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OzMavs
02-24-2004, 07:31 AM
Sacbee- Peja Article (http://www.sacbee.com/content/sports/story/8272976p-9203683c.html)

The Kings' court jester
Smiles and laughter come as easily to Peja Stojakovic as three-pointers
By Joe Davidson -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Sunday, February 15, 2004
http://www.sacbee.com/ips_rich_content/879-0215peja.jpg

Peja Stojakovic strolls into the dressing room, a Euro head to toe.
He's wearing a blue suit that's so dark it looks black, with a striped shirt and brown shoes long enough to canoe in. The tie is multicolored, its knot thick and bulky, a throwback to the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" of the 1970s.

Bobby Jackson nods and smirks. The Kings' sixth man gives his All-Star teammate a quick once-over and flunks him in Fashion 101, scolding, "No, no, no, man! You can't be wearin' black with brown! You're killin' me."




Stojakovic never breaks stride. He winks at his teammate and tells him that the European style is it, soon to sweep the States and engulf the very retro-jersey, baggy-pants scene Jackson and so much of the hip-hop NBA embrace. "Silly American," Stojakovic says. "Someday you'll learn. Someday you'll understand fashion."
Peja the Player you know. Tall, talented, terrific. The NBA's third-leading scorer, the best stroke since Larry Bird.

Peja the Personality is what engages away from the action, the sudden face of the franchise.

He is King Cool, and life is grand. He is young (26), and he has settled into his game, the best active player on the best team at the All-Star break. He is handsome, with dark features and the megawatt smile. He is a walking cash cow with endorsement offers coming his way locally and likely internationally before long.

He is gracious and kind - and fiercely protective of his private life.

Stojakovic bought his parents a house in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Montenegro, and they live with him in Granite Bay during the season. He covers all of the medical expenses for his brother, Nenad, three years his senior, who has struggled with kidney problems since his youth.

He engineers fund-raisers and coat drives for needy children in his native land. He visits schools and signs autographs at functions. He conducts basketball camps and clinics. He attends a Super Bowl bash at teammate Brad Miller's house, asking, with his humor, if the Rams are winning. And he smiles all the while. It's good to be the King.

"They say God doesn't give you the whole package, but I think Peja has it," said Stojakovic's longtime friend Andrea Lepore, his public relations director.

Stojakovic, ever the humble star, downplays all of it, saying simply that he is having the time of his life.

"I like to enjoy myself, have fun, on the court, off the court, with friends," Stojakovic said. "People should enjoy life, and I am. There's no reason for me not to be happy. Things are going great. I try to enjoy the moment, like teasing the guys, 'I don't like what you're wearing. I don't like what you're listening to.' Things like that. Otherwise, it would be boring."

Stojakovic is anything but boring. His game tantalizes the senses, the way he fights through a maze of screens, catches the ball and unloads jumpers. His humor cuts straight to the funny bone.

"He's really enjoying being Peja Stojakovic," Kings director of player personnel Jerry Reynolds said. "Who wouldn't?"

Said Kings coach Rick Adelman, who has seen the Peja comedy schtick and the superstar for six seasons now, "He's a very confident young man. He knows he's going to be good in a lot of things."

Fame and fortune have not changed the man, and that shows through his sometimes-silly side.

When Stojakovic arrives at the Kings' practice facility in his black Mercedes, he often bounds out of his ride, the thump of disco blaring from the speakers. On the team charter, flying to an another NBA city, he's liable to impersonate Pete Carril, a Kings assistant coach, from voice to mannerisms, or Miller's deliberate Indiana twang.

When Miller hit a late three-pointer to force overtime at Arco Arena against the Portland Trail Blazers, the kid in Stojakovic was still jumping for joy during the break. He leaned over to reporters, a grin creasing his face, and shouted in his best Grant Napear radio play-by-play, "If you don't like that, you don't like NBA basketball!"

But life wasn't always so carefree for Stojakovic.

When he was still a child, war drove his family, which was composed of minority Serbs, out of Croatia, leaving their home in ruins and their belongings destroyed. And Nenad's illness has always weighed heavily.

The past hardships have helped form Stojakovic's character.

"He's the same guy, always," said Vlade Divac, Stojakovic's fellow Serb and his best friend on the team. "As athletes, we are entertainers. He has recognized this, especially to the fans. When someone waves at him or calls for him at a game, when he hears them, he'll acknowledge them, because he knows it can make their day, their life."

His mother, Branka, and Nenad - his only sibling - live with him in Granite Bay. How un-NBA superstar is that?

Family is dear to him, more than anything. His mother cooks veal, beef, chicken, pasta, whatever he craves. She cooks for her son because, well, he can't handle a piece of toast without charring it. He tried eggs this summer and nearly scorched the kitchen.

"I'm spoiled by her cooking," he said.

He likes fine restaurants, too. He's a regular at Tunel 21 and L'Image, local establishments owned by Divac and his wife, Ana. He enjoys chocolate crepes and drinks sodas like water. He never consumes alcohol during the season. On occasion, he's eaten a pile of nachos an hour before game time. He is known to talk fashion with Ana Divac.

As a man on the town, Stojakovic has no curfew. Mike Bibby has cracked that Stojakovic is the only player he's ever known who comes to practice with the same clothes he wore the night before.

He's the Kings' most eligible bachelor, his star status causing young women to vie for his attention.

"Women love him," Vlade Divac said. "I'll sit with him at restaurants, and the girls are nonstop. I just sit there next to him, going ... 'Wow. That's nice. Oh, well.' "

When Stojakovic did a cover spread last month for the Sacramento magazine Fork It, decked in a suit and grinning, the magazine fielded hundreds of letters and e-mails from women across the globe pleading for more.

