MINNEAPOLIS — Even though he grew up on the other side of the world, Nikola Pekovic was never a stranger to the freshwater fishing culture of Minnesota.
The Timberwolves’ center learned how to handle a pole at a very young age, navigating the lakes, streams and rivers of what’s now northeastern Montenegro. Carp and trout are among the region’s native game, not unlike what you might land at Lake Minnetonka or the Mississippi River this weekend.
The Land of 10,000 Lakes’ vast array of angling options isn’t the only reason Pekovic unwaveringly wished to stay here this offseason. Not the most important, either.
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But it does illustrate the big man’s metamorphosis into what he calls “a Minneapolis guy.”
“I just feel comfortable here, you know?” the mild-mannered, 6-foot-11 block bully offered Friday morning after re-upping for a reported $60 million over five years, plus incentives. “If you go out, if you go for dinner, wherever you go, everybody is nice. I just feel very comfortable here, so that’s why I stayed.
“And also,” Pekovic added, a sheepish grin tugging at the right side of his mouth, “fishing.”
Because of that comfort level, Pekovic told his agent Jeff Schwartz near the end of last season he didn’t have other plans and wished to stay in Minnesota. Whether he was off casting a line alone somewhere or growing close to fellow pillar players Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, he came to love playing for the team that drafted him in 2008.
So what took so long to keep him around? (A month and 16 days since the free-agent negotiation period commenced, to be exact).
Talk to Schwartz, Pekovic said. He handled almost all of the haggling.
“Basically, it was only him. It was not me,” said Pekovic, the Timberwolves’ leading scorer last year in the wake of Love’s hand and knee injuries. “From my point, it was only I said ‘I want to stay with the Timberwolves.'”
But that doesn’t provide much of a bargaining chip for working out a lucrative second NBA contract, so the Pekovic camp decided to wait things out a bit, just in case another team drew up an offer sheet.
The Minnesota front office’s response was to make it clear they weren’t letting Pekovic go, both in the media and conversations with other general managers. Early on in the process, the Timberwolves extended a four-year offer for a reported $48 million. That and their message insisting upon retention apparently scared off other teams — no one else drew up a formal offer.
Still, Schwartz and company pushed for an extra season, drawing the process through July and into the middle of August before agreeing to terms Wednesday.
In the end, both sides won. Pekovic received a maximum deal, and Minnesota met its self-promoted No. 1 offseason objective.
“As players, there’s many times where you can get in the right place,” president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said Friday. “From the time that I got here, talking to Jeff, there was no time that there was ever anything said that (Pekovic) did not want to be in Minnesota. This is where he wanted to be.”
Of course, a near $7 million raise doesn’t hurt.
Pekovic’s newfound wealth, however, didn’t come without a cost. The negotiations’ longevity kept him out of EuroBasket 2013, an absence that could cost Montenegro a shot at 2016 Olympics qualification.
The national team gave him until Aug. 5 to report to training camp. But without an NBA contract — or disability insurance — in hand, he wasn’t able to participate. When the announcement that he wouldn’t play hit newsstands, many people in the small, former Yugoslavian territory were disappointed.
“They expect me to come,” Pekovic said. “For sure, it’s going to be more difficult for them … I know what I can do and everything.”
But in spite of that absence, Pekovic carried himself Friday with about as much joy as an oft-emotionless, bullish brute of a man can show.
Dressed in a stylish black suit and tie, he cracked a couple one-liners, responding to inquiries about why he looks thinner — he’s still at 280 pounds, his playing weight last season — with “maybe it’s the suit.” He laughed while admitting he may have some explaining to do to Kevin Love, who also works with Schwartz but didn’t receive a max contract when his rookie deal expired.
Pekovic said he plans on being the same guy he always has, even with a much larger chunk of change in his checking account — no new house, no extravagant parties, and the like.
But after growing up in a relatively obscure, once-war-torn part of the world, the notion of having so much money still hadn’t really sunk in.
“Like I said to my friends and agents, they was asking me, ‘So, what do you think?'” said Pekovic, a 52 percent field-goal shooter last season. “I said I’m not thinking nothing. I need, like, five, six days to settle down and really to think about everything.
“Of course, there’s nobody who wouldn’t he happy when you sign a big contract, but still, that’s nothing if you’re not winning games.”
Count his parents, who watch every Timberwolves game live on the Internet — most of which tip off in the wee hours of the morning local time — among the thrilled.
Neither of them has ever seen their son play an NBA contest in person. His father, Dodor, has never even been to Minnesota.
But, as Pekovic points out, there will be plenty of opportunities.
“I hope they will come out the next few years,” said Pekovic, who is flying back to Montenegro on Saturday and will remain there until about 10 days before the start of training camp. “They’ve got five years to come here.”
He’ll just have to make sure there’s time for a fishing trip.