Nuggets assistant lives out “dream” with Serbia at FIBA World Cup

About 10 minutes before the Nuggets took the floor, assistant coach Ognjen “Ogi” Stojakovic answered an unexpected call. He was preparing for one of the most important competitions of his career — the series opener of the Western Conference Finals — but suddenly, another major tournament was on his mind, one every bit as meaningful to him personally.

Svetislav Pesic, head coach of Serbia’s national basketball program, was inviting him to join the coaching staff for the upcoming FIBA World Cup.

“It was a childhood dream to be part of the national team with Serbia,” Stojakovic told The Post. “Basketball is a religion. When I started to coach, I was thinking about that (goal).”

But the Lakers were waiting. Stojakovic accepted Pesic’s offer then managed to pocket his big news, not wanting to distract any of his Denver colleagues from the task at hand. He joined the players and helped with their pregame warm-ups. The Nuggets were soon on their way to a series sweep.

After eventually receiving the blessings of coach Michael Malone and general manager Calvin Booth, a staple of the Nuggets’ coaching staff got to live out his dream this summer, helping Serbia’s run to the World Cup Final in Manila. Stojakovic is returning to Denver for the 2023-24 season with a silver medal (Germany won gold) to accompany his NBA championship ring. Two defining achievements, three months apart.

“Working for the national team — that was a highlight of my career,” he said.

Before Stojakovic came to the U.S. to join the Nuggets’ staff, he was a youth system coach for a team in Belgrade. He always breathed basketball. His father and brother played. He got into coaching and turned out to be integral in the development of the current generation of Serbian hoops. Several members of this year’s Serbian World Cup team, including Filip Petrusev, Vanja Marinkovic and Dusan Ristic, were coached by Stojakovic in their early teens.

When they reunited this summer, Stojakovic joked with them about his old memories that were foggier for each of them.

“It was fun to see them, what they look like now,” he said. “I was like, ‘You remember this? Remember that?’ They were like, ‘I don’t.’ They were like 14 or 15 years old.”

The coach’s favorite moment of the tournament was his country’s semifinal upset of Canada. On the other side of the Pacific, basketball fans had been prematurely building up a United States vs. Canada final, but Europe crashed the party in Manila. Serbia won 95-86, led by Bogdan Bogdanovic’s 23 points. Germany eliminated the U.S.

“That moment was like, ‘Wow. OK. We did something special. We did something unique,’” Stojakovic said. “You become aware that you’re actually going to play in the final. Especially because no one gave us any kind of credit before the tournament.”

The whole time, Stojakovic stayed in contact with Nikola Jokic, a close friend both in Denver and Serbia. Jokic was a notable absence from the World Cup team — after a long NBA title run, he wanted to recuperate before a new season arrived — but Serbia’s semifinal win was emphatic proof the country has become an international basketball heavyweight even without an all-time great carrying the team.

“I know how he felt,” Stojakovic said. “He had that pressure from one side, from the other side. … In those kinds of situations, whatever he decides, as a friend and as a coach, you need to embrace that and support him. He decided what was best for him in that moment, which I completely support.”

Jokic had plenty to celebrate after winning NBA Finals MVP. Serbia lost by only six in the final to Germany, but even the second-place finish was enough to warrant a massive welcome back in Belgrade. The team was feted as a champion, sharing the Old Palace balcony with U.S. Open winner Novak Djokovic while a celebration took place in the streets below. The scene in Serbia’s capital was the memory that tugged at Stojakovic’s heartstrings most throughout the FIBA experience.

“Being on the balcony of the parliament hall … You know how much joy and happiness you brought to all those people,” he said. “For me, that was kind of like, ‘This is more than a game.’ And then you just start to think about 20 years ago — maybe more, 30 years ago — I was one of the kids there among that crowd, watching (Serbia’s) basketball players.”

Between Belgrade’s celebration and Denver’s championship parade, Stojakovic came closer than anyone else this summer to experiencing both sides of a frivolous debate that unfolded in the basketball community. When American sprinter Noah Lyles questioned the NBA for describing its league champions as “world champions,” it sparked backlash from a collection of NBA players defending the terminology, including Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard.

Stojakovic is now a “world” champ in the NBA’s definition of the word, but a world runner-up if the actual World Cup is to be the judge. He finds the whole debate somewhat silly and pointed out that FIBA and the NBA don’t even share the same rulebook. He also noted that by definition, “world championships” in sports generally are competitions structured for national teams.

“For me, the answer is simple,” he said. “According to the name of the competition that you play, you’re a champion of that competition. … In World Cup competition, you can be a World Cup champion. In European Championship competition, you can be a European champion. In the NBA, you can be NBA champions. If you play Olympic Games, you’re an Olympic Games champion.”

The latter is up for grabs a year from now. By making the World Cup Final, Serbia qualified its basketball team for the Paris Games, which the nation failed to do in 2020 through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Stojakovic would love to add another championship label to his resume, even if it means another hectic “offseason.” He just about circumnavigated the globe this summer, going from China to the Philippines to Serbia and back to the U.S.

How ’bout Paris? The Summer Games’ opening ceremony is July 26, about a month after the NBA Finals will end.

Stojakovic wouldn’t mind running it back with both of his teams.

“That’s more a question for Coach Pesic,” he said. “If he gives me a call, I will be there for sure.”

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