Stojakovic Career Retrospective
One of the most beloved and well-liked players in the Sacramento-era is returning home.
On Tuesday morning at precisely 9:16 AM PDT, the Sacramento Kings announced the team will retire Peja Stojakovic’s number in recognition of his pivotal role in the franchise's most successful years. Come mid-December, No. 16 will hang in the rafters at Sleep Train Arena among fellow franchise legends.
"I feel so blessed to have been given the athletic gifts to play professional basketball," he said in a statement to the media following his retirement in 2011. "I have always loved the game and have great respect for it.”
Although his storied career ended three seasons ago in Dallas, the former small forward from Yugoslavia enjoyed some of his most prolific seasons in a purple and black jersey. En route to back-to-back Pacific Division championships, a club-record 61 victories in 2001-02 and six-straight winning seasons, Stojakovic was a fundamental piece to one of the most electrifying teams in Sacramento history.
“I don’t think any of us thought we would become so good so fast,” he admitted to News10 last year. “That year in ’98 when Vlade [Divac] was signed as a free agent, I was signed as one of the  Draft picks, we got Chris [Webber] in a trade and we got Mike [Bibby] and Doug [Christie] – that system that we had in place just put us in a good position to develop and really helped our game. We became a team in just a short time.
“It was just an unbelievable feeling.”
In the early years of the 21st century, the world was introduced to Sacramento’s high-flying offense. With a core of explosive, talented and unselfish players, the Kings pulled within one win of an NBA Finals appearance in 2002 – Stojakovic’s fourth year in the league.
Jim Gray, NBC’s sideline reporter at the time, told Grantland.com, "They were the most fun team to watch in the NBA. It wasn’t even close.”
The Kings steamrolled Utah and Dallas in the first two rounds that year after clinching home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, but couldn’t advance past the Western Conference Finals.
“That was the best team I ever played on,” admitted former guard Mike Bibby to Grantland.com. “Man, it was just fun. They showed me how to love basketball and have fun doing it.”
With two of the NBA’s best passers in the post and an assembly of talented shooters and multi-tooled guards on the perimeter, the Kings thrived at finding open teammates and exploiting their opponents to find an open net. This dynamic combination – which was fueled by the team’s tight-knit bond – produced a series of playoff appearances.
“The chemistry we had on and off the court was amazing,” said Divac, whose No. 21 jersey will soon accompany No. 16’s high inside Sleep Train Arena, to KingsTV in 2009. “That was a key to our success, because we were good on the floor, but we had fun off the court, too. It was [an] unbelievable joy to be part of the team. We would go together to the restaurants, to the clubs, to family parties, everything as a real team.”
Peja enjoyed a close bond with many of his teammates, but as an international player himself he gravitated to Divac, who was among the first group of European basketball players to transfer to the NBA in the late 1980’s.
“[Divac] was a great mentor for me,” said the 31-year old Stojakovic to KingsTV in 2009. “He has helped me grow as a player and a person. We had so many good moments on and off the court, but [it wasn’t just with] Vlade. The chemistry we had back in those days was amazing. That spirit that we carried from the locker room to the court was special, and we’re all going to remember that.”
Following the path set forth by his European role models, the 18-year old Serbian sharpshooter was selected by the Kings with the 14th-overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. Although picks 13 (Kobe Bryant) and 15 (Steve Nash) both heard their names called and entered the league that season, it took two years for Stojakovic to make his way stateside.
That was partly due to a troubling compound leg fracture, which he suffered just after his first taste of the League on Draft day. The injury required the insertion of a rod into the bone to ensure stabilization, which forced him to compensate and make adjustments in everything from his shooting mechanics to his running motion. Yet at that time, the Kings Draft pick was just 19-years of age and was able to recover.
Over his first seven and a half seasons, the 6-foot-10 forward set multiple franchise records from behind the arc. Thanks to his quick launch and seemingly effortless release, he pulled the trigger on 2,687 three-pointers and drained 1,070 of them – both tops among Kings players since 1948.
“He was probably one of the purest shooters I’ve ever played with,” said former Sixth Man of the Year Award winner Bobby Jackson to Kings.com in 2011. “He’s a great guy – on and off the court – he loved the game, he respected the game and he had a tremendous career.”
Stojakovic’s NBA journey began in 1998, but his path to stardom exploded in 2001 when he was inserted into the starting lineup. En route to a second-place finish in the Most Improved Player of the Year running, No. 16 averaged 20.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, while shooting an eye-popping 40-percent from deep.
“He prospered despite many struggles of trying to learn the NBA game versus playing overseas and how physical it was,” admitted Kings assistant coach Corliss Williamson, who spent two seasons (’98-’00) with Stojakovic, to Kings.com in 2011.
While his offensive stroke stole the spotlight, the Pozega, Yugoslavia native was more than a three-point specialist. A master of the backdoor-cut and a proponent of the screen-and-pop game, Stojakovic was constantly moving without the ball. His effort paid dividends as he finished second all-time on the Sacramento-era scoring list with 9,498 points and finished his 13-year career with 13,647 points. He also created advantageous opportunities for his team thanks to his ball-hawking skills on defense. His 543 total steals rank fifth in Sacramento’s history.
“Everything was about the team,” he shared with KingsTV in 2009. “It was about winning, having good chemistry and having fun.”
Although Peja was traded from Sacramento to Indiana in January of 2006, Stojakovic can still look back to those memories with a smile on his face, embracing the legacy he and his teammates left.
“Most of all, we enjoyed playing together,” he continued. “We had fun. We were always together – on and off the court. We were supporting each other and it was like a big family. Even to this day, I remember we would go on the road and the whole team would go to dinner – I was thinking every team does that because it was my first NBA team, but they said, ‘No. This is very rare.’”
Throughout the course of his memorable career, No. 16 took home 2003-04 All-NBA Second Team honors, hoisted the three-point shooting contest trophy twice, notched three All-Star game appearances, a gold medal in the 2002 World Cup games with the former Yugoslavia National Team and the 2011 Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
“Peja will go down as one of the great shooters in the history of the NBA,” said former NBA Commissioner David Stern to NBA.com in 2011. “His success was the result of a tireless work ethic and an unquenchable desire to be the best at what he did. Peja's legacy, however, goes way beyond his 3-point skills and that elusive Finals title he won last season with the Dallas Mavericks. Peja was part of the wave of international stars that helped introduce the world to the NBA game and inspired thousands of fans to begin playing the sport of basketball.”
Stojakovic – who now lives in Greece with his wife and three kids - travels the country as a spokesman of the game often admitting his eight years in Sacramento were the “best years of [his] career” and even his life.
Now, he has been given the opportunity to return to the arena, which so prominently showcased his prolific career.
No. 16 will hang from the rafters for good.
At the beginning of his career, Stojakovic was so prominently known for his offensive prowess that his former PAOK general manager, Steve Costalas, shared his favorite sports joke with the media in 1986:
"What is an assist?"
"When Peja passes from his right hand to his left."