As a fan of the NBA growing up, I had an unexpected favorite team. The Portland Trail Blazers, given their proximity and their talent, captured my attention, but the Sacramento Kings teams were followed more closely by a young kid in Eugene, Oregon.
From the late 1990s to 2005, they were very electrifying and fast-paced, with a flashy attitude. During their glory days, they had Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, Chris Webber, Doug Christie, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Williams, Brad Miller, and Bobby Jackson, among others, running what was proclaimed The Greatest Show On Court. Their most important player during this period, though, was Peja Stojakovic, who was equipped with smoothest and most potent shot in the league.
The 6’10″ Yugoslavian forward did more than shoot for Sacramento. He passed beautifully, rebounded well, and played solid defense. He cut to the hoop with ease, and knew what to do with the many beautiful passes by teammates. His shot and the impact it, particularly, had on the city will be what is most remembered. And, as is the case with so many injury-prone stars, the question “what could have been?” will be asked.
He was healthy while with the Kings, but overall he could have been much more than what he was. He could have been a perennial all-star. He could have been the best shooter that ever lived. As it is, he was just one of the best. And that may be good enough for him. What made him that player should be the focus. Dwelling on his inability to harness every bit of potential is to discredit what he did do–which was oh so much.
From the 2000-2001 season to the 2004-2005 season, his tenure as a starter in Sacramento, Stojakovic was the man. His efficiency was off the charts. He averaged 21 points per game, shot 40 percent from three-point range, made 47 percent of his field goals overall, and successfully converted 88 percent of his free-throws. When he took a shot, the odds were great that it would go in. And when it didn’t, the world had to be off its axis. His stroke was that effortless. He was that gifted.
He needed little space to launch. His release was stunningly quick. Defenses knew he was coming and they couldn’t stop him. He wasn’t bothered by hands in his face. He didn’t pay attention to a defender crowding him. He would fire from anywhere, the ball flowing in a high arc off his fingertips. A simple flick of the wrist, and swish, swish, swish. Again, and again, and again. The Kings were spoiled. And the rest of the NBA just watched in awe as Peja Stojakovic heated up.
The 34-year-old hung up his sneakers on Monday, coming off a championship with Dallas Mavericks, his first title. This shouldn’t have been his first. His Kings were that good when he was in his prime. He was that good when he was in his prime. The lack of a deserving ring while with Sacramento was largely due to the rigging by rogue referee Tim Donaghy, but despite the bitter taste still being there–a taste consumed with anger that will never go away–he finally got what he’s been after, albeit as a shell of his former self.
He was a role player with Dallas after a fairly successful three-plus year stretch with the New Orleans Hornets. He averaged 12 to 16 points per game while with the Hornets and kept shooting three-pointers and free-throws extraordinarily well. He had blasts from the past, including a 10 three-pointer outburst against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007, but he missed a lot of time and overall wasn’t the Sacramento King of old. And the Kings weren’t the same without him.
In Sacramento’s record books, he ranks first in games played and three-pointers made, second in minutes and points, and third in free-throws made and field goals made, according to Sacramento Royalty‘s Akis Yerocostas. He also ranks relatively high in rebounds, steals, and assists.
There may be players who are as good a three-point shooter percentage-wise, but there will never be another Peja Stojakovic. And there will never be teams like those he helped create in Sacramento. For the duration of his career, he wasn’t the player he was supposed to be, yet he was nonetheless memorable as the lethal glue who made the Kings must-see TV.
His production in Sacramento, especially, warrants a retired jersey. It’s hard to believe that will take long to do.
The righty played a huge role in my love for basketball. I would watch him play on NBA on NBC, then have the urge to go outside, grab my basketball, and practice my shot on my hoop. How could I flick my wrists like he did? How could I duplicate it, with the same beautiful arc, the same sound nothing but net produces? And I surely wasn’t the only one who did this and asked these questions. Kids in Sacramento, and surely many other cities, rightfully idolized him as well. He was so influential, so enjoyable to watch. He was smooth, effortless, lethal. Peja Stojakovic, the king of Kings, was incredible.