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AFTER A CHILDHOOD DODGING BULLETS IN CROATIA, THE KINGS' PEJA STOJAKOVIC CAN FORGET EVEN THE WORST AIRBALL

The clothes in Peja Stojakovic's locker have prompted the usual stir. The dress shirt is white, checked with light blue and brown. The tie is similarly colored, with bold wide stripes, while the navy suit is lightly pinstriped. The shoes are brown; the socks, tan. As NBA locker rooms go, where monochromatic outfits and vintage-jersey-with-matching-'do-rag are considered high couture, it's a complex ensemble, to say the least. And not just for the color coordination. Pants and jacket are a narrow European cut. The tie stops well above the belt. All of which has earned him the nickname Euro Rolla: affectionate, but not quite complimentary.

"Look at that," Bobby Jackson says, frowning. "Checks and stripes." (A Gale Sayers vintage jersey and jeans hang in his locker.) Peja clucks his tongue and rolls his eyes. "You Americans," he says. "Go back to your baggy clothes and Sean John jeans. You know nothing about fashion." Minutes later, fellow Yugoslavian Vlade Divac strolls in, wearing an untucked denim shirt, Sean John jeans and Huaraches. Vlade is Peja's mentor of sorts; they roomed together at last summer's World Championships in Indianapolis. But this betrayal is no shock. "He's an American citizen!" Peja says, making it sound like the ultimate insult. "He's gone. He hasn't been to Europe in 10 years!"

If Stojakovic flaunts his heritage, it's because he's spent his life trying to hold onto it. If he doesn't trust outside opinions, it's because they've cost him dearly. Fact is, he couldn't care less what you think about that airball three, the one he hoisted from Arco's left corner, the one that epitomized the Kings' Game 7 choke job against the Lakers in last year's conference finals. Disappointing? Yes. Disastrous? Not even close. Not for someone whose boyhood home was torched by neighbors, and who watched his brother slowly wither from kidney disease.

But if you insist on bringing it up-as they still do on local sports talk radio and the team's online message boards-at least be clever about it, like Peja's friends. Said one pal in Greece: "That shot was so far off, a disgruntled team manager must've opened a window to create a draft." (Ah, Euro humor.) Even now, when the ball is swung to Stojakovic in practice anywhere near that left corner, jackson or some other wiseass (which means anyone on the Kings roster) will shout, "Uh-oh!" or "That's the spot!"

Peja recounts his catalog of barbs while sitting at a back table in Tunel 21, Divac's nine-week-old club/restaurant. His Old World wardrobe-tight jeans and snug white T-shirt-fits right in here. With its dark wood, rear courtyard and late hours, Tunel 21 is a European refuge in the heart of Old Sacramento, the city's quaint six-block nod to its Wild West heritage. Asked if that airball might come back to haunt him, Peja leans back, levels his gaze and says, "If I'm in that situation again, I'm going to take it. And I hope I'm in that situation again."

Well, maybe not that exact situation. It was a hobbled Stojakovic who took that uncontested jumper. He'd sprained his right ankle against the Mavs three weeks earlier, and sat for part of the fourth quarter of Game 7 before Rick Adelman sent him in for Divac with 46 seconds left. The shot came 35 seconds later-not much time to loosen an ankle that looked like a kid's water wing hiding under his sock. Which is why Adelman boils at the suggestion that his two-time All-Star lost the series, or is a crunchtime liability: "He was the best option then, and he is now. I've been around some great shooters, but none better than him. If you want to blame somebody, blame me. I'm the one who played him when he was hurt."

