Just days ago, Peja Stojakovic appeared to be a viable free agent for an NBA team with roster holes, a still-deadly long-range assassin at the age of 34, a 19-year veteran with gas enough in the tank for late-game daggers and smart D, a prototypical European baller with an American championship pedigree. “Couldn’t he drain a few 3s for a contender?” rhetorically asked hoops sage Bill Simmons last Friday.
Alas, it was not to be. The Serbian sharpshooter will not be part of the Dallas Mavericks’ quest to repeat as NBA champions, announcing his retirement from professional basketball late Monday night. Citing injuries to his neck and back, Stojakovic decided his physical struggles were “a wakeup call” for him to leave the game at this point.
On the plus side, Peja has the privilege of going out on top, in 2011 not only topping his seeming long-time personal rivals the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA playoffs, but also finally earning the ring which had eluded him for a dozen seasons ‘Stateside.
Today BallinEurope pays tribute to the gold-medal winning, NBA title having, future FIBA Hall of Fame nod achieving legend in the traditional fashion … let’s go to the ‘Tube!
• Stojakovic broke into the professional ranks with Crvena Zvedzda Beograd (a.k.a. Red Star Belgrade) at the age of 15 (!) and soon this once-dominant side enjoyed back-to-back Yugoslavian championships in taking out Partizan Belgrade in the finals both years.
• After three seasons of development (and plenty of bench time), Peja was ready to take on a more decisive role with a club. That club turned out to be PAOK; for his newly-prized Greek citizenship, Stojakovic would eventually bag the Greek League MVP nod in 1998.
Unfortunately for club and player, the sole hardware Peja’s PAOK teams could collect was the 1994-95 Greek Cup. On the other hand, in these four years PAOK did manage a second-place Europe finish in ’96 and in Greece in ’98 (losing to former Laker Byron Scott and Panathinaikos; see second video directly below) plus two Euroleague Top 16 runs: The team hasn’t come close to this sort of success since.
• And then the NBA came calling. Having been drafted at no. 14 in the 1996 NBA Draft, by 1998 Stojakovic felt ready to cross the Atlantic. He’d join up with the Sacramento Kings – the team with which he’ll always be associated worldwide – at a most fortuitous time, as the pieces to build a perpetual playoff contender were falling into place … and perhaps personally key for Peja was the acquisition of his Yugoslavian teammate Vlade Divac for 1999-2000.
• Speaking of Yugoslavia, Peja was happily able to enjoy success on perhaps the greatest national team of the ‘00s. Playing alongside the likes of Divac, Dejan Bodiroga, Marko Jaric, Dejan Milojevic and Vladimir Radmanovic, the side took the 2001 Eurobasket tournament and the 2002 FIBA World Championship.
On his part, Stojakovic was second-highest scorer in the 2001 competition (behind Team Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki) at 23 points per game, good for tournament MVP honors.
And in Indianapolis’ FIBA Worlds of 2002, Peja was again his team’s high scorer, still managing to help Yugoslavia over Argentina in the final match with 26 points despite uncharacteristic 2-of-12 shooting on threes. Stojakovic snagged an all-tournament nod for his efforts.
• Meanwhile, back with the Kings, Stojakovic worked his way into the starting lineup for 2000-01. Over the next five years, Peja would contribute lines 19.2-24.2 points and 4.3-6.3 rebounds per game while hitting enough three points to eventually place him at no. 4 on the all-time list in the statistical category.
• Though team-wise Sacramento had limited success from 2000 to 2005 in being forced to compete with Shaq ‘n’ Kobe’s Los Angeles monsters, the accolades for Stojakovic kept followed. He won back-to-back “Mister Europa” awards as Continental player of the year in 2001 and 2002 while receiving invites to three NBA All-Star games.
In fact, it was at the all-star games that perhaps Stojakovic earned the greatest amount of appreciation throughout the U.S., as he consistently became a Larry Bird-like force in the annual 3-point shootout competition. In 2001, Peja took current all-time threes leader Ray “He Got Game” Allen down to the wire, but ultimately had to settle for second place.
No matter, Peja came back in 2002 to take care of Steve Nash and outlast his personal foil in the contest, Wesley Person, to win the title…
…and again in 2003…
…ultimately falling short of the threepeat in 2004, but defying Charles Barkley’s prediction along the way, at least.
• One more highlight reel from the Sacramento days came in 2004, when Stojakovic set his then career-high mark in scoring with 37 points against the Lakers.
• But the Kings’ golden era was ending and in 2005, Peja was dealt to the Indiana Pacers for Ron Artest; he lasted 40 games there before a sign-and-trade agreement the following preseason had him shipped to the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets for the rights to Andrew Betts (really).
Around this time, Peja’s well-chronicled back problems began. Due to injury, Stojakovic appeared in just 13 games in 2006-07; unfortunate, indeed, as Peja had given the Hornets a most masterful performance early on, scoring the team’s first 20 points in a November game against the Charlotte Bobcats. This was the first time in NBA history such a feat had been accomplished and Stojakovic’s 42 in the game became his personal high in scoring.
• Things really got percolating between Peja and Chris Paul over the next few years, as the Hornets made the playoffs in ’08 and ’09 (and just two years later, the league wants to contract this franchise – go figure). A representative example? Check out this team record-setting show in which Stojakovic sinks 10 three pointers against those dread Lakers in a game that saw Paul dish 21 assists.
• Another move would come for Peja after the Hornets’ poor 2009-10 and the Serb was shipped to the Toronto Raptors, thereby filling the apparent obligation for every European NBA player to do a shift in Canada. At the time, Stojakovic called the trade “a new chapter in [his] career, [his] life,” it wasn’t much of a read. Peja played just two games as a Raptor before landing in Dallas.
• We all recall what happened next. In a more limited role with the Mavericks, Stojakovic shot right at his career three-point success rate at 40% with a statistical line of 8.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per in 25 games there. Best of all, Peja was able to punish the Lakers along the way to his first NBA title with 15 and 21 points in games three and four, respectively, of the Western Conference semifinals – a nice capper to a legendary career.
BallinEurope wishes best of luck to Peja in the future and, as BiE always says upon retirement of an all-time great, thanks for the memories!