While chatting with Peja Stojakovic Tuesday afternoon as he was trying to find his way to the airport for the Dallas Mavericks' flight to Sacramento, I was reminded of what a delightful character he is. If anything, the former Kings star was probably too amiable for his own good. He could have been ... so much more aggressive! But as readers will see in Wednesday's Bee, an older, wiser, reflective Peja was surprisingly candid about how the devastating knee injury he sustained while playing for PAOK in 1997 affected his NBA career, physically and mentally. As explained by Scott Skiles - his coach in Greece at the time - details about the compound fracture, with the shin bone breaking through the skin, etc., are just too gruesome to elaborate upon in print. But in Wednesday's column, Peja talks about how the career-threatening injury (that required insertion of his rod to stabilize the leg) forced him to compensate and make adjustments in everything from his shooting mechanics to his running motion, thereby putting undue pressure on his other leg, his lower back, his shoulders, etc. He also admitted that the injury was always in the back of his mind, which affected his confidence, and at least partly explained why he increasingly avoided contact under the basket.
While going back over the numerous profiles and columns I have written about him over the years, dating back my trip to Greece in 1998 (actually, I attended the private workout with Peja and Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Chicago before the 1996 NBA Draft, when Peja basically swung heads his way with his deep shooting), I came across a few other things of interest.
For those who might have forgotten: Stojakovic, 33, is a Serb who was born in Pozega, a city that became part of Croatia after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. At age 15, in the midst of the Balkans conflict, he moved to Thessaloniki in northern Greece, where he was legally "adopted" and became a Greek League MVP for PAOK. (One of his coaches, Zvika Sherf, later coached Omri Casspi in Israel).
His legendary offensive abilities were such that, according to former PAOK general manager Steve Costalas, the favorite sports joke among Greeks went as follows:
"What is an assist?"
"When Peja passes from his right hand to his left."
"What is the cross offense?"
"When someone gives the ball to Peja and everyone crosses themselves."
Peja was a huge fan of rap music and Mafia movies, and according to his PAOK teammates, fancied himself quite the dancer.
During his years with PAOK, he was mentored by former Syracuse star and Greek League veteran Conrad McRae, who died shortly thereafter of cardiac arrest. As the good-natured McRae told me at the time, "He's a fun-loving kid. Sometimes people forget how young he is. And he wants to know everything. 'What is Michael (Jordan) like? What is Scottie (Pippen) like? Tell me about the NBA.' "
His brother, Nasha, underwent a kidney transplant while living in Sacramento and continues to reside in the area.
Anyway, read more in Wednesday's Bee about one of the league's most prolific long-range shooters - think Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Larry Bird, Drazen Petrovic, Dale Ellis, Chris Mullin - as he returns to Arco Arena in what could be his final appearance in Sacramento. Peja would like to play another season, but is noncommital until he sees how his body (leg surgery, knee surgery, back surgery, abdominal strain) withstands the final months of the current campaign. Since missing two months (knee surgery), Peja obtained a buyout with the Toronto Raptors and made his Mavs debut on Monday. He is listed among the starter's for tonight's Kings-Mavs match. And lest we forget, he not only was a three-time All-Star with the Kings, he was the starting small forward on the 2002 Yugoslavian national team that stunned the United States (and Argentina) in the World Championships in Indianapolis. That, folks, was history. No American team had lost a game in international competition since Larry, Magic, Michael and the other Dream Teamers coasted through the competition at the 1992 Barcelona Games.