Shooting from the hip

“We have done such a good job in the NBA that the teams are now more confident about looking at players from all over the world and assembling the best of talent,” says the former NBA star, Peja Stojakovic, who last played for Dallas Mavericks. By Nandakumar Marar.

Predrag ‘Peja’ Stojakovic was in Mumbai recently for the NBA Jam National Finals when far away, in the United States, Shaquille O’Neal, a former NBA star, was buying a minority ownership stake in Sacramento Kings.

Kings was the Yugoslav World Cup player’s first NBA club; a window to the bewildering world of American basketball. Stojakovic played in the NBA for 13 seasons before retiring in 2011.

For Peja, a former star becoming the joint owner of his former NBA team is a strange feeling, but he understands the reasons behind Kings’ owner and tech tycoon Vivek Ranadive deciding to bring on board a crowd-puller. Sacramento Kings is the only NBA side owned by an Indian and the Belgrade-born sharp shooter is happy that his former team is dreaming big.

According to Peja, a Serbian now, nationality is not a deterrent for any youngster with talent and drive. He cites the example of Yao Ming of China, who had a towering presence in the NBA and was very popular too.

For India, Peja contends, it is just a question of someone getting his foot in the door. Satnam Singh, who is 7 feet 1 inch tall, is training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and competing against junior teams.

Famous for his shooting skills, including three-pointers, and passing, Peja also played for Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks (with whom he won the NBA title). He had claimed the FIBA World Men’s Championship with Yugoslavia in 2002 and had played for Greece’s PAOK club when the NBA came calling. The three-time All-Star player spoke to Sportstar during his visit to Mumbai.

On adjusting to the demands of the NBA after moving over from Europe:

When young it is easy to adjust. I didn’t have a problem with my transition from Europe. The biggest adjustment I had to make was to work harder and establish myself. My goal was to come in and have a solid career. I always watched NBA tapes, idolised the great Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and all those guys. I had the chance to compete against them. It was just perfect.

On whether the NBA is receptive to foreign players:

All the players who came before me to the NBA (including fellow countryman Vlade Divac) opened the doors for us. Scouts came to look for talent.

These days it is the normal thing, but back then, it was hard for them to accept me. I was from Europe and my game was different. Questions were raised about whether I was going to be as good as an NCAA player. We have done such a good job in the NBA that the teams are now more confident about looking at players from all over the world and assembling the best of talent.

On the Chinese presence in the NBA:

When tall kids come, they make a difference. When Yao Ming came to the NBA (Houston Rockets), they didn’t have good players who were as tall as him (7 feet 6 inches). The game has evolved so much now that it has become global. I heard that there is a young Indian (Satnam Singh) in Florida with the potential and talent to become a NBA-level player. It takes time. You cannot jump the process in the NBA. You start with the foundation, learn the basics and work hard. When everything comes together, you develop as a player.

His advice to kids from across nations dreaming of a NBA career:

I think that in sports it is good to have education. In basketball, out of 100 kids may be one player will make it. But all those guys are going to give up education when only one player will be successful. The remaining 99 would have lost their time and it will be hard for them to get back on their feet. You gamble your future by taking up sport without education.

On Shaquille O’ Neal buying ownership stake in Sacramento Kings:

He is a very entertaining person. He will help market the franchise. It is owned by an Indian (Vivek Ranadive) who is very proud of that. The main thing is the team will be able to stay in Sacramento, build a new arena and a new team that is going to be competitive in the NBA. They are going in the right direction.

I can’t picture him as a team owner. Shaq is an amazing player, entertaining at the same time. I heard that he is a smart business guy. Sacramento is a small city, short on national exposure and corporate sponsorship. By bringing him in, they are trying to get national and worldwide exposure and a bigger following for the team. The group at Kings know what they are doing.

* * * Entertainment, NBA-style

In the NBA Jam National Finals in Mumbai recently, Peja Stojakovic, standing 6 feet 9 inches, was joined by two other NBA stars, Ron Harper (6 feet 6 inches) and Horace Grant (6 feet 10 inches), as the three interacted with the kids and demonstrated their skills that had made them crowd-pullers.

Harper had represented Chicago Bulls, while Grant was a four-time NBA winner.

The finals at the Mehboob Studio highlighted the NBA-style in-arena entertainment for the first time. Apart from the main competition, there was also a three-point contest against Harper.

The Sacramento Kings’ dance team, New York Knicks’ slam-dunk team and Miami Heat’s mascot too performed on the occasion. Bangalore teams dominated the NBA Jam National Finals. Jain University (Bangalore) edged out Bharti University (Delhi) 21-19 in the men’s final.

Results (all finals):

Girls: Pune Tigers beat Bangalore All-Stars 9-5.

Boys: Surana College, Bangalore, beat Aligarh Muslim University 13-11.

Women: Mounts Club, Bangalore, beat Loyola Academy, Hyderabad, 15-5.

Men: Jain University, Bangalore, beat Bharti University, Delhi, 21-19.