paint for Webber and Divac, giving the Kings a more balanced attack. At the behest of his front-lline mates, Peja also began throwing the occasional elbow just to let opponents they couldn’ intimidate him.
Peja finished with a 20.4 average, hitting from the field at a respectable 47 percent clip, including 40 percent from beyond the arc. In the playoffs, he came through against the Phoenix Suns when Webber was slumping and proved the difference in the four-game series.
Sacramento started the 2001-02 campaign behind the eight ball, as Webber missed the first five weeks with a bad ankle. Without their marquee scorer, the Kings needed to retool. Peja stepped up with great outside shooting, particularly from three-point range. When defenders came out to meet him, he sliced to the basket, displaying a part of his game the league had not expected. With fans praying for a .500 record until Webber’s return, Peja averaged more than 23 points a night and carried the club to a 15-5 mark.
After Webber came back, Peja continued to average over 20 a game, and made important strides as a rebounder and defender. Opponents forced him to put the ball on the floor and go the basket, hoping to force a turnover. Sometimes Peja was tentative, sometimes not. But all the while he was evolving as an all-around player and holding his own. It helped to know that one or two mistakes would no longer land him on the bench—the Kings were committed to him as a cog in their offensive machine.
Another key to Sacramento’s success was their new point guard, Mike Bibby. Rescued from the Grizzlies in a trade for Jason Williams, he provided consistent floor leadership and clutch scoring. Bibby joined a team that now featured tremendous depth. Indeed, with bench players Scot Pollard, Bobby Jackson and Hidayet Turkgolu, the Kings had all the ammunitin for a serious playoff run.
That run started after Sacramento—proud owners of the NBA’s best record at 61-21—took on Karl Malone and the Jazz in the first round. The teams each took one at Arco Center, then the Kings won Game 3 in Salt Lake City. They built a solid lead heading into the final quarter of Game 4 until Utah came roaring back. With the Jazz primed to knot the series, Peja drained a clutch three-pointer to close out the series.
It was the kind of
shot the Kings had come to expect from Peja, who had finished the year
averaging over 21 a game on 48.4 percent shooting. Sacramento loved to
whip the ball around on offense, and seemed to specialize in frantic games.
But when the tide turned against them, Peja was the man they looked to
for the big shot. Even when he was running cold—as he had been against
the Jazz—Sacramento’s confidence in him was usually sky high.
Peja’s shooting slumped versus the Dallas Mavericks in round two, but the Kings simply overwhelmed Dirk Nowitzki and his teammates. Sacramento’s greatest concern afterwards was the sprained ankle Peja suffered midway through the series. He had to be carried to the lockerroom and missed the final two contests against the Mavs. The news grew worse when doctors told Adelman that Peja would be unavailable for Games 1 and 2 in the next series, against the Lakers.
Had Peja been healthy, the Kings—who owned homecourt advantage—probably would have been favored. Divac had always done well against Shaq, and Christie felt he could contain Kobe Bryant. But without their long-range bomber, Sacramento would have to rely on Bibby for outside shooting, while Webber would have to deal with a collapsing Laker defense.
Peja watched from the bench as the teams split the first two contests in Sacramento, then the next two in L.A. Listed as doubtful for Game 5, he played sparingly in the second and fourth quarters. He did not have the quickness needed to free himself for open jumpers, and was a defensive liability. The Kings were deep enough to pull out a 92-91 victory to come within a win of the NBA finals.
But that was as close as they got. With Peja continuing to see limited action and Turkgolu unable to fill his shoes, the Lakers won Game 6, then beat the Kings in overtime at the Arco Center, 112-106. Peja had a chance to send the Kings to the finals when Adelman called him off the bench in the waning seconds of regulation. He fired up a three-pointer but missed everything. The shot haunted him all summer long.
The 2002-03 season started badly for Peja, too. An on-again, off-again case of plantar’s fasciitis flared up and kept him sidelined for several weeks. Luckily, the team’s bench was strong enough to keep the Kings out front in the Pacific Division. Peja returned to the lineup and regained his stroke in January, but Webber went down with an ankle sprain, forcing the club to continue playing short-handed.
The injury to Webber
did have a bright side: With the power forward unable to play in the All-Star
Game, Peja was selected to go in his place. He already had a ticket to
All-Star Weekend as defending champion of the Three-Point Shootout. Being
named to the West squad was icing on the cake. Peja celebrated by edging
Wesley Person for the second year in a row in the trey contest, then logged
13 minutes and scored five points the next day as the West beat the East
155-145 in double overtime.
