by Conrad Brunner
July 11, 2005
At first glance, little appears to have changed about Ron Artest, until you get to the jersey. It bears No. 15 again.
As much as anything he can say or do, the symbolic gesture represented by the return to his numeric roots could signal an important step for the Pacers' forward.
"I'm back to high school and college, back to my regular number," he said Monday afternoon. "Enough of the games."
Prior to wearing No. 91 in honor of Dennis Rodman for his truncated 2004-05 season, Artest donned No. 23 as a tribute to Michael Jordan for the previous two campaigns. But coming off the low point of his career, returning from a suspension that cost him 74 regular-season games, all of the playoffs and a proportionate chunk of his image, Artest appears ready to get back to basics.
Speaking to the Indianapolis media for the first time since the events of Nov. 19, 2004, in The Palace of Auburn Hills, Artest said he was anxious to put the 2004-05 season in the past and return to the business of competing for an NBA championship.
"Things happen and you move on," he said. "You learn from your mistakes. I'm a ghetto-type guy. I'm from the 'hood. I'm going to be ghetto for the rest of my life. But at the same time there's a lot of kids out there that look up to you and, for that, I'll change."
Artest, as has been his custom in recent years, will spend this week working out with the rookies and free agents gathered in Conseco Fieldhouse for the Pacers' summer minicamp. For the first time, however, he will join the team for summer league play, a stretch of five games in five days that begins Friday in Minneapolis.
Considering he has been banned from organized basketball nearly eight months, it is a welcome opportunity.
"I want to play with the team and not take possessions off, because these guys have got to show the coaches that they can play," Artest said. "So I'm going to play as hard as I can. I definitely want to get in shape because this is the best shape you can get in, playing basketball. This is definitely conditioning. I want to play but these guys need jobs, too, so I don't want to take away from them."
The former Defensive Player of the Year and NBA All-Star clearly will be the best player on the floor on most every occasion, but he's not participating for the opportunity to show what he can do.
It's about taking another step towards regaining his conditioning and knocking the rust off his game.
"I'm going to manage Ron Artest like any other player," said assistant Dan Burke, who along with Chuck Person is coaching the summer league team. "We haven't talked about the minutes but I can tell you it's not about Ron getting 30 points or 20 points, it's about Ron playing in a team structure. With his ability he should be able to make the game easy for some of these guys that are trying to make the team or trying to get jobs overseas. Ron should focus on playing his game and staying strong, emotionally and mentally, and playing hard."
Artest, who said he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received from fans, said he understands what must be done but is trying not to let the events of last season affect a fundamental change in the way he plays the game.
"I'm the same guy that I was last season, the same guy I was 5 years ago but as you get older, you get a bit more wise," he said. "So probably next year, you'll see an older guy, an older player; like everybody, as they get older, they mature. …
"I play basketball and get a little bit intense. I've got to be able to stay intense and at the same time put my team first. You don't want to get technical fouls and things like that because it's like you're playing against your team and you don't want to do things like that."
The team concept was a recurring theme in Artest's statements, from his desire to help the rookie and free agents this week to the role he intends to play with the Pacers in 2005-06.
"The individual stuff will take care of itself," he said. "We've got to be able to play team ball. I learned a lot watching the Pacers, the way they stuck in there and hung together. That's a big part of winning."
As for his memories of Nov. 19, Artest has a tape of the game and likes to watch one segment in particular.
"I had 17 in the first quarter," he said. "I watch the first quarter a lot. That was beautiful."
It was late in the fourth quarter that Artest's season – and the team's championship aspirations - came crashing to a premature end. Those events, he feels no need to rewind because others so frequently do it for him.
"I see that all the time," he said.
For the Pacers, it is a scene that cannot repeat.
"I think things can't really happen anymore," Artest said. "Things just can't keep happening."
Franchise CEO and President Donnie Walsh was clear in his expectations.
"I'm sure it was a difficult year for him and he doesn't want that to happen again," Walsh said. "It's been a long year but I'm sure it's been a year in which he can reflect on his career and where he's going with it.
"We know that it can't (happen again), so I hope that he (knows). I'm sure he does."
He seems to.
Though Artest said he doesn't have anything to prove this season, he does appear to be taking a simpler approach.
"Just go out there and play basketball," he said. "That's pretty much it."
NOTES: Though Jonathan Bender is expected to join the team for summer-league play, he is not participating in this week's practices. … David Harrison, who missed the final month of the regular season after undergoing minor knee surgery, is participating in minicamp drills but has not yet been cleared for full contact. … First-round pick Danny Granger also is being held out of full contact to allow his left knee, injured during his senior season at New Mexico, to mend.