Ron Artest is, undeniably, off his rocker. A favorite reclining chair that sits in the corner of his den is unoccupied on this late-September afternoon. The NBA off-season has yet to end, but Artest hasn't done much lounging lately. There are the twice-daily workouts, the completion of his next hip-hop album and the never-ending stream of houseguests to attend to. This being Wednesday, it's also his turn to pick up his two-year-old daughter, Diamond, from day care at the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center. � The JCC is tucked in a quiet residential neighborhood, and Artest knows the place well. For the past 10 months he has worked out there daily while on unpaid leave from his day job as small forward for the Indiana Pacers. "My quadruple off-season," he euphemistically calls the period that started with his 73-game suspension for inciting a melee in Detroit. Swimming in the pool with senior citizens or rainbowing jumpers over orthodontic teens on the basketball court or noshing at the snack bar with soccer moms, the 6'7", 255-pound Artest cuts an incongruous figure. But like almost everyone else who enters his unique orbit, the JCC regulars were soon charmed--especially Diamond's classmates, whom he drops to his knees to hug. ("Whassup, Rivkah?") Artest might be a peerless NBA defender, but he does not guard his soul closely. Plenty of times he felt like unburdening himself at the JCC, so he would chat up strangers in the locker room or the lobby. "And when we were done," he says proudly, "it was like I had made another friend."
As he waits for Diamond, Artest fills the time by extolling the virtues of central Indiana. If this whole basketball thing ever fell through, the Queens, N.Y.--born Artest has a second career working for the Indianapolis visitors bureau. On and on he goes about the "crazy cheap" housing market, the family-oriented lifestyle, the wide-open spaces. "I want to spent the rest of my life here," he says. "If I ever got traded, I'd make sure my family didn't leave." Then there's his fondness for the citizenry. "People let you be yourself," he says, sounding like John Mellencamp describing life in his small Indiana hometown. "They get me."
The city might be overwhelmingly white and so traditional that the front page of The Indianapolis Star is adorned with a Bible verse, but Artest's inimitable and contradictory persona conforms to a certain Hoosier ethos. In a region where spin and guile have no currency, his candor is admired. In a place where pride and a frontier spirit are alive and well, few rebuke a man for overreacting after getting a beer thrown on him. As for the ambient, well, eccentricity, Artest is seen as everyone's Crazy Uncle Ron: distracting and embarrassing at times, but blessed with a big heart. "It kills me that they make him out like some villain," says Slick Leonard, a lifelong Hoosier and former Pacers coach. "Ronnie is just a great guy, a give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back type. That's the honest truth right there."
The rest of the country might perceive Artest as a threat to civilized society after the brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills that resulted in 11 arrests and 133 games' worth of suspensions. So be it. In Indiana, though, you don't need to go far to get an Artestimonial. His legion of supporters includes everyone from his 78-year-old neighbor, Dorothy, who invites him over for some pie and country-music singing; to the bag boy at the Marsh grocery store wearing a free artest pin; to the most iconic Hoosier of them all.
There's something jarring about seeing Larry Bird seated behind a heavy Colonial desk in his Pacers office, a laptop on one side of him, a pair of reading glasses--Larry freakin' Bird, reading glasses?--on the other. But the tableau leaves little doubt that in his role as the team's president of basketball operations, the 48-year-old Bird is no mere figurehead. He travels to Europe to scout players, works the phones to explore deals with other NBA executives and watches thousands of hours of tape. For all intents, he captains the Pacers' ship. Not throwing Artest overboard was his call and, to hear him tell it, an easy one at that. "Aw," Bird says, in his French Lick patois, "Ronnie's gonna be fine."
Bird and Artest are, at first blush, basketball's most curious coupling. They don't look alike, talk alike or act alike. Bird remains as steely-eyed and disciplined and utterly rational as an executive as he was as a player. Artest is a transcendent talent but also a walking tinderbox who, in six NBA seasons, has had an on-again, off-again relationship with self-control, serving 10 suspensions for various fits of pique. But just as Artest's respect for Bird is such that he claims to get a jolt of nervous energy when he passes him in the hall, Bird gushes over his 25-year-old All-Star. "Look, Ronnie made a horrible mistake going into the stands," says Bird, "but he tucks his shirttail in and comes to battle every day. That makes me proud."
If he can control his temper and get off to another start such as he had before his suspension, Artest is MVP material. Before you snicker, consider that he was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2003-04. The most physical player this side of Shaq, Artest not only bodies up forwards but also has the quickness to defend shooting guards. Yet unlike stoppers such as the Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace and the San Antonio Spurs' Bruce Bowen, Artest hardly conserves energy on offense. He can post up, he can score in transition, and his jumper is increasingly reliable. Before his ban by the league, he was averaging 24.6 points--10.2 points more than his career average--on 49.6% shooting. "If you look at his ability to shut down the leading scorer, that takes 20 points from the other team, and he's putting up 20," says veteran Miami Heat forward Shandon Anderson. "He's definitely an elite player."
Adds Minnesota Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey, " Ron Artest is probably one of the most complete players in the league. I don't know of anything the man can't do on the floor."
But what has really won Bird's heart is the way Artest plays. He buffs the court with his body in pursuit of loose balls. He gladly makes the extra pass. He's happy to play as many or as few minutes as requested. For all their surface differences, the Hall of Famer who helped rescue the NBA from the abyss in the 1980s sees more than a little of himself in Artest, who, in the eyes of many, threatens the league's image more than other player today. "He's always been the kind of guy--and I was the same way--who just wants to go out and play basketball," says Bird.
Even Artest's flashes of anger have a certain familiarity. Like Artest, Bird, who was one of the game's most celebrated trash-talkers, played with a scary intensity and a hair-trigger temper. It's just that Bird was able to channel his emotion into hitting clutch three-pointers, not courtside television sets or hostile fans. "Like me, he plays the game to win," Bird says with palpable pride. "Because of his intensity and desire to win, Ronnie's a guy I would pay money to watch play."