Artest, Peja and dirty laundry

Peja Stojakovic for Ron Artest?

In basketball terms, this was a no-brainer. The Kings traded a pillow-soft small forward with a nice jumper and poor defensive skills for one of the better players in the league, a great defender who can score, a potential all-pro. In terms of sheer ability and achievement, there is no question that the Kings got the better player.

But Artest comes with some heavy baggage that makes this trade the riskiest in the Kings’ history. Given his long history of fighting with players, fans, officials and coaches; missed practices; obscene gestures; and out-of-control behavior, it’s just a matter of time before he does something else that will be an embarrassment to himself, the sport, the league and the team. The only question is when it’ll happen—and what will be left of the Kings when he’s done.

No one can blame Geoff Petrie, the team’s general manager, for making this deal. Petrie gets paid to evaluate players without the kind of sentimentality fans attach to their idols, and his goal is to put a winning squad on the floor. The great team he built around Chris Webber and Vlade Divac was a wonder to behold, but Petrie took it apart just as quickly as he put it together as soon as it became clear that Vlade’s back and Webber’s knees could no longer bear the weight of championship aspirations. He moved Vlade, C-Webb, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson and a long list of others with grim efficiency, and most of the trades made good sense.

But the Peja-Artest trade is something different. It didn’t just alter the starting lineup; it changed the nature of the team—and its relationship with the community. During the Divac-Webber years, the Kings may have been “soft.” They may have been all offense. But they were also a lovable, tightly knit group of guys who genuinely liked each other and played with brains, skill and a marked absence of the selfishness that is all too common in the NBA. Dare we say it? They made us proud to be from Sacramento.

With Artest, all that changes. The Kings become better in the key areas that define post-season success: rebounding, defense and half-court offense. But they also become less unique and much more like every other run-of-the-mill NBA team: a collection of rootless, self-obsessed super athletes with no pretense of any real connection to the community. In the short term, they’ll play better, but sooner or later, Artest will explode, prompting another round of trades—or worse.

Being a pro-sports fan, as Jerry Seinfeld observed, is like “rooting for laundry.” Players come and go from team to team, and fans are left to root for whoever winds up wearing the local colors. Sometimes, even the teams themselves move, as the rumors of the Kings leaving Sacramento only remind us. For a few golden years, it seemed like Sacramento had something different. Now, with Artest in a Kings uniform, that suddenly seems like a very long time ago.