And what about that anger-management counseling that Artest was to undergo during his suspension? "I was supposed to do it, but I didn't," he says. "[The incident in Detroit] had nothing to do with my anger. It had to do with a knucklehead [in the stands] being stupid. Everyone in the world would have done that, so everyone in the world should be taking anger management?"
Then, mere minutes after expressing a desire "to show that I'm not a violent person," he makes one of his characteristic head-scratching leaps: "I'm going to train next summer, and it might take me a while to get in shape, but I am going to fight!" He hands his BlackBerry over to an inquisitor riding shotgun. What's this? " Angelo Dundee's number," Artest beams. "He's going to train me."
Moments later Artest bobs his head to a track he sings on his new CD. The song is titled La La Ladies, and Artest raps:
"It's hot in here/Cranberry, Belvedere/Plus the Pistons are here, so you know there's gonna be drama up in here/Get Ben Wallace in a choke hold and cut his hair/Yeah, and the ladies is laughin' as I smack with my left/While my right's signin' autographs."
Whenever the Pacers head from their locker room to the Conseco court, they pass through a doorway above which hangs a message: be a great teammate. Much like Bird, Artest is hailed as a dream colleague and employee. He willingly helps on defense, sublimates his offense and cheers on the role players. "I wish I had 12 Ron Artests," says coach Rick Carlisle. "The Number 1 thing that affects his mood is winning or losing.... He would come off the bench tomorrow if I asked him to."
Beyond his selflessness on the court, there's an abiding--and how often does this word characterize a professional athlete?--kindness to Artest. He hands out $100 tips to waitresses and bellhops, buys dinner for the training-camp invitees who have no chance in hell of making the team. As Bird puts it, "If you know him as a human being, you can't not like him."
And then, of course, there are the other times when Artest embodies today's disconnected jock. In late September the Pacers unveiled new uniforms, symbolizing that the Reggie Miller Era is over, that the brawl has been consigned to history, that the team is, as Carlisle puts it, in a "moving-forward situation." Bird was on hand to schmooze the media. So were Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson, the starters whose seasons were interrupted because they followed Artest on his mad dash into the stands. It would have made all the sense in the world for Artest to be present and utter some talking points about "a fresh start." No such luck. In his typically cryptic way, he left word that he was away, on a "business trip." He was, in fact, in New York laying down a track for his album.
Naturally, the subject of Artest came up at the press conference. Where does he fit into the fabric of the team? "We've accepted him back, not that we ever pushed him away," said O'Neal, who has had his share of tense moments with Artest. "We're all cool with him [on the team]." When O'Neal addressed Indiana's team chemistry, he added, "You're either with us or you aren't with us. We've got to be on the same page all the time." There was no doubt to whom he was referring.
Ron Artest is back from his business trip and strolling casually down the D concourse of the Indianapolis Airport. He's wearing a black shirt--tucked in, his boss would be pleased to know--a black baseball cap turned at an angle and, as usual, a wide smile. He does not obscure his face with sunglasses or have a lackey to pick him up. On his way to baggage claim he compliments the pilot on "an excellent flight" and stops to chat with the women working the dollar-a-minute massage concession: "Y'all got to show me some tricks next time!"
When an autograph seeker wishes him luck this NBA season, Artest stops and turns. "Thanks," he says, signing for the fan. "I'll be better than last season. I guarantee you that!" Artest is back home in Indiana, back in the Land of Larry. And watching this walking riot of contradictions from behind as he saunters out the door--his brim going one way, his body going another--you're left to draw one of two conclusions. Either Ron Artest's head isn't quite screwed on straight. Or that black hat doesn't fit him at all.