Stojacic's comeback for the ages has inspired Vienna's 3x3 rise
VIENNA (Austria) - Having returned to his very best and led emerging power Vienna up the rankings, 3x3 great Stefan Stojacic has enjoyed a spectacular comeback season after his career appeared over due to a serious knee injury.
Since returning to the half-court mid-year, the 33-year-old Serb has starred for his new team and rewound the clock with vintage performances capped by winning MVP at the Paris Masters in Vienna's breakthrough on the FIBA 3x3 World Tour.
Stojacic was spectacular with a ridiculous 50 points in the tournament (the first time it was done on the World Tour in 6 years), including the title-winning shot in the final against Utrecht, to trigger wild scenes of jubilation for the Austrians who had never ever won a World Tour Masters.
"We celebrated like crazy and it was a historic moment for Team Vienna," Stojacic said. "This was by far the biggest success in 3x3 for Austria so I think all the guys really appreciated the moment."
Even the usually reserved Stojacic, famously known as 'Mr Robot', couldn't contain his joy.
"I was emotional and happy," he said. "We are really close emotionally to each other. I think this is something we are going to talk about for the rest of our lives."
Proving he might be even better than when he dominated 3x3 during his glory years with Liman, Stojacic outplayed a number of superstars in Paris, including his No.1 ranked younger brother Strahinja Stojacic in the quarters then his former teammates in the semis.
Showcasing his bag of tricks, the 6ft.4 in (1.94m) Stojacic is averaging an insane 7.9ppg on the World Tour - the most by any player who has played more than 12 games. His heroics have led Vienna to sit seventh on the current standings in the race to be part of the showpiece 12-team Abu Dhabi Final in December.
Stojacic's fairy-tale emergence seemed impossible at the start of the year when he was struggling with deep bone bruising in his right knee causing him unrelenting agony, He had pushed his pain threshold last season in a bid to represent Serbia at the Tokyo Olympics.
His injury struggles, which began when he tore a calf muscle in 2019, ended his Olympic dream but he still courageously battled on with Liman on the FIBA 3x3 World Tour 2021 but was merely a shadow of the player who won the FIBA 3x3 World Tour 2017 MVP.
"My knee was really bad. I was kind of a little bit depressed," he said. "I was trying to recover for the Olympics but wasn't successful. It was hard for me to even run after my kids."
With doctors urging him to end his legendary career, Stojacic obliged and returned to his professional job as an engineer. "Doctors were saying 'yeah maybe you should stop because of the damage'," he said.
His worsening knee made even sitting difficult, let alone perform his day job properly, but Stojacic was lured back to 3x3 in a coaching capacity with new team Vienna, who were previously known as Graz, and the Austria national team.
He had previous coaching stints in China and the Philippines, where he was an advisor on their men's national teams.
"They (Austria 3x3 chiefs) didn't even consider me to play," Stojacic said. "With my wife and kids I was like 'ok let's move to Austria."
Immediately, he felt a connection with his new teammates who were desperate to make a leap after showing glimpses in their first couple of years on the pro circuit.
"From the first moment, there was really great spirit between us," he said. "It was not like a player-coach. After one week, I felt like I was not the coach but more like a friend. It was emotional."
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While he fit seamlessly into coaching, a return to the half-court seemed like an afterthought until he was encouraged to give his knee another test. "The pain was ridiculous," said Stojacic, remembering what he experienced after returning to training.
Just when it seemed like he had pushed his body too far, Stojacic's luck changed when he had a troubled toe mended which helped ease the pain in his leg. "From that moment, it unlocked my leg. I still feel pain but it's bearable. It's manageable," he said. "If I'm practicing every day working on my leg, I feel like I'm 100 per cent ready.
"I feel lucky we figured out the cause."
As a high-profile player-coach, Stojacic's strong leadership has been key to Vienna's rise, particularly the improvement from dynamo Filip Kramer, sharpshooter Matthias Linortner, defensive leech Martin Trmal to new star addition Quincy Diggs.
With a rewired Stojacic leading the way, a new 3x3 powerhouse is emerging.
"The guys have really great potential. 3x3 is an emotional game...so things like hustle can determine the result," he said. "We had to work on that and I think they improved playing with me and I have been able to bring experience to the team.
"I feel we have a good future if we continue to improve."