Nikola Pekovic was completing his first season with Panathinaikos of the Greek A1 Basketball League in 2008-09 when he decided to adorn his 6-11 frame with his first tattoo. He sought out the finest tattoo artist in Athens and ordered a depiction of a Serbian soldier.
Four years later, he has become an illustrated man. The latest art is a large tattoo on his left leg that he picked up this summer. It looked something like the Resurrection scene seen on the back of a Twins pitcher several years ago.
“No, this is the Battle of Kosovo, the most famous battle for Serbia and Montenegro,” Pekovic said. “It took place in 1389.”
This meeting of the armies of Serbia and the Ottoman Empire also is called the Battle of Blackbird’s Field. It was surprising to discover the battle Pekovic has honored with this ambitious tattoo was won by the other side, the heavily favored Ottomans.
Clearly, the designs on Pek’s large body emphasize courage above outcome.
He was born in Bijelo Polje on Jan. 3, 1986, in what’s now independent Montenegro. The political upheaval in Yugoslavia started a year later and led to a long war. In the end, there was Serbia-Montenegro as the lone remnant of Yugoslavia, and then Pek’s homeland of Montenegro voted for independence in 2006.
Pekovic was 17 when he started his professional career in 2003 with Atlas of Belgrade in the Serbian League. He signed a three-year contract to play in the much stronger Greek League before the 2008 NBA draft took place.
Legend has it, that contract was what caused Pekovic to drop from the first half of the first round to the Timberwolves with the first selection (31st overall) in the second round.
Pekovic, now 27, will start his fourth NBA season when the Wolves open against Orlando on Wednesday. He’s armed with a new five-year, $60 million contract.
Did he think such a thing was possible in June 2008, when his name was called by Adam Silver at the NBA draft?
“Not at all,” Pekovic said. “I was going to play in Greece for Zeljko Obradovic, a Serbian and the greatest coach in the EuroLeague. I had a great time playing in Greece. I thought I would stay in Europe.”
And then came the crisis — not war, but the economic collapse in Greece and the fallout in much of Europe. Panathinaikos let him out of the final year of his contract and Pekovic signed a contract with the Timberwolves.
Pek’s history with the Wolves has gone through three administrations: He was drafted by Kevin McHale, signed by David Kahn and re-signed by Flip Saunders this summer as a restricted free agent.
The lucrative five-year deal includes incentives for games played.
“Yes, that is in there,” Pekovic said. “That is usual in many contracts, here or in Europe.”
These incentives seemed to be aimed at the fact Pekovic missed handfuls of games because of injuries as a rookie in 2010-11, and he missed 20 more games because of injuries in his much-improved season of 2012-13.
Pekovic looks like an ironman. The Timberwolves are hoping to see more of that from him, and to hear less about thigh bruises and calf strains.
Generally, the theme of season-opening essays with most athletes involves them talking about fierce offseason work in an attempt to improve a perceived shortcoming. In Pekovic’s case, that would be durability.
It would be difficult to question what Pekovic does in the offseason to stay in shape. The man is a 290-pound brick. When he bumps someone, they are going to move. That won’t change.
As for eliminating the nagging injuries that cost him games, that might not change, either.
“Nobody likes injuries,” Pekovic said. “They are hard to avoid when you play this game, and playing the way I play. It is very tough around the basket every night.
“I’m excited to play on this team. To have Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love ready to go, to have Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer here … this is our best team.”
There’s a large photo of that fivesome posted in the skyway corridor of Target Center. Brewer, Love and Rubio are right to left, and Martin is on the far left. Next to him is Pekovic.
It is an impressive group, a fivesome worthy of optimism — particularly if the imposing Pekovic is available to play his $12 million brand of old-fashioned, power-in-the-pivot basketball on a nightly basis.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org