Peja finished the year with his game firing on all cylinders. Hed shot better than 50 percent down the stretch and brought his average up over 19 points per game. He was tremendous against the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, a series won by Sacramento in five games. An injury to Webber’s back, however, did not leave the Kings in a good mood.
In round two, Sacramento hooked up in a wild series with the high-scoring Mavericks. The frenetic pace seemed perfect for the Kings, but Dallas hung tough and eked out a seven-game victory. Had Webber stayed healthy, there is little doubt the Kings would have disposed of the Mavs. What made the loss doubly frustrating is that the Lakers were upended by the Spurs, who went on to win the championship. With Divac and Webber, Sacramento had the front line to deal with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. When the Spurs blew out the Nets to capture the NBA title, every fan in Sacramento thought it should have been their team hoisting the trophy.
Peja agreed. When it became clear that Webber would not make it back from offseason knee surgery until sometime in 2004, he realized that his teammates would look to him as their leader. He accepted this responsibility and, after just a few games, felt comfortable in his new role.
Some questioned the
wisdom of making Peja Sacramento’s de facto on-court leader. The
club was renown for its teamwork, and most of Peja's points came because
of that teamwork. Granted, he was hardly a playmaker. But since the Kings
regularly counted on him to hit the finishing shot, Peja was an ideal
choice as Sacramento's frontman.
Heading into the All-Star break, Peja was among the league scoring leaders and the Kings were first in the league in points. Bibby also shouldered some of the load, as did newcomer Brad Miller. It got to the point where people were joking that Webber would have to earn his minutes when he returned. When he did return, the Kings traded him to Philadelphia in February, picking up Corliss Williamson and Kenny Thomas in the deal. Peja was now the Kings’ unquestioned go-to guy—when he was healthy.
Injuries dogged Peja all season long, limiting him to 66 games. Back spasms, the flu, right hamstring, left groin—finally, Adelman shut him down in April so he would be ready for the playoffs. Peja finished the year at 20.1 points per game, and he also averaged 38.4 minutes played—one of the best marks in the league and all the more remarkable considering his health problems.
The Kings staggered home as the injury bug decimated their ranks. Besides Peja, Miller broke his leg, and Cuttino Mobley—picked up in a January trade—busted a toe. Still, Sacramento won 50 times. Everyone made it back for the playoffs, but the Kings were out of sync for their first-round meeting with red-hot Ray Allen and the Sonics. Seattle trounced Sacramento in five games, wasting a great Game 5 performance from Peja, who netted 38 in a losing cause. He wound up with a team high 110 points for the series.
Despite five straight 50-win seasons, the Kings are in disarray as they consider the 2005-06 campaign. It is still unclear how all the new faces will mix in with the old, whose injuries are serious and who’s aren’t, and what the roster will look like come the fall. Barring a trade, Peja will be the focal point of the offense once again, and as such he will likely spend the summer working on his post-up game, and maybe add a couple of new moves to his repertoire.
How far Peja takes Sacramento from here is anyone’s guess. Chemistry has long been the Kings’ strong point, so they must be given the benefit of the doubt as they recobble their roster. With good depth and developing talent, the Kings may yet score another 50-win campaign. And who knows? With a big free agent signing and Peja bombing away from the outside, the Kings could turn out to be a royal pain come playoff time.
Peja is the man every NBA player wants to see poised confidently at the arc when he kicks the ball out to the perimeter. He is an assist waiting to happen. Left alone, the Kings star is nearly automatic. With a man in his face, he’s still pretty darn good, with a dozen different dekes and bobs and twists designed to give him just enough room to squeeze off a jumper.
His shot, though awkward-looking, is extraordinarily accurate. When he misses, it is usually long or short, not left or right. Every time Peja launches his jumper, it looks like it’s going in. He is also very economical, getting his points on far fewer attempts than other 20-point men.
It is Peja’s release that keys his game. Opponents are forced to play him tight, which is the first move in an entertaining 48-minute game of cat and mouse. Defenders turning their back on him are done for—he is deceptively quick and incredibly sneaky. Peja is also adept at running his men into teammates, then fading back for an open jumper.
Overcommitting on defense is not a good idea with Peja. Though he shies away from rough play at times, he often leaves jocks strewn about the court as he wriggles his way to the basket. Don’t be surprised to see Peja develop his low post game soon. Larry Bird suggested this to him, and he seems intrigued.
As a defender and rebounder, Peja is only average. But on nights when the 25-footer isn’t there, he doesn’t hesitate to throw himself into a supporting role, where he can win a game with a deflected pass or key offensive board.
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