More Peja cover shoots. More Peja in fancy clothes. Some Peja without clothes. More Peja, period. Not since Reggie Theus some 18 years ago have the Kings employed such a heartthrob.

"This is different, though," said Napear, who has been broadcasting Kings action since 1988. "Reggie loved that image. He was consumed with the Mr. Hollywood thing. Peja's himself. He isn't trying to be that image. He is who he is."

He's an NBA star, validated by his third All-Star appearance today. He's also gone global, from his homeland to Greece, where he played before coming to the NBA. Other Serbian-born players in the NBA insist that Divac is as well-known in his native Serbia as President Bush is in the United States. Soon, Divac said, Stojakovic will take his torch and keep on running.

"It's close now," Divac said. "But he'll take over, and he deserves it."

Stojakovic is the only Kings player who arrives at games in a suit. He stands out in a room of sweat suits and retro NFL jerseys. He comes to practice generally in any one of six pairs of Gucci jeans, always with the faded and slightly dirty look.

At 6-foot-10, that's a lot of denim to cover and not exactly something you find at your nearby Macy's.

"I go to Italy every summer to get measured, and then I order clothes," Stojakovic explained. "I love it. It's fun."

He wears what he wants to wear. Jackson and Napear chide him, but that's OK.

"This is how people dress in Europe," Stojakovic said. "Bright colors, striped shirts. I wear something I have a flavor for. I wear what's nice, what's comfortable. I'm not following someone's look and trying to copy anyone."

This season, Ric Bucher of ESPN presented Stojakovic with a mini-statue, a gold-covered Bill Laimbeer bobblehead, and anointed Stojakovic the NBA's fashion king. Stojakovic burst into laughter and embraced it like a kid with his first set of Air Jordans. And go ahead and bring on the barbs. Stojakovic has material ready to fire back.

"That's his personality," Napear said. "He loves to make people laugh. He likes it when someone teases him about his clothes, because he'll laugh right back at them. He'll try and tell me a joke, and he's literally laughing so hard that I have to wait until he settles down to understand what the heck he's trying to say. He has a very happy spirit about him."

Stojakovic is mostly reserved and cautious when surrounded by the media's cameras and tape recorders, though on occasion he'll greet a group with, "Hello, Americans!"

In his element, with his teammates, friends and family, or with select media away from the pack, he's the jester. He listens to all types of music, from the Bee Gees to R&B to rap. He wears a beard because he doesn't like to shave and, he said, "so I can still look like Vlade."

He sports a glacier of a stud diamond earring in his left ear, heavy enough you half expect his earlobe to dangle. His parents cringed when he bought it as a 17-year-old, his father, Miodrag, telling him he looked "girly." His father, now back in Belgrade after spending part of the early season here, has grown to accept the look, Stojakovic said.

But the body is void of tattoos. For now. He thinks about adding body art, but there's a slight problem.

"I haven't been brave enough to do it," Stojakovic said, laughing. "I never had the courage. Someday, maybe."

And to think Stojakovic could have been the world's tallest funny-man grocer. His parents owned a grocery store in Pozega, a town of some 28,000 in central Croatia. He and his brother would round up their buddies and raid the place, swiping candy and ice cream just out of his mother's view.

He was supposed to wind up running the store and would have, he said, if not for the civil war that broke up Yugoslavia.

That former republic was torn apart in the 1990s by ethnic violence. Stojakovic recalls with sadness that many of his neighbors, ethnic Croatians, would no longer talk to his Serbian family as the fragmentation of the people intensified.

Many nights he would lie in bed and hear gunfire as the country disintegrated. In the morning he would see the bullet holes in walls just down the street.

The Stojakovic family lost everything, the store and home reduced to rubble. Stojakovic has no family mementos from his adolescence, not even a picture.

The family, driven out of Pozega by the strife, wound up 150 miles east, in Belgrade, a Serbian city and the capital of Yugoslavia that also happened to be the country's basketball mecca. The rest is history. Stojakovic became a star, turning pro at 16. He tore up the Greek professional leagues and in 1998 signed with the Kings, where his star continues to rise.

"The good thing is, we are all alive, and we are all together," Stojakovic said. "Thinking what happened to other families, we're lucky. I saw that as a kid. It's easier for me to forget. For my parents, they will never forget. It's a new life now. It's a good life now. It's all OK now."

His mother never watched him play in Greece but attends some games now, moved, Stojakovic said, by how much Kings fans adore her son. Nenad continues to cope with his kidney problems. Talk of Nenad's health is about the only time Stojakovic's tone turns somber, when the smile disappears and he becomes almost sad.

Nenad is a regular at Kings games. He cheers his brother's every move but not as fervently as others, as if he's seen this act so many times before, which, of course, he has.

When his first transplant failed and Nenad was rushed to UC Davis Medical Center four years ago, during the holidays, Stojakovic didn't leave his brother's side until it was time for practice or a game. Nenad had a successful transplant two years ago and is doing better, Stojakovic said. But it will never be easy.

"My brother and my family mean everything to me," Stojakovic said. "My brother's health is something we're doing together, and when we fight together, it's easier. He's having fun watching me."

Nenad doesn't share his brother's tall frame, but he does share his comedic tendency. And the topic is rarely basketball at home. Fashion, music, girls, one-liners. Now you're talking.



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captain_kingsfan
02-25-2004, 04:28 AM
Peja rocks. The end. i/expressions/face-icon-small-happy.gif