"But I don't think I was really touching [the blocks]—was I?" asked Artest. "Yes, you were," said a security guard, who explained the mechanics of the game as they moved along. Then Artest caught sight of rookie teammate Joey Dorsey playing Wii boxing. He stopped again.
"Do you want to play?" asked Dorsey, and suddenly there stood Artest among a cheering crowd, throwing (gulp!) punches. For how many spectators did a certain melee come to mind as Artest delivered virtual lefts and rights that knocked Dorsey's character flat on his back?
"Kobe!" yelled a fan behind Artest. "Hit him like he's Kobe!"
"Someone said Kobe?" yelled Artest, laughing over his shoulder as he threw punches wildly. "Yeah! Kobe!"
Soon the fight was over—Dorsey in a decision, in spite of the knockdown—and the fans laughed and reached up to pat Artest on his thick blacksmith's shoulders. The people's champion.
TO THIS point in the season (and all pronouncements on Artest must be carefully couched) the NBA's most volatile star has surprised in a positive way. At a time when the Rockets could have fallen apart, it was Artest who reinvigorated the team that is now battling the Spurs for the Southwest Division title. Is it fair to now define Artest as, of all things, a stabilizing influence? "Yes," affirms Houston forward Shane Battier. "Ironically."
The Rockets gambled by acquiring Artest last summer from the Sacramento Kings in the hope that he, swingman Tracy McGrady and 7'6" Yao Ming would form a championship Big Three. Before long that vision appeared to be doomed: McGrady was unable to recover from off-season left knee surgery, Artest was limited for the first half of the season by a bone bruise in his right ankle and the Rockets struggled to figure out how to play together. "We won games, but it wasn't pretty and I don't think we were happy," says Battier. "We didn't know who we were. It was frustrating. We needed something to flip."
The flipper was Artest. After McGrady shut himself down in February to undergo season-ending microfracture knee surgery, Artest took up the vacated leadership role. A team that had been built around the half-court offense of T-Mac and Yao suddenly became a defensive outfit that pushed the ball off the stops generated by Artest, Battier and power forward Luis Scola. In the previous four years the Rockets had gone 20--46 without McGrady, but at week's end they were 28--12 in his absence.
Artest, 29, has evolved as a player. After having long seen himself as a go-to superstar, he has accepted his role as a complementary scorer, averaging 17.2 points through Sunday to Yao's 19.6. The 6'7" forward, who once bulked up to an estimated 280 pounds in order to punish opponents inside, has trimmed down to 246 while generating 41% of his scoring from beyond the three-point line. The Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 is even taking his cues at that end of the court from Battier, who often dictates which of them will guard Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. "I let Shane decide because he's always thinking the game," says Artest. "Even though I've become more mature, I still get a little bit emotional."
Reserve center Dikembe Mutombo believes Artest grew up while dealing with the kidney cancer treatments of his five-year-old daughter, Diamond, who Artest says has responded positively to the chemotherapy she underwent last fall. Artest also gained perspective from visiting Africa with the players' union two summers ago, and he is committed to returning to Kenya after the playoffs. "He has seen the suffering of the poor, the disease, and he relates it to what is happening to him with his daughter," says Mutombo. "You don't find that in so many players; that they wake up in the morning and say, 'I am going to Africa and I am going to do more.'"