How an NBA All-Star introduced himself to an international audience with a stuffed animal signature.
In 2022, the “Panda” Nike Dunk Low is as much mass as it is meme.
To some, the shoes represent a ubiquitous status symbol like Timberland boots in the ’00s or the Fila Disruptor in the late ’10s. To others, they’re simply the second-best panda sneaker.
Back in 2014, Metta Sandiford-Artest, formerly known as Metta World Peace and born Ron Artest, took his talents to China to play for the Sichuan Blue Whales. The Queensborough baller with a World Championship and Defensive Player of the Year award to his names had just finished a stint with his hometown New York Knicks, traveling 7,500 miles to the Far East for a brief break from the NBA.
Upon his arrival in Asia, Metta changed his title and his shoes.
The Panda Friend
Right around that same time in 2014 when the St. John’s star was signing a one-year, $1.4M deal to play in China for the Sichuan Blue Whales, he was also changing his name from Metta World Peace to “The Panda’s Friend,” or simply “Panda Friend.”
Over the course of 15 games, the All-Star formerly known as Ron Artest played with the name Panda Friend on the back of his jersey and signature “The Panda’s Friend” sneakers on his feet. Akin to Jeremy Scott x Adidas collaborations inspired by stuffed animals, the Panda Friend shoes positioned cuddly pandas atop the tongue.
“The Panda Friend sneakers were great,” Sandiford-Artest told Boardroom. “It was a point in my time when I was having a little fun. I was still playing in my prime.”
More philanthropic than Jeremy Scott’s high-fashion-meets-high-fun collab, the Panda Friend shoes featured removable panda toys on each tongue, thus allowing Artest to live up to his new monicker by tossing the stuffed animal add-ons to fans in the stands after each game.
“Before every game, I will be wearing the white or black shoes,” Sandiford-Artest said back in 2014. “The top part of the shoe has a panda on it…it is removable. I will be throwing it to a friend in the crowd. The person who catches it will be the Panda’s Friend of the Day.”
While injuries limited action for Artest in Asia, the Panda Friend frenzy did not slow down.
Over the course of his time in China, Artest attended and spoke at PETA charity events in Chengdu while also visiting the city’s Giant Panda Breeding Base. By 2015, he was ready to return to the Los Angeles Lakers, changing his name back to Metta World Peace while remaining engaged with his Far East ventures.
See, prior to playing with Kobe Bryant in Staples Center, Artest teamed up with Yao Ming as a member of the Houston Rockets. Building off that relationship, he later visited China to play in Yao’s charity games while also visiting Qingdao to train.
In 2022, The Panda Friend legacy lives on as an apparel line and an aptly named Web3 company.
It also highlights one stop in one of the most slept-on and interesting sneaker legacies the game has ever seen.
One Of A Kind
As a McDonald’s All-American at La Salle Academy, a young Ron Artest was renowned for his toughness and all-around play. Staying local, the Queens native enrolled at St. John’s in the Fall of 1997 where he was among the first players to rock the school’s sought-after Jordan Brand uniforms.
As a member of the Red Storm, Artest cracked the starting lineup as a freshman and led the team in minutes as a sophomore. All the while, he rotated team takes and signatures from the school’s Jumpman sponsor, once playing in an Air Jordan 14 on his left foot while rocking a Nike Air Uptempo Max on his right foot.
After an All-American campaign his sophomore season in Queens, Artest was drafted 16th overall in 1999 to the Chicago Bulls. In his first two seasons, he wore Converse and Nike, neglecting a major endorsement deal despite hailing from the major market of New York City and landing in the sneaker hot spot of Chicago.
“When I came into the NBA, I never wanted to sign with a brand,” Sandiford-Artest said. “I was one of the first in the shoe game by myself that didn’t have a big company supporting.”
Once traded to Indianapolis, Artest arose as one of the game’s great defenders and an All-Star talent. Famous for battling Michael Jordan in summer runs at Hoops Chicago, Artest adored MJ as a player and person, yet remained independent on foot.
Over the course of his early days with the Pacers, Artest often changed numbers to honor members of the 72-10 Chicago Bulls, wearing 23 as an homage to Jordan and 91 as a nod to Dennis Rodman. At the same time, he’d scribble personal messages on his game shoes or create custom colorways with the help of a blue Sharpie.
Despite being friends with Mike and having the St. John’s ties, he still had to go to lengths to get his own Air Jordans to wear on the court at that time.
“I love Mike and I played in Mikes,” Sandiford-Artest said. “I remember when Nike wouldn’t give me Jordans because Reggie Miller had Jordans and they said only one player [could wear them on the team].”
“So I was in Indiana, I drove three hours to Chicago, bought Jordans from the Nike store, and came back and played in Jordans. That’s how bad I wanted to play in Jordans.”
Never running out of gas on court, Artest continued to rise in the ranks of elite wings. For his work ethic, the Eastern Conference coaches voted him as one of the top forwards in the game at the age of 24. In the 2004 NBA All-Star Game, Artest vied for a footwear company to fully fund his defensive-minded game and unorthodox approach to style.
In that nationally televised exhibition, Artest rotated DaDa, AND1, Nike, and Adidas shoes on each foot as an audition for a shoe contract. Shortly after, the Pacer swingman went on a run where he had his own signature shoe and/or player exclusives from an array of independent brands.
Repping the likes of Protege, BALL’N, K1X, and PEAK over the course of his playing career, Artest was early to the days of player empowerment when it came to working with small companies or signing sneaker contracts with companies from overseas.
“I wanted to launch my own shoes and I’ve done that throughout my career,” Sandiford-Artest said. “I’ve had probably the most signature shoes that weren’t with a big company.”
Having had his shoes sold abroad in Germany and Asia, few players possess a footwear resume as individualized as Sandiford-Artest’s. While the Panda Friends sneakers are no longer on the market, they live on through Internet lore and even in a children’s book.
Since his playing days, the likes of Lonzo Ball, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Langston Galloway have all launched their own shoe lines in independent fashion while also playing games in their own namesake pairs. While the $80 Panda Friend sneakers created a brand for Artest abroad and helped raise money for student scholarships and awareness for mental health, the unorthodox science of the shoes may have been ahead of its time, but was still rooted in fun.
“Just being creative,” Sandiford-Artest said. “Now we have big platforms to launch our own shoes or build our own brands, it’s an incredible time to be in sports.”