"It's a different kind of friendship," said the young, chiseled forward of his frontcourt mate. "A long-lasting friendship."
"Basketball is easy," responded the other forward, the tall, lanky one with the braids drooping onto his neck. "Being friends and getting to know each other and enjoy each other is the hardest part, and we're doing that."
It all sounded so Iron John, these two talented young men talking about each other. "He's a total basketball player," raved one. "Now it's all about winning," said the other.
This was in Jan. 2004, when Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal were making their mark as the best forward tandem in basketball (just ahead of, interestingly enough, Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell). At the time, I did a story on the duo and was told, repeatedly and by different Pacers, how the two were becoming buddies. All the male bonding rituals were testified to: they went bowling together (Jermaine had his own red-white-and-blue ABA replica ball), they did couples nights with their ladies, damn near everything but talk to each other over the back fence while sipping on longnecks. "Jermaine reached out to me and made me feel comfortable," Artest told me in that remarkably sincere way of his that makes you want to believe him even though you know you shouldn't. "It took a while because I have my family here and I spend a lot of time with them, but he was always trying to do stuff for me, for the whole team, to make us closer."
And now ... this. Now, Artest is demanding a trade because he wants to play for a different coach, wants to score more (though, strangely, he also said he'd be happy coming off the bench behind LeBron James, which wouldn't exactly lend itself to offensive freedom), wants to escape the stigma of the Palace brawl (because making trade demands in midseason, despite starting for a very good team, is a splendid way to repair your reputation).
His request came only a week after O'Neal publicly intimated that the team should trade certain, unnamed players -- Jeff Foster, you selfish bastard! -- if they didn't get with the program. This Monday, team CEO Donnie Walsh said he'd try to honor Artest's demand, after which O'Neal weighed in. Apparently, he was no longer trying to "enjoy" his teammate. "Ron doesn't want to be here, so Ron doesn't matter anymore," O'Neal said. He then added. "This is about us winning two straight games. You guys got any questions about us winning two straight games? You got any questions about us having the second-best record in the Eastern Conference even though we've struggled?"