Friday, August 05, 2005

[Kings] Peja Stojakovic: Clearing the Air

2nd part of interview by a knowledgeable member of Bleacher Mob Kings Forum.


by Steve Crane

Peja Stojakovic sat quietly in the stands of the Folsom High School gym, watching carefully and smiling at the kids having fun at his Peja & Vlade Basketball Camp. Stojakovic was in town during the last two weeks in July with good friend Vlade Divac to participate in his camp and interact with the kids. He graciously took a few minutes away from his campers to clear the air on several issues of interest to area fans concerning his past, present, and future with the Sacramento Kings.

Stojakovic first addressed what he has been doing this summer to stay physically fit and prepare for the coming NBA season. While clearly not a “gym rat,” Stojakovic is putting in regular work this summer.

“I’ve been working out for myself,” he said. “I always go on the court to play basketball. I go two hours a day, but I don’t do any conditioning right now. I just do basketball and lifting weights. It’s too early for conditioning. You always have to keep yourself in enough condition that you will be ready for harder physical activity (in training camp). It’s nothing new, nothing old that I’m doing, so I’ve been doing this for all of my career. So you’ve got to keep working, because that’s our life.”

Aside from playing basketball daily, Stojakovic has been active playing other sports, including tennis and ping pong. “It’s always good to hit the ball, to clear up your mind,” he chuckled.

Many fans as well as experts have stated that Stojakovic could truly elevate his performance by developing a low-post game to complement his deadly outside shooting touch. The two-time NBA all-star addressed that issue.

“It is important, but it’s also important how the team is going to use you,” he said. “Are they going to use you that way? Because our style of basketball doesn’t use me that way. But I’m always trying to add something to my game. You have to get better.”

Stojakovic recently decided that he would not play on the Serbian national team in this year’s European basketball championships. Several subsequent media reports have quoted Stojakovic as saying that he was “tired” as the reason for not suiting up for his home country in September. The 6’-10” forward said there was more to the decision.

“I was meaning to play, but then I changed my mind, because of the two or three injuries, to the hamstring, groin, and my back that sidelined me for a little bit (last season). So I just want to be fit for the training camp, and rest a little bit, spend a little time with my family. I’ve played for the national team in 5 of the last 6 years.”

Stojakovic missed 16 games due to injuries last season, and he also suffered with plantar fasciitis several seasons ago. “That was three years ago,” he said. “Luckily, it’s gone. It’s something that nobody can help, not even doctors. Only time can heal that. But it’s gone.”

With last season’s departures of Divac, Chris Webber, and Doug Christie, much has been said about who is or should be the Kings’ new leader on the floor. Stojakovic had strong words to offer on this subject.

“Everybody’s screaming in the newspapers, ‘who is the leader?’ The most important thing is to be a team and for each of us to understand our roles, and not to do anything else. And to know what you’re doing that’s going to make the team better. When you step on the court, you know what to do, and that should be decided by the coaches.”

And Stojakovic knows where he fits in to the Kings’ game plan. “My role is like last year’s. I’m the type of guy, when I step on the court, I’m a scorer, and that’s my game. The thing is I need to add to my game, so I need to improve my rebounding, which I did the last couple of years, and passing skills and dribbling.”

Defense is clearly another area where the Kings need significant improvement, since the team seemed to have lost a lot defensively when Christie was traded last January. Stojakovic agreed.

“Doug was a guy that, when he was playing defense, we would feed off him. But in order to do something bigger, everybody has to play defense, the whole team. And you can’t work on defense when you have two guys in the starting five that are hurt and new guys. I hope this year that we’ll get ready, and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

Stojakovic believes that the Kings still have the core of a contender, and October’s training camp will pull it all together. “I think we are a pretty solid team,” he said confidently. “We still had 50 wins last season, besides having trades, losing Vlade, and injuries. We had 50 wins. We needed more time playing together which we didn’t have. We just need more time and hopefully stay healthy during the year.”

At the beginning of last season, reports ran rampant that Stojakovic was not happy here, and it soon became known that the star forward requested a trade. He cleared up the record about what really transpired.

“You know, I was always happy. The trade was a request. That wasn’t a demand. I had thought that a change would make a difference in this team. We just couldn’t make that step (an NBA title). That’s why I requested to be the one (to be traded). Get someone to fill my spot and come in and do a better job than I do and make it better.”

“After the couple of conversations I had with the organization, I was nothing but professional. I did not mention it throughout the year. So I’m here. I have one more year left on my contract (Stojakovic has a player option for 2006-07), and I feel like this is my home. This is the only team that I have played for in the NBA. My family likes it here.”

Stojakovic will almost certainly opt out of his existing contract after this season in pursuit of a bigger paycheck and a long-term deal. If he does opt out, as expected, he says that the Kings are in the driver’s seat to re-sign him.

“I can’t get into what’s going to happen in eight months. I can only tell you that we had some great times, and we also had some disappointments. But we always felt good about it. I never was frustrated to leave. But in eight months, who knows? It’s a long time. The Kings are going to have the first priority to do it, and if everything goes well, I would like to do that. Stay here and finish my career.”

But with the revolving door that has been the Kings’ roster this past year, Stojakovic is pragmatic about the realities of life in the NBA.

“You never know in this business. You feel safe. You feel like you can stay and call it home, but you might be gone the next day. So we (the players) have to understand that. I like it here, and I really enjoy playing here, because we’ve got great fans. People in this community really support us. And not only on the court, they really support our actions off the court, like our charities, and whatever we do. They’ve been nice to all of us and our families. So it’s a great environment.”

“But if nobody’s mentioning your name (in a trade), that’s more dangerous,” he laughed.

Stojakovic took a brief trip down memory lane to reflect on his greatest moment as an NBA player and a King. “I think there were a lot of good moments, but I think my first year,” Stojakovic said. “I didn’t play that much, but the excitement that we brought in the 98-99 lockout season when we first got into the playoffs and we played in the first round against Utah. We lost that, but it was a great feeling. People were really into it. They appreciated what we did.”

“Expectations, they rise over the course of the years, and that’s normal. As you win, they get higher. So each year was different for us. But that first year for me competing in the NBA was exciting. It was a new team, and we were making something happen for this city.”

With a healthy Stojakovic returning alongside Mike Bibby, Brad Miller, and some new, young talent, the 7-year veteran believes that his team will once again make something happen for its fans.

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