Among the Kings' potpourri of role players, the 25- year-old Stojakovic may have the most complete game. His 6'10" frame, unlimited range and deceptive strength make him the most difficult matchup on the team. And he at least tries to defend, which automatically puts him ahead of most of the league's elite shooters. He's a vastly underrated off-the-ball cutter; if the Kings have a go-to play in their freeflowing system, it's a high pick-and-roll with Peja or Mike Bibby working with CWebb or Vlade. Stojakovic (19.2 ppg through March 28) is also the safety valve when the shot clock hits single digits, because his size, fadeaway and quick release make his shot just about impossible to block. Putting a hand in his face isn't nearly enough to distract him. And, "Fouling him doesn't work," says Suns defensive specialist Bo Outlaw. "I'll get a hand up so close, he'll high-five me on his follow-through. My bench is yelling, 'Great D!' And I'm saying, 'Yeah, but he made the shot.' "

Pinning down Peja is difficult, period. The Kings media guide says he was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, weighs 229 pounds and his full name is Predrag Stojakovic. Truth: He was born in Pozega, Croatia, has carried 245 pounds the last two years and has a Greek middle name, Kinis. (He has both Yugoslavian and Greek passports.) A web search produces two birthdates, June 9 and Sept. 6, presumably stemming from the Euro style of putting the day in front of the month (9.6.77 there is 6.9.77 here.) "I never try to explain anymore," Peja says. "It only brings more questions."

The biggest question, of course, is not if the Kings have the talent and playoff-tempered mind-set to win their first title-they do-but rather if that talent and mind-set are configured correctly. Look at the teams who have won championships: There's always a player or two who knows it's his responsibility to come through when everything's on the line. With the Kings, though, it's never clear who'll be on the floor in the final minutes, much less who should take the big shot.

But if Adelman has to choose, he'll bet on Stojakovic. The coach called his star at home a few hours after that Game 7 loss to make sure he knew that. Divac watched for signs of shaken confidence at the Worlds in Indy, but instead saw Peja pour in 26 in the OT title-game win over Argentina.

Their concern was appreciated but unnecessary. Peja's life pendulum, you see, has swung back and forth dramatically ever since his Serb parents decided to stay away from Pozega until local Croats stopped spraying their house at night with bullets. Their retreat to Belgrade, a 10-hour drive away, became permanent after they learned their house and store had been looted and torched. That's when Peja discovered opportunity can sprout from misfortune, because it was in Belgrade that his path to the NBA began. "In a small city like Pozega, you don't even dream about that," he says. "We were watching a game on TV once, and my father said, 'Are we going to see you on TV?' He was joking."

Not that Belgrade was particularly hospitable to refugees. Stojakovic felt like an outsider there, even after a coach from the city's pro team, Red Star, saw him playing after school and invited him to join the junior team. Peja's game had been honed on an outdoor court behind his house in Pozega, where he worked on shots and moves gleaned from a tape of Michael Jordan and North Carolina playing an exhibition against the Yugoslavian national team. But he'd never played 1-on-1 or 2-on-2, or any of the shooting contests he was now winning. And the kids in Belgrade weren't wild about the bumpkin with the worn Drazen Petrovic shoes who beat them at their own games. Then again, these weren't just games to Peja. They were the means to a pro contract that might end his family's refugee status. "My family worked hard to give us a nice life," he says. "Then we lost everything overnight."

After two years of feeling unwanted, Peja didn't think twice when the Greek team PAOK offered him a five-year deal that allowed him to move his family. He was just 16, and Greece offered little refuge at first. Yugoslavia's unrest had spurred sanctions throughout Europe, official and otherwise, and his new country refused to issue him a playing permit for two seasons. Still, his decision paid off when Kings GM Geoff Petrie attended a PAOK practice and stumbled upon the proverbial hidden gem. "I thought he had an American-type game," Petrie says. "Range, mobility, size."

The Kings made Stojakovic the 14th pick in 1996, a move that looked foolish when he couldn't break his PAOK deal, then snapped his right leg on a spin move the following winter. He believes the injury was caused by a stress fracture that PAOK officials said was a strained muscle. They masked it with painkillers so strong Peja didn't realize his leg was broken until he looked down and saw it flopping sideways below his knee. Not surprisingly, he took the Kings up on their offer to rehab in Sacramento, where Petrie spent two months driving him to the gym for therapy every morning.

