Peja Stojakovic thought long and hard before accepting a job in the Kings’ front office. When he was summoned to Sacramento by his old friend and teammate Vlade Divac, he was in the midst of an enjoyable four-year sabbatical, his first extended break since turning pro at age 15.
Life was good. His ailing back was healing. His neck pain was easing. Besides reacquainting himself with friends and relatives in his adopted hometowns of Thessaloniki and Athens, he was exploring the Greek islands with his wife and three children.
Yet as so often happens with elite ex-players, the urge to compete only takes vacations; it never completely evaporates. In the back of his mind, Stojakovic envisioned himself back in the NBA, seated in some front office, in some yet-to-be defined capacity.
“After awhile, your life gets boring,” Divac, the Kings’ general manager, said with his characteristic candor. “You want back in.”
The pieces to the Kings’ front office puzzle are being added incrementally, but it comes as no surprise that Stojakovic is back in the mix at 38, or that he agreed to start on the ground level. His new gig is not glamorous; he has always been humble.
As the director of player development and general manager of the Reno Bighorns, the Kings’ NBA Development League affiliate, his duties include assembling talent and overseeing the minor-league franchise, serving as an on- and off-court mentor to Kings and Bighorns, and using his extensive overseas contacts and experience to help the Kings re-establish their presence within international basketball.
In the late 1990s – or before Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs swept in and began dominating the global circuit – Sacramento was the league’s cutting-edge overseas organization; the first players from France, Turkey and Israel made their NBA debuts in Kings jerseys. Their presence coincided with the organization’s most successful period in Sacramento franchise history.
Divac wants to reconstruct and expand the model, with a new analytics expert, a renewed emphasis on international scouting, and the acquisition of players who complement All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and are suited to coach George Karl’s offensive and defensive schemes. Then there is this: repairing the organization’s battered national reputation and strengthening its tight bond with the community. A significant part of those duties belong to Stojakovic as well.
“This city is very easy,” said Stojakovic, who joined the organization this month. “We want to take care of that relationship. And, coming back, it just felt right because we all have so many connections. And believe me. I am going to work my (butt) off, just like I did as a player.”
About those connections? Divac and Stojakovic are native Serbs and former Kings/Serbian national team teammates. Assistant Corliss Williamson graciously accepted a lesser role when a young Stojakovic emerged as one of the league’s premier shooters. Bobby Jackson is with the broadcast team. Stojakovic and Omri Casspi can swap stories about playing for coach Zvika Sherf early in their careers.
Admittedly, Stojakovic also is at least somewhat motivated by a desire to close the deal. For all their talent – and all that beautiful basketball during the 1999-2005 era, the Kings of Divac, Stojakovic, Jackson, Chris Webber, Doug Christie and Mike Bibby reached the Western Conference finals only once, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002.
In his six-plus seasons here, the 6-foot-10 Stojakovic was a three-time All-Star, and a two-time winner of the Long Distance Shootout – accomplishments that led the Kings retiring his jersey in 2014. Though his effectiveness began diminishing because of lower back issues shortly after he was traded to the Indiana Pacers for Ron Artest in January 2006, his career ended with a flourish: an NBA championship in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks.
Eager and refreshed after the four-year layoff, Stojakovic is quietly voicing strong opinions as he evaluates talent with Divac and members of the front office and coaching staffs. In his first meeting with Karl, “I shook his hand and told him I have always been a big fan of the way he coaches. That’s the way I wanted to play. And look at his résumé – he wins everywhere he goes.”
Stojakovic marveled at Cousins’ abilities and noted that the sixth-year center appears lighter than at the end of of last season. He endorsed the offseason additions of Kosta Koufos, Marco Belinelli, Willie Cauley-Stein, Caron Butler and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, is intrigued by a backcourt of Rondo and Darren Collison, and suggests that Ben McLemore has the physical gifts to become one of the game’s elite shooters.
“My shot wasn’t pretty,” Peja noted, laughing, “but it was all about repetition and memorizing what the shot looks like when it goes in.”
Easing into a full-time job will take some getting used to, he added. But his family is settled into its home in Carmichael and the two oldest children are in school. “We are citizens of the world,” he said. “My two oldest, Andre (11) and Mila (9), only speak English to each other, so my youngest Max (4) will have to catch up because we speak Greek in the house. It won’t take him long, though. Kids absorb everything quickly.”
Based on his history, both here and abroad, so does their father.
“I am so ready for this,” he said. “We can all go back and think about what we didn’t get done. We were so close. Then you move on and realize how special the chemistry is, the camaraderie is, and also how hard it is to achieve that next goal and reach that next level. One missed shot, one bad injury. But we have great memories to cherish. We learned a lot. Now we want to create that culture again. Winning is a process. It’s about planning, thinking ahead, and putting good people and good players together. I can’t wait to see these guys experience that.”
So a decade later, Peja returns for an encore. Welcome back.