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An Ode to the Godfather

Nikola Pekovic’s career was short, sweet, and eventually sour. But nobody can take the good times away.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers

An almighty behemoth, skull collecting center from Montenegro first arrived in Minneapolis in 2010, two years after previous Wolves general manager Kevin McHale selected him with the first pick of the second round (31st overall) in the 2008 NBA draft.

His name was Nikola Pekovic, and he signed a three-year, $13 million contract after establishing himself as one of the best international centers with Panathinaikos.

Pek was built from cement (maybe a ton of bricks) and upon his arrival he immediately became one of the toughest players in the league. He looked more like a Game of Thrones character (probably the Mountain’s long lost brother) than a center capable of dueling Dwight Howard or DeMarcus Cousins.

During Pek’s rookie season, he was an absolute foul machine who simply could not stay on the floor for head coach Rick Adelman; he was getting busy churning out 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes. Many folks believed the foreigner would flop in the pros. His time in the Association would be short lived after a rough rookie season at age 25, the critics said. At the time, I think Pek’s NBA2K rating was hovering around 56, which surely he didn’t care about like Hassan Whiteside would, but the point is nobody thought anything of this guy after 887 minutes (over 65 games) in year one. But Pekovic had other plans for his career. See, a real warrior does not go quietly into that good night. And Pekovic was a warrior in his early days with the Wolves. He brought size, strength, and toughness to a team that desperately needed all of those attributes.

Pek worked his tail off crafting his game, while sticking to his normal diet of meat and vodka (maybe real, maybe not). Before long, two Rick’s (Adelman and Rubio) and one Kevin brought out the best in him.

In year two, Pekovic broke out in a big way and it appeared the Wolves had finally found their center of the future. No more Darko nonsense. Rubio had finally arrived for his rookie season after a long and arduous journey to the frigid North, and eventually the Pek-and-R(ubio)oll became a staple of the Wolves offense. When Pek caught the ball on the low block or in the middle of the paint, often perfectly delivered by his new partner in crime, it was terribly difficult for opposing centers to stop him. Pek would work his way deep into the paint, almost underneath the basket with shear force. Nobody could keep him from getting to his spots. Eventually it became very clear that few bigs across the league wanted a piece of the Peksecutioner. Was that because they feared their skull being collected and branded on his left arm? Sounds reasonable to me.

With a season under his belt, and Rubio in the fold, Pek’s numbers exploded across the board, making him one of the most improved players in the NBA. During the 2011-12 season, he led the league in offensive rebounding percentage (15.8%), his player efficiency rating (PER) increased a whooping 10.2 points (from 11.2 to 21.4), his true shooting percentage spiked to 60.7 (career-best) and he averaged 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in 26.9 minutes. The Wolves actually had found a second round gem. As you can imagine, Pek quickly became a fan favorite. Everyone seemed to love his personality and teammates cherished his presence as both the team enforcer and locker room comedian.

Naturally when someone arrives on the NBA scene in such dramatic fashion (ask Jeremy Lin) a nickname is in order, and the same rang true for Pek. I don’t know the exact origin story behind this, but he was a menacing figure on the hardwood who also happened to love the 1972 film, The Godfather—Gladiator, Troy, and Braveheart were some his other favorites—and he struck you as the type of person that could possibly be in the mafia as the muscle. Listen, Jimmy, if you don’t pony up the cash before Wednesday night at 10, you’ll have my guy Nikola all over [redacted] ... so yeah, the nickname stuck.

The Godfather was officially born. Although Anthony Tolliver once described him as a big teddy bear off the court—he was all about having fun and joking around—the nickname was absolutely perfect. The theme music from The Godfather would play at Target Center after Pekovic made a layup or sunk one of his patented baby right hook shots. Let’s be honest, aside from free throws or transition dunks (gracias, Ricky!), this was how Pek scored. It’s also how he eventually secured a five-year, $60 million contract from Flip Saunders in 2013. He became one of the top centers in the league by getting buckets and keeping it simple.

Pekovic learned to stick to his strengths. Once he figured out how to play without fouling anyone who dared to come into his personal space (down to 2.8 fouls per 36 minutes in his sophomore season) he quickly became a wrecking ball in the paint, as well as one of the better rim running centers in the league; some people would joke the rim should be the one running away from Pek because ... well, it’s Pek.

That was one of the best parts of having Pek on the Wolves. He made people’s imaginations run wild. What if he and Michael Beasley lived together and had their own reality TV show? Does he wrestle with a bear in the woods in some desolate location as part of his offseason training program? Would he kill the bear and eat it for dinner just to show dominance? Could he actually be an ancient warrior that somehow teleported into present day because he was bored destroying his enemies on the battlefield? Pekovic was the league’s best fake nightclub bouncer and the baller anyone would least like to get in a street fight with. He was an alluring character that inspired plenty of fan fiction. According to Tim Allen, Pekovic was responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs!

In time, another nickname arrived. The Bruise Brothers were created. Kevin Love and Pekovic formed a formidable, though certainly earthbound, frontcourt duo that pounded the paint, ate up the offensive glass, and left opposing bigs tired, beat up, and often frustrated after facing an interior onslaught on a nightly basis.

Love and Pek became tight through the years.

Perk and Pek also became friends, producing gold through the lens.

Some nights, The Godfather was an unstoppable force of nature.

Other nights, he said things that made the Spanish Unicorn go...

He would let T.J. Young (son of Thad) sit on his lap in the locker room after games while Thad was talking to the media or getting dressed. T.J. loved Pek. Canis Hoopus loved Pek, too.

And in the end, like plenty of big men that came before his time, Pekovic’s foot and ankle issues became too much to overcome. His body ultimately betrayed him. He experienced all sorts of health problems that kept him from ever playing in more than 65 games in a season and totaled only 271 games through six years. Pek missed the entire season this past year (he spent most of it in Montenegro) and was only able to limp through 12 games due to lingering pain following a last ditch debridement and repair of his right Achilles tendon in 2015-16. Although he missed plenty of games over his entire career, the sharp decline really hit during the 2014-15 season (31 games) and none of the surgeries or shifts in workout regimen ever seemed to work after that. Thus, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time.

Now with the news of the Wolves waiving him yesterday, it’s time to say farewell once and for all to the Godfather. Nikola Pekovic’s career was all too short and tainted with injuries, though at his peak he was an absolute beast that gave many of the elite centers across the league fits. He brought great joy to the fan base in the early parts of his career. He was powerful and tough and not to be [redacted] with. Pek gave the Wolves muscle, and one of the most physical players to go to war with when his body cooperated, but his career inevitably turned sour after injuries forced him away from the game for good.

Still, nobody can take the good times away. The Godfather will not soon be forgotten.