After his leg healed, Peja needed time to clear his head when he returned to Greece. Friends had told him about Sveta Gora, a peaceful peninsula well-known throughout Europe as a place for spiritual retreat. But he had little idea of what was in store when he made a three-day reservation at one of the monasteries. The regimen: up at 4 a.m., pray until 7; lunch at 10:30 in silence while a monk reads Bible passages aloud; more prayer; dinner at 4; conversation with bunkmates (two to four to a room) until bedtime at sunset. No lights, no electricity, no phones. Just fresh fish from the sea, vegetables from the garden, water or wine from the vineyard. "You live by their rules," Peja says. "The first two days I wondered why I was there."

He now returns for one day every summer, praying for good health for himself and his family. His prayers for his 28-year-old brother, Nenad, were answered last summer when a friend in Yugoslavia offered him one of her kidneys. By then Nenad's health was so poor that he could only hang out on the couch and wait for his next dialysis treatment. But since the operation, he's been cleared to drive and is getting out on his own. Though Peja remains cautious-"it could extend his life a year, five years, 10 years, depends on how good the match is"-Divachas noticed a big difference. "It really helps Peja focus on his game now," he says.

The mood is certainly brighter now in the house that Peja and Nenad share with their parents, Miodrag and Branka. It is the same house they've all lived in since Peja signed with the Kings. The 4,500-square-foot-spread is modest by NBA standards, and Stojakovic could certainly afford something more extravagant with the six-year, $45M deal he signed three summers ago. But when you've endured as many moves as he has, you come to appreciate just being able to put down roots.

The living room shelves are full of photos of the home's owner, but he is smiling in only one. All are from the last few years; any photos from his childhood went up in flames in Pozega. The World Championship trophy and his MVP trophy for leading Yugoslavia to the European Championship in Istanbul two years ago are on display, but that's the only evidence that Peja is a basketball star.

His teammates, however, are all too aware they have a unique talent in their midst. A few routinely ante up a C-note after practice: First to nail a halfcourt shot takes all. Peja, a two-time winner of the NBA's All-Star Weekend three-point contest, always has walking-around money. "If they play 10 times, Peja wins nine," Adelman says. "His legs are so strong, it's like a regular jump shot for him. I've asked the other guys, 'Why do you even play?' "

Who knows if Peja will get another shot in the last seconds of a Game 7, or what he'll do with it if he does. But his teammates keep feeding him as he slides into the left corner, even as they continue to make their deja vu jokes. They kid him because they know he can take it-the shot, that is.

"That miss would mess with some guys' heads," Jackson says. "Peja just keeps firing away."

The Kings, ironically, are one of the more democratic teams in the NBA. With three weeks left in the season, there have been 64 40-plus scoring games, which is already more than in all but one of the past 10 seasons. (There were 81 in 2000-01, when the refs were whistling touch fouls and even Tony Delk-career average, 9.1-went for 50.) But the Kings, despite the presence of Peja and CWebb, are one of 12 teams without a 40-plus game.

So how come balanced scoring is the exception rather than the rule? For one thing, there's the emergence of players whose versatility makes for matchup nightmares. KG, Kobe, T-Mac, A.I., Paul Pierce, Stevie Francis, TD: Who can really guard any of them? And in a league diluted by expansion and injury to some No. 2 options, more teams than ever have built around one unique player who has to score big for his team to win. Do you think T-Mac would be leading the league in 40-plus nights if Grant Hill were around to give 40-plus minutes?

It's no surprise Bucks coach George Karl, having failed miserably to shape a group of solo artists into a cohesive unit at the Worlds last summer, abhors the trend. "This year there's more quantity shooting than ever, and I'm shocked by how many good coaches are conceding to it," he says. "It's a philosophy of sacrificing the system to blackmail by the individual."

It's also a philosophy that, aesthetics aside, works. The 76ers reached the 2001 Finals built around a one-man scoring machine (A.I.). The Lakers are chasing their fourth consecutive title built around two. And lest we forget who started it all, MJ is now breaking 40 on both fronts. The advantage is that the lone star has practiced all year at nailing game-winners with the whole building knowing he'll be the one to try. The equal opportunistic and title-favored Kings will try to defy that trend.