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Good Stock Once destined to fill shelves in a grocery in Croatia, Predrag Stojakovic instead fills the hoop for the Kings

Jan. 08, 2001
Jan. 08, 2001

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Jan. 8, 2001

Good Stock Once destined to fill shelves in a grocery in Croatia, Predrag Stojakovic instead fills the hoop for the Kings

The world's tallest grocery store manager--isn't that what he
should be? Look at 6'9" Sacramento Kings forward Predrag (Peja)
Stojakovic, surrounded by hip-hop-listening, tattoo-covered,
American-born basketball players, standing there with that goofy
smile and that dorky sweater and those too-snug blue jeans.
What's he doing here, a square European peg jammed into a
FUBU-wearing circle? Shouldn't he be working in produce? Hey,
bud, where's the grapefruit? How much is the cabbage?

This is an article from the Jan. 8, 2001 issue Original Layout

He appears lost, and, in truth, he sort of is. Stojakovic
(STOY-ak-O-vich) may well be in the U.S., but the U.S.
definitely isn't in Stojakovic. How many 23-year-old
millionaires do you know who still live with their parents? How
many NBA players do you know who don't rush to embrace the dunk?
And--C'mon, Peja!--those pants? The NBA is Armani, not Wrangler.
"Peja has a nickname," says Kings forward Lawrence Funderburke
with a laugh. "It's T.J., for Tight Jeans."

Maybe it should be W.K., for Weird Karma. Stojakovic is, by his
own humble account, the luckiest man in the long history of
lucky men. He was supposed to take over the family grocery.
Nothing more. His dad, Miodrag, and mom, Branka, owned such a
store in Pozega, a town of 28,000 in eastern central Croatia.
Growing up, Peja and his older brother, Nenad, would round up
friends after school and, with empty stomachs and open palms,
stealthily scavenge the shelves. This was entertainment in
Pozega. "We would go in and try to steal some goodies from my
mom," says Stojakovic. "We would find chocolate, ice cream,
candies...."

Young Peja was something of an athlete--he enjoyed volleyball and
soccer--but the town's sports facilities were scanty. He played
basketball once or twice a week and only for fun. "I saw some
tapes," he says in the fluent English he learned from TV and
teammates. "Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan. That's what I knew of
the NBA. Not anything else."

The family business was where Stojakovic was destined to end up.
Not in Belgrade, playing professional basketball at 15. Not in
Greece, living the life of a European superstar. Not in
Sacramento, averaging 19.6 points and 6.5 rebounds through
Tuesday as a blossoming star for the high-flying Kings, who led
the Pacific Division with a 21-8 record. He was supposed to run
the family store. That's how it should have gone.

It's June 26, 1996--NBA draft day. You are a Sacramento fan. You
have lived this before. You wish for amnesia. From 1985 to 1993,
your team made 21 first- and second-round selections. The names
sour your mouth like morning breath: Joe Kleine and Harold
Pressley, Johnny Rogers and Brett Roberts, Pete Chilcutt and
Evers Burns. In 1989 the Kings won the lottery. Their choice was
Pervis Ellison. In 1990 they had an NBA-record four first-round
selections. They took Lionel Simmons, Travis Mays, Duane Causwell
and Anthony Bonner. The '93 pick, Bobby Hurley, nearly died in an
auto accident. The '88 choice, Ricky Berry, committed suicide
three months after his rookie season.

Maybe, just maybe, things are changing. There's a new general
manager in town, Geoff Petrie, who has done some pretty good
picking: Brian Grant, Michael Smith and Funderburke in 1994;
Corliss Williamson and Tyus Edney a year later. There are 1,200
of your fellow faithful with you here at the Arco Arena draft
gala, watching the proceedings from East Rutherford, N.J., on the
big screen and waiting for Petrie to announce Sacramento's choice
at No. 14 in the first round. "I want you to know that we're
picking a person I really believe in," says Petrie to the arena
crowd just before the choice is announced in Continental Airlines
Arena. "He's a good young player named Predrag Stojakovic. I
think he'll be a fantastic pro, and...."

Hello? Anyone?

