It's another Bulls game, and that makes everyone and everything in the vicinity of the court a potential target for Chicago swingman Ron Artest. He launches towels into the crowd in disgust, assaults stanchions with staccato jabs, slams balls to the floor with gavel-pounding force. Even reporters and cheerleaders behind the baseline scatter like tenpins when Artest drives wildly to the hoop. Watching him, one wonders whether the United Center ball boys get combat pay. "Yeah, I get pretty emotional," says Artest with a laugh. "I'm a little obsessed with being competitive."
That passion has turned the third-year player into one of the league's most promising young talents. "I love Ron Artest," says Michael Jordan, who developed an appreciation for his physical style when Artest broke two of Jordan's ribs the first day the two played together last summer in Chicago. "He's got so much intensity and such drive. I wish I could have played against him six years ago." Adds Chicago coach Bill Cartwright, "When somebody brings that much energy to the court, it's beautiful."
Amiable, approachable and refreshingly candid off the court—he appears to have missed media cliche training day—the 6'7", 247-pound Artest has always been nearly maniacal when he steps on it. As a kid growing up in Queens, N.Y., he would prowl the outdoor court at his housing project until late at night, taking on all comers and ready to resolve any scoring disputes with his fists. In AAU ball he once got so pumped that he fought with his teammate and best friend, Clippers forward Elton Brand, in the pregame layup line. Last month, when Jordan faced his old team and scored his 30,000th career point after an Artest foul, a disappointed Artest unloaded three of what he calls his " Muhammad Ali punches" on the scorer's table. "I almost put a hole in it," he says. "I didn't want him to get to 30,000 on us."
Known for his tenacious, on-the-ball defense, Artest spent part of the off-season working with a shooting coach, and it has paid off. Through Sunday he was averaging 15.4 points and shooting 42.3% on three-pointers—career bests—to go with 2.65 steals and 5.1 rebounds per game. Since Cartwright took over from Tim Floyd on Dec. 28, Artest has been particularly productive, averaging 16.5 points in 19 games. "With [ Floyd], you had to worry about getting yanked all the time," says Artest. "[ Cartwright] lets me play. I'm not afraid to take a fadeaway, take a three in transition, take it coast to coast."
Artest's play has been one of the few bright spots for the Bulls, but their 10-36 record through Sunday, the worst in the league, has worn on him. "Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm bad luck," he said after a Jan. 21 loss to the Pacers. "Maybe they should trade me, and everybody will stop being miserable."
With on-court triumphs so rare, Artest has had to find other ways to get his victory fix, beating up on friends in video games and in his favorite pastime, checkers. "I got checkers down like a science," he says. "I got my own strategy. I know everything you're doing, and I'll beat anything you bring at me." Good thing for the board.