If you arrived a few hours before an Indiana Pacers game earlier this season, you would have found swingman Ron Artest seated at his locker, hard at work. With an earnest look on his face he'd affix star decals in the Pacers' colors, gold and blue, to his size-16 Nikes. Brandishing a blue Sharpie, he would draw psychedelic designs on the shoes—curlicues and inverted pyramids and tiny fractals—and in elaborate bubble letters he'd inscribe Bible verses as well as the names of relatives and friends. He'd then lace up his kicks and take to the court—or at least he did until Nov. 22, when the NBA informed Artest that he would be fined $50,000 for playing in footwear that wasn't predominantly one color. Now his handiwork lies at the foot of his locker, twin totems to his team, his God and his family. "Lots of people," he says, "stop by and admire them."
Those shoes are not the only arts-and-crafts project on display in Artest's Conseco Fieldhouse cubicle. Taped to the wooden panels are action shots of New York Knicks guard Allan Houston, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, Washington Wizards swingman Jerry Stackhouse—explosive scorers whom the 6'7", 246-pound Artest relishes guarding. The photos weren't simply torn from the pages of magazines. Artest meticulously cut out the images, trimming between each of the players' fingers, precisely limning the outlines of their hips and elbows. Why had he gone to so much trouble? Artest thinks for a second, smiles, then says, "I guess they'd look pretty funny with their legs cut off!"
Ron Artest's teammates call him the Beast. First filling in for the injured Reggie Miller at shooting guard and now starting at small forward after Miller's Nov. 26 return, he had helped the Pacers to a 15-5 record at week's end, the best in the Eastern Conference. It has been Artest's relentlessly physical play—"football-basketball," he calls it—more than his points (15.9 per game), rebounds (5.8), assists (3.2 assists) and steals (2.15) that has propelled Indiana to its early-season success. Assistant coach Dan Burke tabulates how many "defense disruptions" each Pacer causes and reckons that Artest deflects the ball once every five minutes, nearly double the frequency of his closest teammate. Like an Indy car stuck in sixth gear, he only goes full throttle.
"Ron plays with a passion that's uncontrollable," says Indiana coach Isiah Thomas. "He's in love—in love—with basketball."
The best perimeter defender east of Gary Payton, Artest has quick hands, long arms and an off-the-charts hoops IQ. He is immune to head or ball fakes, knows every player's tendencies and gambles only when he believes he has an edge. Among those cutouts he has shut down this season: Houston (3 of 16 from the field), Stackhouse (2 of 16), Nowitzki (4 of 20) and Orlando Magic star Tracy McGrady (6-of-19 shooting and 13 points, 20 below his league-leading average at the time). "He's a bitch, ain't he?" Magic guard Darrell Armstrong said to McGrady on the bench as the Pacers rolled to a 106-70 victory. As Indiana forward Ron Mercer puts it, "The Beast intimidates a lot of guys."
Yet in other ways the 23-year-old Artest might be the NBA's least imposing player. In a league populated by prima donnas and poseurs, he is free of both pretense and guile. Ask him a question and he'll answer it candidly, making eye contact the entire time. ("The Nets? We don't like them. We'll probably fight") Yell his name from an arena's upper reaches during pregame warmups and, reflexively, he'll turn and wave or give a thumbs-up. Midway through a recent lunch order of "fettuccine alfredo con seafood with lots of seafood" at an upscale Italian joint in downtown Indianapolis, Artest summoned the waiter. "Please tell the chef my pasta is excellent and he's doing a terrific job back there, a terrific job," he said. Driving home to his McMansion in the suburbs, his voice cracked as he talked about his fianc�e, Kimisha Hatfield, and his kids, Sade, 5; Ron III, 3; and Leron, 1.
When Artest used to go home to Queens, N.Y., in the off-season, he found himself dispensing cash to friends and relatives until they nearly bankrupted him. Last summer he stayed in Indy, and when he wasn't working out, he spent a good many nights watching the WNBA's Indiana Fever. He didn't just attend games. He sat with his kids and yelled dee-fense! and clapped those infernal ThunderStix. "I'm probably the biggest Fever fan in the state," he says. "Some of those girls have a better handle than guys in the NBA." He particularly admires All-Star forward Tamika Catchings. What's she like? "Oh, I've never met her," Artest says, his eyes suddenly as wide as coasters. "I bet she's real nice, though."
Artest is not so much unaffected by his celebrity as he is simply oblivious to it, living in an almost constant state of exuberance. It was a keyed-up Artest, you'll recall, who broke one of Michael Jordan's ribs during the cloak-and-dagger workout sessions in Chicago in the summer of 2001, before His Airness's comeback. "Remember how Pete Rose took out the catcher in that All-Star Game? Ron would do the same thing," says center Brad Miller, Artest's best friend on the Pacers. "I mean this in a good way, but he's maybe a little nuts sometimes."
In early July, Artest underwent surgery to correct a congenital heart murmur and seal a hole between his aorta and pulmonary artery. After the operation, doctors told him to rest for a while. Less than 24 hours later Artest left the hospital and went directly to the Pacers' practice facility. He worked up a sweat and decided to cool off by shooting free throws. As he stepped to the line, he was distracted by the sight of something pulsating in his pectoral region. "I swear I could see my heart pumping through my jersey, like an overworked heart in a cartoon," he says. "I thought for sure that was the end for me." He gathered his gear and went home—then came back the next day.
Not that it was the first time he had risked his life for a run. Last March, shortly after Indiana acquired him from the Chicago Bulls in a seven-player deal for Jalen Rose, the Pacers had a game in Detroit. As Artest sat in his suburban hotel room hours before tip-off, his basketball jones became unbearable. Though it was snowing, he put on shorts and a hooded sweatshirt and called a limo. "Take me to some outdoor courts," Artest instructed. The driver shrugged and headed into a neighborhood straight out of 8 Mile. A crowd gathered at the playground to watch—not because anyone recognized Artest as an NBA player but because a madman was hoisting jumpers in such frigid conditions. It turned out the Detroit police were conducting surveillance that day, and several members of the crowd were wanted on gun possession charges. Says David Craig, the Pacers' trainer and team administrator, "Now we tell Ron, 'When you want to go out and play ball on your own, take our security personnel with you.' "