"It wasn't heavy booing, but there was certainly no celebration,"
recalls Troy Hanson, the Kings' media-relations director. "If you
had to sum up the reaction in one word, it'd be: Who?"

Virtually nobody in Sacramento not employed by the Kings had
heard of Stojakovic. Even TNT had trouble digging up highlights
of him for its live coverage of the draft. "To make it worse,"
says Hanson, "Peja walks up to shake hands with David Stern, and
he's fumbling with the hat, awkwardly trying to squeeze it onto
his head. It didn't look too good."

If only Sacramento fans had known then what they know now.
Stojakovic has become the player Petrie envisioned--an
inside-outside threat with Baryshnikov's grace and one of the
game's sweetest three-point strokes (42.5% through Tuesday).
While Stojakovic quickly established himself as a long-range
specialist, this season he has also been driving with increased
confidence. In a 112-110 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers
in November, Stojakovic, standing along the baseline, pump-faked
Robert Horry, juked left and then drove right, slamming the ball
with two hands. He had seldom felt the need to dunk, but this
season, in an attempt to show he has the complete NBA arsenal, he
has thrown down the ball some 20 times.

"I honestly believe Peja's the best shooter in the league," says
Kings All-Star forward Chris Webber. "He can hit from anywhere at
any time, he's a great athlete, and he cuts the hardest without
the ball of anyone I've seen--like he's from Princeton. He just
loves that orange ball. He's the first to pick it up, the last to
put it down."

In his first two seasons Stojakovic would lose sleep over missed
jumpers and tough losses. This year he has taken his bad games
(seven points, 3-for-15 shooting, 0 for 7 on three pointers in an
81-75 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 5) and amazing ones
(33 points, 5 of 7 threes against the Phoenix Suns in a 121-117
overtime win on Tuesday) in the same easygoing stride. "Peja's
mature for his age," says Sacramento coach Rick Adelman. It is,
Stojakovic acknowledges, harder to view an athletic event as a
question of life or death when life or death matters have been
part of your everyday existence.

The grocery managerial position never came his way. Peja was 13,
lying in bed, when he first heard the gunfire that became a
nightly occurrence. He would walk down the street and see walls
sprayed with bullet holes. His family, which is Serbian, and his
Serbian friends were no longer welcome in Pozega. This was civil
war in Yugoslavia. "Suddenly, you didn't talk to the neighbors,"
he recalls. "During the night, the Croatians would try and scare
the Serbian people. We lost everything--the house, the business,
our possessions."

Within months Miodrag, Branka and their two sons loaded the car
and drove 150 miles east to Belgrade. They went from spacious
house to so-so apartment, from well-off to struggling. They also
went from small-town nothingness to basketball mecca. Belgrade is
the hoops capital of Yugoslavia, home to the country's two elite
clubs, Partizan and Red Star. When he was 14, Peja auditioned for
Red Star's junior team. He was raw but athletic, unsure but 6'4".
"They kept me, and I go from playing twice a week to practicing
twice a day," he says. "I learned that I could be very good."

After one season Stojakovic was promoted to Red Star's
professional team. He was 6'7" and 15 years old, attending high
school, performing in front of thousands of fans and earning a
healthy income. In his first pro game, an exhibition win over
Partizan, Stojakovic scored four points in five junk minutes.
There were 6,000 people in attendance. "I was shaking the whole
time," he says. "I was a boy playing with men."

When the season ended, Red Star offered Stojakovic a six-year
contract. He refused to sign for more than four. The team
insisted on six. He wouldn't budge. Finally, with the blessing of
his parents, Peja shocked Red Star by agreeing to a five-year
deal with PAOK, the Greek Professional League power. He and the
rest of his family moved to Thessaloniki. It was their first step
toward America. "I was happy, but I was scared," Branka says. "He
was still growing up. This was a big change."

"He was 18, holding his own against Xavier McDaniel and Dominique
Wilkins," says Funderburke, one of Stojakovic's PAOK teammates in
1995-96. "Back then he would ask me if he had what it takes to
make it in the NBA. I told him the truth: Yes. He was the best
young player in Europe. The only thing he needed to work on was
not backing down from players, not giving in if a guy pushed or
shoved. It took time, but he got it. Peja became a tough kid."

