The world's tallest grocery store manager—isn't that what he should be? Look at 6'9" Sacramento Kings forward Predrag (Peja) Stojakovic, surrounded by hip-hop-listening, tattoo-covered, American-born basketball players, standing there with that goofy smile and that dorky sweater and those too-snug blue jeans. What's he doing here, a square European peg jammed into a FUBU-wearing circle? Shouldn't he be working in produce? Hey, bud, where's the grapefruit? How much is the cabbage?
He appears lost, and, in truth, he sort of is. Stojakovic (STOY-ak-O-vich) may well be in the U.S., but the U.S. definitely isn't in Stojakovic. How many 23-year-old millionaires do you know who still live with their parents? How many NBA players do you know who don't rush to embrace the dunk? And—C'mon, Peja!—those pants? The NBA is Armani, not Wrangler. "Peja has a nickname," says Kings forward Lawrence Funderburke with a laugh. "It's T.J., for Tight Jeans."
Maybe it should be W.K., for Weird Karma. Stojakovic is, by his own humble account, the luckiest man in the long history of lucky men. He was supposed to take over the family grocery. Nothing more. His dad, Miodrag, and mom, Branka, owned such a store in Po?ega, a town of 28,000 in eastern central Croatia. Growing up, Peja and his older brother, Nenad, would round up friends after school and, with empty stomachs and open palms, stealthily scavenge the shelves. This was entertainment in Po?ega. "We would go in and try to steal some goodies from my mom," says Stojakovic. "We would find chocolate, ice cream, candies...."
Young Peja was something of an athlete—he enjoyed volleyball and soccer—but the town's sports facilities were scanty. He played basketball once or twice a week and only for fun. "I saw some tapes," he says in the fluent English he learned from TV and teammates. " Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan. That's what I knew of the NBA. Not anything else."
The family business was where Stojakovic was destined to end up. Not in Belgrade, playing professional basketball at 15. Not in Greece, living the life of a European superstar. Not in Sacramento, averaging 19.6 points and 6.5 rebounds through Tuesday as a blossoming star for the high-flying Kings, who led the Pacific Division with a 21-8 record. He was supposed to run the family store. That's how it should have gone.
It's June 26, 1996—NBA draft day. You are a Sacramento fan. You have lived this before. You wish for amnesia. From 1985 to 1993, your team made 21 first-and second-round selections. The names sour your mouth like morning breath: Joe Kleine and Harold Pressley, Johnny Rogers and Brett Roberts, Pete Chilcutt and Evers Burns. In 1989 the Kings won the lottery. Their choice was Pervis Ellison. In 1990 they had an NBA-record four first-round selections. They took Lionel Simmons, Travis Mays, Duane Causwell and Anthony Bonner. The '93 pick, Bobby Hurley, nearly died in an auto accident. The '88 choice, Ricky Berry, committed suicide three months after his rookie season.
Maybe, just maybe, things are changing. There's a new general manager in town, Geoff Petrie, who has done some pretty good picking: Brian Grant, Michael Smith and Funderburke in 1994; Corliss Williamson and Tyus Edney a year later. There are 1,200 of your fellow faithful with you here at the Arco Arena draft gala, watching the proceedings from East Rutherford, N.J., on the big screen and waiting for Petrie to announce Sacramento's choice at No. 14 in the first round. "I want you to know that we're picking a person I really believe in," says Petrie to the arena crowd just before the choice is announced in Continental Airlines Arena. "He's a good young player named Predrag Stojakovic. I think he'll be a fantastic pro, and...."
"It wasn't heavy booing, but there was certainly no celebration," recalls Troy Hanson, the Kings' media-relations director. "If you had to sum up the reaction in one word, it'd be: Who?"
Virtually nobody in Sacramento not employed by the Kings had heard of Stojakovic. Even TNT had trouble digging up highlights of him for its live coverage of the draft. "To make it worse," says Hanson, "Peja walks up to shake hands with David Stern, and he's fumbling with the hat, awkwardly trying to squeeze it onto his head. It didn't look too good."