By John Clayton
Indianapolis, February 11, 2004
So, Disney World will have to wait.
Ron Artest’s annual family trek to Disney World during the NBA All-Star break took a right turn toward Los Angeles when the Pacers forward was voted onto the 2004 Eastern Conference All-Star team. While Artest attempted to shrug off All-Star speculation prior to the roster announcement, his wife, Kimisha, truth be known, was planning the trip to Los Angeles.
“Knowing her, we’d have to do what she said anyway, but I think she wants to go to L.A.,” Artest said just hours before learning he would be making the first All-Star appearance of his young NBA career. “She’s been looking forward to going to the game.”
Of course, there’s always Disneyland, just outside Los Angeles, but that will have to be a side trip. The focus will be on All-Star Weekend where Artest joins teammate Jermaine O’Neal on the Eastern Conference roster along with Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle and the Pacers’ coaching staff.
Artest learned of his All-Star selection while back home in New York, hours before the Pacers met the New York Knicks on Feb. 3. While happy to be included on the All-Star roster, Artest’s thoughts quickly turned back to the Pacers team and its drive toward the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” said Artest. “I feel like it’s a tribute to the team. I’m just thankful for the team that I’m on. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have made it. We’re playing really good right now.”
The Pacers’ comparisons to Detroit’s “Bad Boys” have stopped and the talk surrounding Indiana’s “baddest boy,” Artest, since his arrival in Indianapolis via a trade that sent Jalen Rose and Travis Best to the Chicago Bulls just before the 2002 trading deadline, has turned to All-Star accolades.
“Every time I’d played a game in the NBA, I played with a lot of emotions and sometimes I’d get distracted,” Artest said. “This is the first year I’ve calmed down a little bit and focused on basketball. (Being an All-Star is) a nice individual accomplishment, but the best thing is that we have the most wins up until this point as a team and we’re just playing good team ball and staying focused on the game.”
His selection, though not surprising, is a validation for Artest, who has played through a painful thumb injury over most of the past month and with a cool head for the entire season. His 17.9 scoring average is second among Pacers and he leads the team in steals with 2.09 per game.
“I want to have a chance to see what my potential is,” said Artest soon after the season began. “I want to see how far the team can go when I’m level-headed and how far I can go when I’m level-headed. When my career is over, I can go back and play in the streets and get dirty in the street. Right now, everybody’s trying to win a championship. . . . We want to go as far as we can go and, hopefully, that’s to the promised land.”
If the Pacers are indeed on the way there, it will be with at least one layover in Los Angeles this weekend for Artest, O’Neal, Slam-Dunk contest participant Fred Jones and the Pacers’ coaching staff. The coaching staff got there by directing the team to the best record in the East leading up to the break. Artest got there by routinely shutting down opponents’ top scorers and becoming an offensive force on the other end of the floor.
The changes in Artest’s on-court demeanor were early and obvious. He was on the receiving end of a flagrant foul at Philadelphia in an early November victory, an incident that might have provoked a volatile reaction a year ago. Instead, Artest did nothing except reinforce his reputation as a tough guy in the NBA.
“He had his tooth knocked in half. The root was sticking right out. There was blood and everything else and the guy steps up and hits two free throws and knocks in a 3, and he doesn’t say boo,” said Carlisle. “Obviously, the guy has great toughness. He’s exercised great restraint and great composure.”
In addition to taking a tough, flagrant foul in stride, this kinder, gentler Artest also moved into the role of peacemaker when teammate Anthony Johnson was fouled hard by Atlanta’s Jason Terry during the second game of the season. Artest twice pulled Johnson away from a potential fracas, helping the cool heads of Indiana hold off the Hawks in overtime.
“It hasn’t been hard because the team has been there right behind me,” Artest said of his new leaf. “If you’re in it by yourself, most likely you’ve got to handle a lot of things by yourself. When you’ve got the team behind you and more veterans like Anthony and Kenny (Anderson) come along and when you’ve got this team behind you, it’s easy to deal with situations.”
Those events happened early in the season, long before it appeared clear that Artest’s winds of change were blowing toward the Pacific Ocean and this weekend’s All-Star game at Los Angeles’ Staples Center.
“Ron Artest has really earned the title All-Star,” Carlisle said after Artest led the Pacers with 24 points in a victory over the Lakers on Feb. 2. “He and Jermaine O’Neal, you’d have a hard time arguing against those two being the top forward tandem in all of basketball, the way they play on both ends of the court. It’s an honor that’s certainly well-deserved. There are a lot of terrific offensive players in the league, but there are very few guys who can play at such a high level on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. The two of them are really complete players at their positions.
While Artest finished fourth among Eastern Conference forwards in the fan balloting behind Toronto’s Vince Carter, O’Neal and New Jersey’s Kenyon Martin, Detroit coach Larry Brown was among Artest’s All-Star supporters in the conference’s coaching ranks.
“The way I always look at All-Stars, I look at teams that are winning,” said Brown. “I always think we should identify with the teams that are winning and put a real emphasis on the guys who are leading those teams and honor those because that’s the important stat. On both ends of the court, (Artest) has been phenomenal. . . . He’s got my vote.”
Artest tried to downplay the selection before it was announced. He bumped into his father on the street in his old neighborhood in Queensbridge, NY soon after hearing the news. While Ron Sr. was notably thrilled to hear the news, Ron Jr. seemed almost relieved and quickly turned focus back to the Pacers.
“I wasn’t really focused on it,” he said. “The main thing I’ve been focused on is wins. . . . You take it as it comes, but I’m more happy with the wins that we get.”