While Bird and Artest don't spend their off days fishing together, there's an obvious warmth between them. At Pacers practices or in the corridors of Conseco Fieldhouse, it's not uncommon to see Bird and Artest--one native Hoosier, one naturalized--off to the side, talking hoops. To Artest, Bird is not merely the boss; he's Larry Legend. After the photo shoot for this issue wrapped and Bird left the room, Artest audibly exhaled. "I still can't believe I'm posing with Larry Bird," he said. Like a fan on the street, Artest then asked if he could keep a Polaroid shot as a souvenir.
The cynic is within his rights to suggest that Bird has been afflicted with a sort of Stockholm syndrome. That is, the combustible Artest holds the franchise hostage and, perversely, Bird has grown to like his captor. "I respect Larry and that whole organization," says one Western Conference executive, "but how they can depend on a player who is so unpredictable is beyond me." Nothing if not self-aware, Bird has heard the echoes, and he knows that by tying himself--and thus the franchise--to Artest, he is gambling. But, keeping with his Indiana upbringing, he stands by his man. "Larry Joe was not going to turn his back on Ronnie," says Leonard, now a team broadcaster and a Bird confidant. "He likes him too much."
Located a few miles from chez Bird, in the Indianapolis suburb of Zionsville, Artest's home is a massive, three-level Tudor on a large tract of land with the requisite pool and tennis court (which he uses for basketball). But it's hardly ostentatious. Inside, it's cozy and functional and always open to friends and family, who sometimes visit for weeks. "Anyone who wants to stay here is welcome," he says, shrugging. Mostly to appease his wife, Kimsha, Artest does some quick tidying up and then relaxes on an overstuffed couch.
Seeing Artest flat on his back, it's impossible not to recall the last time we saw him in the supine position. Unless you've been on sabbatical in Bora-Bora, you know what happened: In the waning seconds of a road win over Detroit last Nov. 19, Artest delivered a hard foul from behind to Wallace, who retaliated with a shove. Either seeking to divorce himself from the conflict or to further goad the opposition (he says, somewhat unconvincingly, it was a case of the former), Artest lay down on the scorer's table and was plunked in the chest by a cup of beer thrown from the stands. He charged into the seats and took a swing at a poor sap he'd misidentified as the culprit, touching off the 12-minute melee.
As Bird watched from his Indianapolis home that night, his emotions were a swirl of disappointment, anger and reflexive loyalty to his players. In no way does he condone what Artest did, but get Bird going, and--ever the straight shooter--he will let it be known that he thought his team got a raw deal. "There were a lot of bad mistakes made that night," Bird says, "and Ronnie and the Indiana Pacers took the brunt of [the punishment]."
As for Artest, nearly a year after the fact, there are constant reminders of that night, some of them powerful--such as his no-contest plea on Sept. 23 to misdemeanor assault charges stemming from the fracas--others more subtle. What, for example, is with those wacky bowling shoes he's wearing? After last season Artest is radioactive to the image-makers at Nike, Adidas, even And 1. The shoe company with which he is currently negotiating is an obscure German outfit called Kix. And that water park off the interstate? He got to take his four kids (Sade, 7; Ron III, 5; Jeron, 3; and Diamond) there last season, the abundance of family time being the best part about missing a year of work.
When the topic comes up, Artest admits that the brawl affected him profoundly. He hates how he lost control and "all the kids had to see me acting crazy." He hates that he has become defined, in the manner of a modern-day Dennis Rodman, more for his outrageous behavior than for his considerable talent. (He recently changed his uniform number from 91, Rodman's number, to 15.) He hates that he hasn't played an organized basketball game since. And, yes, he hates having lost that $5.4 million in salary.
With wide-eyed awe, he describes how his team, which lost its three top scorers for a total of 118 games because of brawl-related suspensions, rallied to a 44-38 finish to reach the playoffs. How the fans closed ranks and showed up in greater numbers than they had the previous season, when Indiana won a franchise-record 61 games. How Bird backed him in public and--inaction speaking louder than words--declined numerous opportunities to trade him. As he takes inventory of the loyalty the Pacers showed him, his voice starts to catch. "It's about time I stopped acting like a knucklehead and paid some of it back," he says. "The way they treated me, I owe them a championship."
The notion of a Pacers' championship, which would be the franchise's first since its ABA days, is not a far-fetched one. Run down a list of perquisites for winning a ring--a pair of stars, a commitment to defense, expert coaching and depth--and the Pacers satisfy them all. "A lot can happen," says Bird, "but I really like this team."
Yet, spend enough time around Artest and you are reminded how easily he--and, by extension, the Pacers--could implode. His contrition, it turns out, has its limits. As Artest maneuvers his Ford Explorer down a state road, past stands selling pumpkins and a haunted house under construction, the question is put to him: What, finally, did you learn from last season? He pauses and then responds, "People want to be like, Ron Artest is changed. He's a new man. Wait. I never said that I changed. I'm pretty much the same guy. I got a better understanding of things, but it wasn't like I was provoking all that stuff that happened. So what's there to learn? Nothing. Only thing to learn is that [commissioner] David Stern was trying to kick me out of the league."