In January 1994, Petrie, the Portland Trail Blazers' senior vice
president of operations at the time, was in Europe to negotiate
with center Arvydas Sabonis, who then played for Real Madrid of
the Spanish League. On a free day Petrie attended a PAOK
practice. At the time, Stojakovic was an obscure rookie who had
yet to be activated. "He was big, he could run, he was a jump
shooter, and he was competing against guys who were seven, eight
years older," says Petrie. "The kid had an NBA-type game."

He drafted Stojakovic 2 1/2 years later, gambling that Stojakovic
would be able to get out of a Greek contract extension considered
shaky because his father had signed for him. PAOK argued that
Stojakovic owed it two more seasons; Miodrag, too, felt his son
should remain in Greece, to get more seasoning. After much
huffing and puffing and deliberating, Peja--who insists he wanted
to come to Sacramento ASAP--stayed with PAOK. Although Petrie was
disappointed then, he believes everything worked out for the
best: Stojakovic continued to develop, scoring 23.9 points per
game while winning the 1997-98 Greek League MVP award. In the
meantime the Kings signed center Vlade Divac, a Serb who would
ease Peja's transition to the U.S.

When he finally arrived in Sacramento, Stojakovic was a polished
offensive weapon--who wasn't expecting to come off the bench and
play a meager 21.4 minutes per game. Although he averaged a solid
8.4 points in 1988-89, he was frustrated and ornery. "In Greece,
I was a star," Stojakovic says. "Here, I sat and watched."

After games he would return to his house and moan to his parents
(who, along with Nenad, live with Peja in Granite Bay, Calif.).
At practice and on the road, he and Divac would chat. "To Peja's
credit, he kept quiet and never complained," says Divac. "In
Europe all the plays ran through him. Now none of them did."

Last season, as Stojakovic impressed Adelman with improved
defense and surprisingly rugged rebounding, his playing time
increased. Although Williamson was the starting small forward,
Stojakovic averaged 11.9 points in 23.6 minutes and was usually
on the court for the fourth quarter. In September the Kings sent
Williamson to the Toronto Raptors for guard Doug Christie.
"Corliss was a good player for us," says Adelman, "but after two
seasons, it was obvious: Peja was ready to start."

Dinner at Peja's pad is a wonderful thing. Branka might speak
limited English and understand little of American culture, but
she cooks one mean steak and potatoes. Often, when Divac is
lonely or bored or just hungry, he'll stop by the Stojakovics'
and eat to his heart's content. "His mother is a wonderful cook,"
says Divac. "Good home food."

Stojakovic has fit in beautifully with the Kings. His wardrobe is
frequently the butt of teammates' jokes--"They don't understand,"
Peja says. "Fashion is coming from Europe to America"--but he
takes the ribbing with a smile. "He's funny, and he's smart,"
says Webber. "He's a cool guy to hang with."

In the off-season Stojakovic, a Greek citizen, is a regular on
the club scene in Thessaloniki, where he still owns a house. His
favorite beverage? Cold coffee. "It tastes best that way," he
says. "Very Greek."

Sacramento is a long way from Pozega, far removed from the
simple life of Stojakovic's youth and the dangerous one of his
early teens. Sometimes, when the game is an hour away and he's
sitting in the locker room, Stojakovic recalls his boyhood. It's
a strange thing--the idea that the same war that killed so many
people also started his journey to the American dream. What if it
had never happened? What if his parents had never had to move the
family?

Peja thinks this one over. "I would work in the family
supermarket," he says. "And I would probably be happy."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROCKY WIDNER/NBA ENTERTAINMENT PEJA VIEW Now in his third year, the sweet-shooting Stojakovic has become more aggressive around the basket.COLOR PHOTO: GARY DINEEN/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Off the cuff Stojakovic's skills, honed as a kid in Europe, include a knack for finding the open man.COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN
Peja was 13, lying in bed, when he first heard the gunfire that
became a nightly occurrence.