Peja primed for Pacer life
From "disappointed" and "disrespected" on Tuesday night, Peja Stojakovic made it to "excited" by Wednesday evening.
His bizarre final hours as a member of the Sacramento Kings are officially a bad memory now. After being forced to make himself available to return to the Kings' lineup for Wednesday's game in New York against the Knicks, Stojakovic is finally headed to Indiana to play for a longtime fan: Pacers president Larry Bird.
"I'm excited," Stojakovic told ESPN.com by phone moments before the long-discussed trade was finalized. "It's a fresh start for me and I probably need that."
He needed a lift of any kind after Tuesday's events in Philadelphia. Informed a few hours before the Kings' eventual 109-103 loss to the 76ers that he was Indiana-bound in exchange for Ron Artest, Stojakovic stayed behind at the team hotel and promptly began making arrangements to fly back to Sacramento to see his pregnant fiancée Aleka before moving on to his new team. A few hours later, Stojakovic was informed by another longtime fan -- Kings president Geoff Petrie, who drafted the Serb sharpshooter in 1996 -- that the trade was in limbo.
The Kings went on to ask Stojakovic if he wanted to play against the Sixers, but the sides ultimately decided that Stojakovic would rejoin the club after the game to be available to play against the Knicks. Before traveling with the Kings one last time, Stojakovic shared his frustration with ESPN.com, saying: "The way I was treated today, I was disappointed. ... Anybody can get traded in the NBA, but the way I found out, it was disrespectful. I deserve better after seven and a half years."
After a bus ride he described as "weird" -- and with no further contact from Kings management -- Stojakovic joined Wednesday morning's team meeting to review the game plan for New York. Yet it became apparent, as the afternoon progressed, that the trade would indeed be consummated.
Asked how hard it would have been to play for the Kings again, Stojakovic said, "I really don't know. First the team tells you there's going to be a trade, then three hours later they tell you they need you. I had my mind set for Indiana, but as a player there's nothing you can really say or do. My future was in somebody else's hands."
The week began, ironically, with Stojakovic saying he hoped to be a King for life after setting the franchise record for games played at 518.
He'll finally have his future in his own hands this summer, when he declares for free agency. After earning $7.5 million this season, Stojakovic is expected to opt out of the final year of a contract that made the 28-year-old -- along with Artest at $6.8 million this season -- one of the league's best bargains.
Plagued by back, groin and hand injuries all season, Stojakovic returned to the Kings' lineup last Thursday and is averaging just 16.5 points per game on 40.3 percent shooting from the field. But he's still making 39.7 percent of his 3-point attempts and, given his pedigree as a perimeter threat, will undoubtedly rank as one of the most coveted players on the free-agent market this offseason.
Chicago and Toronto, with their strong Serbian populations, have been frequently mentioned as potential free-agent destinations for Stojakovic. His fondness for Miami and close relationship with former Kings teammate Vlade Divac, who's now serving in a front-office role with the Los Angeles Lakers, are why the Heat and Lakers are also regarded as strong contenders for the sharpshooter's services if they can somehow manufacture salary-cap flexibility or entice Indiana with a sign-and-trade offer.
Stojakovic, though, deflected questions about his free-agent leanings and the Pacers' chances of keeping him beyond this season.
"There's a long way to go before that," he said.
He preferred instead to focus on swapping addresses with Artest. Stojakovic had heard that exact scenario mentioned countless times since the summer of 2004, but it has long been presumed that Petrie wouldn't part with his prized former draftee (selected No. 14 overall in '96) unless it reached the point that he knew he couldn't re-sign him.
"You could sense [lately] that something was going to happen," Stojakovic said. "There have been rumors for a long time and today it came true.
"I felt good there [in Sacramento], but I didn't know what to expect [this season] because of my situation. I really believed in our team. We had a couple new players, but I thought we were going to do well."
"It's a new start for me and a new start for the Kings' organization. It's definitely going to be a new start. I'm excited about it. I'm ready. I'm going to be a Pacer, and I'm going to do the best I can do [to] try to adjust to the new system.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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