Until last thursday
afternoon the name ARTEST was still on a chalkboard in Rick Carlisle's locker
room office. "Hmm, guess I haven't changed that starting lineup in a
while," said the Indiana Pacers' coach, picking up an eraser. When told
that he might want to wipe off O'neal too--All-Star power forward Jermaine
O'Neal will miss at least two months, and perhaps the rest of the regular
season, with a torn left groin muscle-- Carlisle considered it. "No," he
said finally, "I think I'll leave him on." � Who could blame Carlisle
for pretending that his best player was still available? Over the last four
months Carlisle has presided over an underachieving and flawed team (21-21 at
week's end) held hostage by Ron Artest, a troubled and often troubling soul who
was traded to Sacramento on Jan. 25. "The Tru Warier meets the Kings,"
the 6'7", 246-pound Artest said in a TV interview last week, hyping himself
and his record label. Ah, just what they need at sign-happy Arco Arena: a new
slogan. � The Pacers' post-Warier era officially began last Friday with a 93-89
loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Conseco Fieldhouse, their fifth straight
defeat and 13th in their last 19 games. Still, there were positive signs.
Indiana was missing not only O'Neal but also point guard Jamaal Tinsley (sore
right elbow) and demon rebounder Jeff Foster (back spasms). Plus, sharpshooting
forward Peja Stojakovic, obtained from Sacramento for Artest, was unavailable,
having arrived in town only hours before the game. Yet Indy played hard and
stayed in thegame until the end, getting solid performances from rookie forward
Danny Granger (21 points, 14 rebounds) and young gun Fred Jones (20 points).
"We fought together," said guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, "and that
showed we can be a good basketball team."
years--of being Ar-tested by one of the strangest personalities on the sports
landscape, the Pacers could not be blamed for looking at the bright side. In
fact, both teams put a happy face on the swap--It's a deal that helps both
teams!--but no one can say with certainty if any lasting good will come out of
it. It's likely that Artest (page 53) will eventually lock horns with
shoot-first point guard Mike Bibby. And though the 6'10" Stojakovic's size
and touch have led to comparisons with Pacers president Larry Bird,
Stojakovic's model as a player, Peja lacks Bird's toughness, post-up moves,
rebounding skills, playmaker aptitude and get-in-the-passing-lane defensive
instincts. He is Larry Ultra Lite.
Larry Legend, who
still stops traffic when he goes on international scouting missions, is a
central figure in the Artest saga. Bird wanted to swap Artest for Stojakovic
after the 2003-04 season--the deal was nixed by Pacers owners Melvin and
Herbert Simon--yet he is also the member of the organization most closely
aligned with Artest, so much so that the Artest Era seems destined to go down
as Larry's Folly. If the old, tough-minded Celtic immortal likes him, the
thinking went around Pacer Land, everyone had to like him.
But Bird wasn't the
only one seduced by Artest. The Simons liked Artest the people's favorite, a
man whose strong rapport and gentleness with fans masked the turmoil within.
Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh liked Artest the talent, a player whose on-court
repertoire includes three-point range, a post-up game and demon defense. (He
was the league's Defensive Player of the Year in '03-04.) Bird liked Artest the
gym rat, the human sweatbox who would practice nonstop for two hours in the
off-season. "Then Ronnie might get on a plane and go play a couple of
pickup games in Chicago," says Bird. "I wish I had a guy like that to
work out with when I was playing."
Fact is, all the
Pacers' execs liked Artest so much they were sounding like the Four Seasons:
"Ronnie. Ronnie. Ronnie, I am regretting but can't stop forgetting because
... you were my first love."
Ronnie-love was in the Hoosier air this past summer. Artest, as is his wont,
worked out dutifully, and Bird, among others, became convinced that he would
come back physically fit (understandable) and mentally stable. (Huh?) The last
glimpse of Artest in the 2004-05 season for many Pacers came after Detroit
eliminated them in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semis, when Artest drove a
black Escalade wildly onto the Conseco loading dock in full view of the
Pistons' team bus, then jumped out of the SUV, ripped off his shirt and walked
into the arena. By some accounts he was heading into Conseco to play a
late-night shooting game with teammate Jonathan Bender. It was a classic moment
from the Theater of Artest--strangely endearing, seriously loony.
Still, says Bird,
"with all that happened last season [a reference to Artest's 73-game
suspension for igniting one of the ugliest brawls in sports history at The
Palace of Auburn Hills], we really felt that this year would be, maybe not
perfect, but all right." O'Neal and Stephen Jackson even joined Artest for
an off-season t�te-�-t�te with Walsh and Bird, during which the players argued
for keeping the core together, proving that Artest's seductive powers extended
even to those teammates he had let down so often.
But everything went
haywire a month into this season, either because Artest believed that the
Pacers were trying to trade him ( Walsh and Bird say No, no, a thousand times
no!) or because, well, because he's Artest. Two Pacers told SI that Artest
regularly started physical altercations during practice. The skirmishes
"weren't boxing matches," says one of the players, but they didn't do
much for team unity. If Artest believed that he was being treated unfairly in
practice by Carlisle or one of his teammates, he refused to run through a play.
Or hours before a game he would announce in the locker room that he wasn't
going to play that evening, only to change his mind soon thereafter. At least
twice this season, he was outside the locker room, in street clothes, talking
on a cellphone 20 minutes before tip-off. He came to believe that everything he
did wrong in Indianapolis was magnified, which was true, but he ignored the
fact that the hometown fans had cut him enormous slack despite his 87 games'
worth of suspensions over 4 1/2 seasons as a Pacer. Among his teammates he was
closest to Jackson and Tinsley, but eventually the Tru Warier had no true
allies. "It was Ron against the world," says one player.
Still, until Dec.
11, the day Artest announced in an interview with the Indianapolis Star that he
wanted to be traded, management spun furiously for him. It was Artest's passion
that led him to overreact in games and practices, Pacers execs would say. Sure,
the team might be affected by his outbursts, but Artest was "a guy who
could walk into a restaurant and get into a conversation with anyone," Bird
said last week.
rap sheet the Kings weren't the only team that tried to get him. Far from it.
Dealing Artest for Corey Maggette of the Los Angeles Clippers would have almost
certainly gone down three weeks ago had Indiana not been scared off by recent
tests on Maggette's left foot. According to a Pacers source, talks with the
Denver Nuggets about Artest for Kenyon Martin were serious, but Indiana was
unwilling to take on Martin's contract (five years remaining for $70.9
million). The New Orleans Hornets wanted Artest but offered only draft choices.
Walsh and Bird had conversations with many other teams, including the Boston
Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors,
but nothing ever came close to being cemented. Eventually, only the Kings, who
are trapped in their own going-nowhere nightmare, had enough to get it done,
offering a player that Bird had apparently wanted before he became reseduced by
the beguiling Warier. "We made a mistake, obviously," says Bird.
"When you're in the business of figuring out what's best for a team, you
can't fall in love."