Now it's time for the transition game
Peja Stojakovic says farewell to Sacramento. Some of his loyal fans turn out to say goodbye.
By Joe Davidson -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Friday, January 27, 2006
Story appeared in Sports section, Page C1
Cheryl Brown was in tears.
Her favorite Kings player, Peja Stojakovic, was leaving town. He belongs to the Indiana Pacers now, replaced by Ron Artest.
Armed with a bouquet of flowers and a Stojakovic jersey, Brown went into the cold night Wednesday to say goodbye. She dragged her husband, Mike Brown, to Sacramento International Airport, where Stojakovic held a brief news conference to say goodbye to Sacramento.
There was relief in Stojakovic's eyes, emotion in his voice and a travel bag on his shoulders.
And for fans such as Brown, there was something else - an eight-year emotional connection being severed. This was more than just another basketball transaction. Stojakovic, boyish and charming with a quick smile and European styling, was more than a sum total of points, rebounds and assists.
If the reaction in the Brown family was any indication, the trade could be judged along gender lines. Women hated it. Men loved it.
Mike Brown rolled his eyes over all the fuss. The Kings would improve, he said, because they gained "some real muscle in Artest."
Cheryl Brown saw only brute force where emotional depth and character once stood. "Shame on the Maloofs for doing this," she said, referring to Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof.
Stojakovic understood the dynamic.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," he said of the support from his fans. "It means a lot to me. My wife was telling me that neighbors were coming to our house to say goodbye. It means that I did something here in this city. I really believe, in my heart, that I had a great relationship and understanding with the fans."
True to form, Stojakovic expressed no bitterness toward his former employers. He said he wasn't happy to have first heard about the trade on cable television, but he knew the game ultimately was a business.
"I wouldn't say I feel disrespected now," Stojakovic said. "I would say it was all weird. First, there's a trade, and then three hours later, it doesn't go through. Then I felt even worse. From not being wanted and then being asked to go back and play, that was hard. How am I going to go back after I've been traded, then I wasn't traded? I know I wasn't the first person and I won't be the last for that to happen to.
"It's been different. But I understand everything now. The team wasn't doing well. I haven't played well. It's all OK. I have to deal with this and get ready for another step in my life."
Joe Maloof said he and his brother Gavin, the Kings owners, didn't plan to have the news leak out before personally notifying Stojakovic.
"It's too bad it happened like it did," Joe Maloof said. "We appreciate everything Peja's done for our franchise, and we wish him all the best in the world."
Said Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie: "A player deserves to hear from (his organization) first. It wasn't intentional by any means."
Petrie was the talent scout who chased Stojakovic across Europe 10 years ago and brought him to the NBA. Stojakovic said he'll forever be indebted to Petrie.
"I appreciate Geoff very much," Stojakovic said. "He believed in me. He gave me a chance here. Hopefully, we can sit down and talk about all this some time."
The end was far less poetic than those early pursuits. His final hours with the Kings were surreal, Stojakovic said. With virtually no sleep, he attended a Kings meeting in New York on Wednesday morning, hours after being told not to head back to Sacramento and to rejoin the team.
"I went to the meeting and had a free breakfast," Stojakovic said, laughing. "I wasn't really following the meeting because my mind wasn't there."
Artest's arrival has propelled the Kings back into the national news. But there will be a Stojakovic legacy beyond his shortcomings on the court - a legacy of summer basketball camps and fund-raisers for local charities and winter coat drives for the needy.
"All the good things he did in the community, people appreciated it," said Alex Dimitrijevic, a longtime Stojakovic friend who helps coordinate the player's charitable events. "I think Peja being injured had a lot to do with the fans (being disappointed with him). Fans are emotional because they love the Kings. I don't think this season was all Peja's fault. It was hard on him and everyone."
It was especially hard for Tara Holait of Woodland, who treated the Stojakovic trade news like a death in the family. She said she abruptly left her work as a mail carrier, hurried home, sobbing, packaged all of her Kings garb and threw it out, about $2,000 worth. She said the trade left her "feeling betrayed."
"I'm heartbroken," she said by phone. "Peja's done so much for us. I'm a foreigner like he was, from India. He means everything to people like me."
Holait said she attempted to place a full-page ad in The Bee to thank Stojakovic. She offered $800. Such ads cost about $13,000. Instead, Holait said she will invest in Pacers souvenirs.
"I told my son I was going all Indiana, and he thought I meant I was going to move there to be with Peja," Holait said.
"I hadn't thought of that."