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While those experiences have no doubt reshaped Artest, he credits his steadier play to the Rockets' coach, Rick Adelman, who spent half of the 2005--06 season with Artest in Sacramento. "He's nothing more and nothing less than a coach," says Artest. "He doesn't hold grudges, he doesn't try to teach you to be a man, he doesn't teach you how to become a boy, he's not trying to tell you how to handle your life."
If previous coaches have sought to fill that role with Artest, it would be understandable: This is the player who once asked if he could take off the early part of the season to promote an R&B album, then infamously went into the stands in Detroit to instigate the brawl in November 2004, earning a 73-game suspension. So far in Houston, Artest's behavior has been more endearing than infuriating. "He has some idiosyncrasies that are quite interesting," says Rockets guard Brent Barry. "Sometimes he'll come to practice and never get into the locker room, he'll just change up in the weight room. Usually during halftimes we'll find him in just his hightops and his boxers, which is an interesting sight to see. Sometimes he has some choice words in a timeout, or before a game in the huddle, that have absolutely nothing to do with what we're about to try to accomplish, and Shane and I enjoy a brief moment glancing at each other. Much like Manny being Manny, Ronnie is Ronnie."
Artest fits comfortably with Houston's blend of up-and-comers, internationals and erudites. "I think Ron's a fan of James Joyce: He talks in streams of consciousness," says Battier. "I don't think Ron's concerned about being a diplomat. He's concerned about winning, and the quickest route for him to win is to be blunt."
As he sits on a tilted bench in the Rockets' weight room, Artest acknowledges he is trying to self-edit. "Sometimes I don't even speak nowadays," he says, "because I'm not sure I'm going to say it the right way." Staring at himself in the mirrored walls, he says of his early career, "I took it for granted. I was young, I was athletic, I was shutting down Kobe, I was shutting down LeBron. I was just cocky: I'm the best defender in the league. Can't nobody score on me. I was not humble at all and I just continued to get in trouble. I knew my talent was needed on a lot of teams, and I took all that for granted. I should have cherished those moments a couple of years ago. Some of that was out of my control, some of that was in my control. But now I have another shot at it."
TWO QUESTIONS remain in Artest's immediate future. The first: Can he and Yao lead the Rockets deep into the playoffs? The Rockets will struggle to score enough points to knock off the Spurs or the Los Angeles Lakers, but their defense—which yielded a miserly 44.6% shooting at week's end, fourth in the league—should give Houston hope of advancing to the second round for the first time in a dozen years, dating to the reign of Hakeem Olajuwon.
The more difficult question is whether Artest, who will be a free agent after the season, has been on good behavior simply to earn a new contract. "I understand that argument," says Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who then dismisses it. Morey believes that Artest has grown through his hard experiences, and that with Adelman's oversight and his comfort in the Rockets' system, Artest can continue to flourish.
Battier, for one, would like to keep him around. "After this year, my lasting memory of Ron Artest is, he loves the KissCam," says Battier, referring to the timeout entertainment in which couples in the stands are shown on the arena jumbotron and prompted to smooch. "We'll be in the middle of a game and we're all focused, and I'll look over at Ron, and Ron will be on the floor cracking up laughing at the KissCam. We've all seen it a million times, but every time he finds it the funniest thing ever."
"KissCam is funny," says Artest, "but I hate it when they put it on me and one of my teammates, and then I have to put the towel over my head." It's all part of growing up, to realize there is no beating the KissCam.