Saturday, December 31, 2011

Peja: A Tribute

“Peja for threeee…YES!” is a shout never again to be broadcast live into the ether. From the left elbow, from the right elbow, from the top of the key, from corners; a step back into the vast spaces of the open court, a back door cut followed with a reverse layup, a free throw cannonade that lasted uninterrupted for months at a time, it seemed – in every way, Peja Stojakovic was filling the basketball nets for a decade and a half to the delight of all the fans of Greek PAOK, NBA’s Sacramento Kings, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Hornets,  Dallas Mavericks (though short, it was sweet) and, of course, the Serbian nation.  Peja retired before this season’s delayed take-off and rode into the sunset of basketball fame as one of the purest shooters the game has ever seen.

If you were a Serb, you rooted for the Sacramento Kings in the early 2000s and one of the two reasons was Peja. You stayed up late or woke up early to watch the Sacramento “Serbs” ravage opponents from coast to coast. Together with Vlade Divac, he brought the perennial outsider 10 million Serb fans, an exhilarating offensive show and deep runs into the playoffs.  Peja was a member of one of the most successful and celebrated generations in Serbian basketball. He played a key part in bringing down the NBA Dream Team on its home turf in Indianapolis in 2002 en route to Yugoslavia winning the World Championship. The year before, his prolific shooting touch facilitated the Istanbul rampage by the Yugoslav national team which steamrolled through all opponents to take home the Euro gold. He was the NBA’s second best scorer, a multiple All-star and a back-to-back three-point champion. He could’ve scored more, but his deadly long-range bombardment would usually finish games for the Kings in the 3rd quarter, so he would sit the 4th. He had arguably the best overall shooting season in NBA history in 2003/04, drawing comparisons with the great Larry Bird. At one point he hit 66 free-throws in a row, setting an NBA record. He holds the fourth place in NBA history for most three-pointers made. Among other records, he was the first player in NBA history to score the first 20 points for his team in a game; he did it for the Hornets and ended up with a game career-high 42 points. Peja got his jewelry, too, playing a minor role on the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team, but got it nevertheless.

It wasn’t all peaches for Peja, however. Stojakovic’s legacy is marred by nagging injuries that cost him more than games at the peak of his career. Playing injured, he was remembered as a guy who threw an airball in the closing seconds of Game 7 against the Kings’ greatest rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, in 2002. His shot was never questioned, but a doubt in his performance under pressure was solidified after the miss that sent the game into overtime which the Kings would lose. Peja hit many a big shot, starting with the one that took PAOK to the Greek league play-off final in 1998, but those got quickly forgotten after such a memorable miss. He was hobbled by an ankle injury but the miss was attributed to his lack of heart. This famous miss was somewhat avenged in the 2011 playoffs, when Peja buried the Lakers in his Mavericks uniform, hitting 6 of 6 for three in the Game 4 of Western Conference Semis. This perceived lack of heart, a criticism unjustly bestowed, would follow him around the league. Peja was a White, European player in a Black, American sport, and even the great Dirk Nowitzki had to lead his team to no less than an NBA Championship to remove his softy reputation.

Peja’s career after the Kings breakup experienced its ups and downs but never reinvigorated itself to the swagger of the Kings days. Some Serbs would say that Vlade Divac was the major reason for Peja’s rise and for the Kings’ successes as well, and they wouldn’t be wrong. The mellow, soft-spoken shooter coming over from Europe would have hardly gotten enough chance to show off his value were it not for the crafty veteran who happened to be his fellow Serb. Even the Kings owners, coaches and players recognized Divac as the true leader of that team and the glue that held it together. But Divac merely provided Peja with the confidence dearly needed in the new setting, by kicking it out to him in the corner or flashing a behind-the-back pass for a back-door cut. Peja never asked for the ball or elbowed his way into the spotlight and if Divac didn’t have the authority to run the Kings offense as he saw fit, we might’ve never had Peja Stojakovic of lore. Chris Webber was the star of the Kings team and Mike Bibby was the clutch shooter, although both of them failed numerous times at their respective roles. Peja never complained about his role on the team because the team was successful and a pleasure to stay up late for – and because Divac was there – but overprotective and ever-vigilant Serbs couldn’t help but notice that Peja wasn’t happy after Webber returned from the injury in 2004 and the offense, revolving around Peja’s 26 per game and 44 percent accuracy from the perimeter, was adjusted to the still-recovering superstar. Webber had to get back into playing form, but Serbian fans, and perhaps Peja himself, saw their boy being undeservedly pushed aside.  Peja’s averages went down, his role was diminished a bit, and he ended up being voted 4th in the MVP running from the top candidate he was in the first few months of the season. One could tell from his body language that he felt slighted and Serbian fans were furious, hating on Webber, like they’d hated on Bibby before for taking away Peja’s shots. After Divac departed at the end of that season, we all knew Peja’s Sacramento days were numbered. Peja was traded to the Pacers in January of 2006 and his career would never be the same.

