Inasmuch as the league's best players double as First Team All-Good Guys, this is a golden age for the NBA. The biggest stars in the pro basketball cosmos—Kobe, Shaq, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady—are also, as they say, mensches. But like any drama, the soap-operatic NBA needs a few Laimbeeresque antiheroes to accrue technical fouls and mortal enemies with equal relish, and Ron Attest is the villain du jour. Last Thursday the volatile Pacers swingman was suspended for his 10th game this season after committing a league-high fifth flagrant foul. Artest has now committed an assortment of crimes and misdemeanors ranging from smashing the Mavericks' Raja Bell to smashing a $100,000 television camera, which have added up to $45,000 in NBA fines. At 23 and in his fourth season, he has been depicted as the second coming of Dennis Rodman. Or as one publication sensationalized, The Scariest Man in the NBA.
What makes Artest's casting peculiar is that his eruptions are completely at odds with his off-court persona. The Pacers' community relations staff will tell you that when they need a player to make an appearance, Artest's is the first number they call. This is a millionaire athlete who's on a first-name basis with every Conseco Fieldhouse security guard and signs autographs until seconds before tip-off. Anyone who has spent time with Artest unfailingly uses some variation of the words sweet, eccentric and naive to describe him. Villainous? Malicious? Never.
A personal Ar-testimonial: Earlier this season I interviewed him for a story (SI, Dec. 16, 2002). Shortly into the conversation he asked if I liked animals. "Sure," I stammered. "Why?" He had designs of taking me to the zoo but wanted to make sure I'd feel comfortable there. "He's nothing like what you think when you see him explode on court," says Pacers center Brad Miller, Artest's best friend on the team. "He just has a shorter fuse than some guys."
Look beyond his violent outbursts, and you see signs that Artest isn't exactly a societal menace. He doesn't harangue the refs—"They always treat me with respect," Artest told The Indianapolis Star last week He doesn't fight. And excepting a bizarre muscle-flexing encounter with Pat Riley in January, he's not known for taunting. His eruptions, even the flagrant fouls, are invariably exercises in self-flagellation, fits of pique when he's disgusted with his own play. And after each one he has been full of contrition. "This has all been embarrassing to me," he said last week.
None of this excuses Artest. As superbly as he guards the opposition, his conduct has been, simply, indefensible. Somewhat short-tempered in two-plus seasons as a Bull (the Pacers acquired him last year), Artest has buckled emotionally in the heat of playing for a top team. His burgeoning Bad Boy repute almost assuredly kept him from making the All-Star team; as one of the league's best defenders, who is averaging 2.16 steals and 15.2 points per game, he seemed deserving. His combustibility also looms large in the Pacers' current free fall. (At week's end Indiana, 39-27 overall, had lost 12 of 14 games; the team is 4-7 this year in games Artest has missed.) Artest's teammates have wearied of his antics. "We need you, man," forward Jermaine O'Neal told Artest sternly over the weekend.
Fortunately for Artest, NBA reputations aren't scrawled in indelible ink. The Nets' hyperaggressive forward, Kenyon Martin, was Public Enemy No. 1 last season, collecting six flagrant foul points that earned him seven games in suspensions and $347,057 in fines. This year Martin has been a model of decorum (zero flagrant fouls) and convalesced his image, all without sacrificing any on-court intensity. Martin's advice for Artest? "Finish the season the right way and don't get in any more trouble. People can talk to you until you're blue in the face, but if you don't do something about it, it's all on you at the end of the day." There, Ron. Sermon's over. Now pass the hat. The black one, that is. It doesn't become you.