(Artest posting up against Peja Stojakovic, who he was traded for)
The Indiana Pacers had been one of the most consistent franchises in sports. In 1994, their starting lineup consisted of Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller, Derrick McKey, Dale Davis, and Rik Smits. Six years later, in 2000, the Pacers went to the NBA Finals and all five players were still on the roster. They never toppled the juggernaut that was the Michael Jordan-Bulls, but they stayed competitive and were still a threat heading into the '04-05 season.
That all changed on November 19, 2004, when Ron Artest ran into the stands to confront a fan who had thrown a beer at him. Suddenly, one of the most model franchises in sports was turned on its head as Artest was suspended for the entire season. With Reggie Miller set to retire in the offseason, the Pacers' management had decisions to make regarding the future of the now-turbulent franchise.
Pacers' president Donnie Walsh and president of basketball operations Larry Bird both asserted that Artest's home was in Indiana. With four years and $29 million remaining on his contract, Artest was the biggest bargain in the NBA, and the Pacers made it clear that he was off-limits to other teams.
When the season began, Artest was monitored like a hawk by the fans and the media, who were skeptical that he had really learned his lesson. Even before the brawl, Artest had compiled a long rap sheet of transgressions, and in the interviews following the Detroit fiasco, he hardly appeared repentant.
The 2005-2006 season began eerily similar to the previous one. Indiana started 9-4 and appeared to be a contender in the East. Ron Artest was playing well and was on his best behavior, while the rest of the team appeared to have righted their injury woes. That didn't last long however -- O'Neal and Tinsley quickly found their way to the disabled list, while Artest publicly complained that he wasn't getting enough shots.
On December 10th, the Pacers were only a few games over .500 when Artest sat down with a reporter for the Indianapolis Star. Ron had previously asserted that his individual goals, such as releasing a rap album, would not resurface and that basketball was his top priority. In this interview however, Artest switched his tune and asked the Pacers to trade him.
"I think I cause a lot of problems here," Artest told the Star. "If the trade rumors, if there is any truth -- maybe it won't be a bad thing. They probably could win more games without me." "I still think my past haunts me here. I think somewhere else I'm starting fresh. I'm coming in with baggage, but people already know about it and how I'm going to be." "I like Coach [Carlisle] as a person, but I don't like playing for Coach. I like my team, though... Don't get it twisted. He's a very good coach. He knows what he's doing. I personally don't like playing for him."
Ron was fined $10,000 for publicly demanding a trade, a rule that was fittingly enacted as a response to Artest's actions in Detroit the year earlier. A disgruntled Donnie Walsh informed the press that Artest would placed on the inactive roster while they attempted to deal him.
"This is kind of the last straw" said Walsh, who had been unaware of Artest's desire to leave Indiana. "I do think it is a time to kind of break apart and see if he can get a new start somewhere else. I think that it is important for us to put our past behind us and stop these distractions so that what I think is a fine basketball team can go on. What kind of trade is this going to be if there is going to be a trade? All that has got to be answered and we'll get about doing that as soon as possible.
"I don't feel betrayed at all. I really don't. I don't want anyone to think that because I don't feel that way. I've had situations from players that either leave mad or they are mad at you and I have never taken it personally from them because I understand."
Not everyone was as forgiving as Walsh. By running into the crowd, Artest had completely ruined the Pacers' previous season. Indiana had supported Artest throughout the ordeal, but now that he was moving away from them, a few of the players felt what Donnie Walsh didn't.
"We felt betrayed, a little disrespected," said Jermaine O'Neal. "He didn't come to the guys that's been behind him for the last three or four years to let us know what he was thinking, what he was feeling. If he had done that, I'm pretty sure guys would have understood. We found out about it when you [the media] did, and that's inexcusable." "Players went to bat for him; players have lost money for him. Guys that were involved in that Detroit situation are a little bitter."
Laughably, Ron Artest changed his mind about wanting a trade just a few days later, and begged the team to take him back. ''It is the holiday season; it is a forgiving time of year,'' said Mark Stevens, Artest's agent. ''If the Indiana Pacers can find it in their hearts to forgive him, he would like to stay in Indiana. They have stuck with Ron through rough times. However, by no means did Ron mean the situation to escalate the way it did.''
Indiana continued with their attempts to move him, though they had a hell of a time doing it. Despite his affordable price tag, Ron's recent actions had labeled him as a team cancer, and some teams wanted no part of him. 20 teams, however, were willing to overlook his baggage and contacted the Pacers in an attempt to trade for him. The teams leading the Ron Artest sweepstakes were Atlanta, Golden State, Sacramento, Minnesota, Denver, and both Los Angeles teams.
Artest, who made $6.8 million that year, was difficult to move because in the NBA, trades could only be completed if both sides were swapping the same amount of money. Artest was so affordable that there weren't many players in the same salary bracket who were anywhere near as talented as him. Walsh and Bird were to ready to let Artest go, but they weren't just going to give him away. If they were to contend in the Eastern Conference, they needed to get something in return.
A month later, the Pacers finally reached a preliminary deal with the Sacramento Kings. The rebuilding Kings, who had traded cornerstone player Chris Webber the year before, were willing to part with sharp-shooter Peja Stojakovic, who was in the final year of his contract. A Peja-for-Artest trade had been rumored for years; with the Pacers desperate to move Artest and the Kings looking to shake up the team, the deal fell right into place... or it did until Artest had something to say about it.
Ron had promised that he would accept a trade to any team and would play for anyone. However, Artest was unwilling to suit up for the Sacramento Kings and the deal fell through because of it. The Kings' owners, Joe and Gavin Maloof, decided to meet with Artest and convinced him that Sacramento would welcome him with open arms. On January 25th, after six weeks of back-and-forth negotations, the trade became official.
(Artest, in a Kings jersey, guarding Paul Pierce. Photo by Damian Strohmeyer, SI Photos)
Indiana improved with Stojakovic in the lineup, but he was hardly present when they needed him the most. The injury-plagued marksman made it through the regular season but missed four games in their first round matchup with the Nets -- all four were losses. Peja became an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and signed with the New Orleans Hornets, where he helped them become a Western powerhouse. The Pacers traded Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington the following season and completely fell off the table. The team entered a rebuilding period, only a few years after contending for an NBA title.
The Sacramento Kings found new life with Artest in the lineup. Without him they were doomed to miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years; instead they went 26-14 after the move and once again headed to the postseason. Even as the #8 seed, the Kings gave the San Antonio Spurs a fight before falling in six games. Sacramento didn't renew coach Rick Adelman's contract, and the Kings faultered without him. They started rebuilding as well and eventually traded Artest to the Houston Rockets, where he reconvened with Adelman in another attempt at an NBA championship. After one season in Houston, Artest signed with the Lakers.