The injuries kept chipping away at his morale - rolled ankles, plantar fasciitis, back spasms – and despite his above-average play for the Pacers, he soon became a role player and eventually a trade piece. That’s a part of his career we won’t give much space to. Could he have a long-lasting presence at the top NBA echelon? I believe so. Had he had a more fiery personality and milder health issues, as a pure shooter at 35, he could still be swishing nets, at least in Europe. But Peja represented more than a basketball player to the Serbs.

The last 20 years of Serbian history being what it was, sports were the only consolation to the Serbs, the only path to greatness, the only hope that victory was possible – the medal stand was a throne from which the Serbian nation could look down on the world that depreciated it. Basketball, as the king of Serbian sports, was the ultimate thrill both because of the glorious history of the sport that the Serbs wrote and its global importance that put it above other sports Serbs were successful in. In light of one of the greatest injustices in sports history - the embargo on Serbian sports that kept teams from Yugoslavia, club and national, from playing in international competitions from 1992 to 1995 – the burst back onto the scene and the gold medal in European Championships in Athens in 1995 meant more than just basketball victories. It was an orgasmic feeling for the entire nation long suppressed into abstinence.  After historic victories throughout the late nineties, the feeling subsided a little bit with the aging of stars that carried the team. Peja was a representative of the new wave, led by Dejan Bodiroga and propped up by an aging Vlade Divac, and therein lies his rise and his fall in the hearts of Serbian fans. The revival of the national team began with Istanbul and culminated in Indianapolis when the mighty Americans were brought down to their knees in their heartland, in a sport they invented, by the same Serbs they bombed three years earlier. Now, that was an orgasm.  And the Serbs wanted more.  Divac retired from the national team and Bodiroga, one of the best European players ever, was debating it. Although Bodiroga was clearly the best player of the generation and a true leader, Stojakovic represented more than a national team star. He brought the NBA stardom home. Indianapolis, Serbs thought, was a prelude to greater victories. Indianapolis, the rise of Sacramento “Serbs,” the new national team wave and the gold rush of young Serbs into the NBA had Peja as its common denominator, although Vlade Divac was the godfather of that set of circumstances. Divac was an elder statesman, Peja was the young buck and Serbs expected Peja to lead the Serbian conquest of the NBA for years to come.  After Peja’s rise, there was a feeling that every talented Serb that gets drafted is destined to at least trace Peja’s footsteps. In 2003, four young Serbs were drafted, three in the first round – one of them was touted as the next big thing and drafted no. 2 overall. Notice the shift: from exacting revenge on Europe, Serbs moved to conquering the Mecca of basketball, and Peja Stojakovic, in their overzealous minds, was at the centerpiece of that campaign.

We know what happened next. Either the expectations were too high or Peja wasn’t the true conquistador, but the decline of Peja’s career and the inability of successors like Radmanovic, Jaric or Milicic to pick up where they were expected to faded the Serbs’ former NBA glory into a meager existence. It all looked on the up when Peja was ripping it and it all started on a lasting downward spiral when Peja lost his way. Serbs can’t forgive Peja for being Peja, for not showing more desire, especially in the light of his giving up on the national team in the meantime as well. The deterioration of Serbia’s national team is closely paralleled by the decline of the Serbian NBA presence, although they were interconnected only in a limited way and we can’t be sure which caused the other.  It can’t be Peja’s fault that the national basketball programs of the early 2000s produced their best in Radmanovic or Milicic where Divac, Paspalj or Djordjevic used to grow.
For a couple of years in the first half of the last decade, Peja was rightfully compared to Dirk Nowitzki in a number of heated discussions I participated in on SerbianCafe basketball forums. And it was a dead heat, not only because Serbs were pulling for Peja. It’s clear now, in hindsight and being able to look at their entire careers, that the comparison was legitimate only in the 2 or 3 seasons sampled, and even then, Peja could’ve won the argument in one, maybe too of the years. I consider Dirk to be the best player ever to come out of European hard courts, better than Sabonis, Bodiroga or Petrovic and even putting Peja in the same sentence with Dirk says a lot about Peja’s career. But let’s not be unjust to Peja; let’s not rip into him for not being what we wished him to be for us and for Serbia – let’s just judge him for what he was. Peja Stojakovic brought a lot of ecstatic moments to the lives of Serbian and northern Californian basketball fans. He shot the ball like there was no tomorrow and as a pure shooter, he’s right up there with Bird and Ray Allen. His numbers and records speak for themselves. He is one of the best non-American players of his generation and he was a Serb.  Let him ride off into his sunset and hope that a Serb kid somewhere is emulating his unorthodox shot and looking to achieve Peja's greatness.

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