Artest Returns to Team After Meeting with League

by Jeff Tzucker
by Conrad Brunner

Feb. 27, 2003

Indianapolis, Feb. 27, 2003 - After spending Thursday with franchise President Donnie Walsh in New York for a meeting with NBA executives, Ron Artest was expected to rejoin the Pacers for Friday night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks - although coach Isiah Thomas did not say if he would return to his usual spot in the starting lineup.

What happens thereafter is entirely up to Artest.

Suspended for the third time this season - but the first time by the Pacers - Artest was left behind when the team traveled to Boston, where it dropped a 71-69 decision to the Celtics on Wednesday night. Artest was punished because, on the way into the locker room after an 83-78 loss to Washington the night before, he grabbed his framed photo off the wall and smashed it to pieces.

Thomas immediately told Artest of his punishment and said after practice Thursday he did so "to help him and to help our team."

"Sometimes you have to do things that you don't necessarily want to do or don't like to do but the situation calls for you to act, and you must act," Thomas said. "In the long run, you've got to be a team that plays with great discipline and great concentration in order to be champions. If you're not disciplined enough in your person and you can't sustain concentration for a 2½-hour period, it's going to be tough for you to wear the championship ring."

Artest clearly has not been himself since returning from his second NBA-imposed suspension of the season, four games heading into the All-Star break. Since then, he has averaged just 10.8 points, shot .300 from the floor (30-of-100) and .222 from the arc (8-of-36) while committing 24 turnovers (3.0). In his last three games, he was 6-of-30 from the field (.200) and 2-of-14 from the arc (.143).

His slump coincides with a six-game losing streak, the Pacers' longest since the 1992-93 season.

"It's hurting the team because he's a big part of our team," said Al Harrington. "For most of the season, everybody including us would say he was the Most Valuable Player on our team because he was playing in his image. We're missing him right now, but he'll be back."

Thomas and those players who met with the media after practice continued to voice their support for Artest - although it has become clear that the level of patience with his discordant play and aberrant behavior is dwindling.

"For us to be a successful team, and as successful as we were earlier in the year, Ron was a big part of that," said Reggie Miller. "By no (stretch) of the imagination would we ever turn our backs. Hopefully, there'll be some type of resolution between him and the league.

"He plays hard and sometimes he crosses the line. But as a teammate, you've got to be able to pull him back. There's been some times when I scratched my head, and there's other times when a lot of things he does have helped us win. Sometimes you've got to take the good with the bad but he has to understand when he feels he's crossing the line, and that's where we're somewhat in the gray area."

The Pacers have gone 3-6 in games Artest has missed this season, eight due to suspension, one due to illness.

"It's not hard to support him," said Harrington. "We're behind him 100 percent. He's got my back. He's still my boy."

Though the meeting came one day after Artest's suspension, it actually was scheduled weeks ago as the league and the franchise sought to solve what has become a growing dilemma for both.

"You never want, especially a player young in his career, to get labeled or have a black cloud hanging over his head," said Miller. "Hopefully, they can come to some type of resolution and work out whatever differences that he has with the league and what differences the league has with Ron."

Thomas concurred.

"It's a good thing that the league wanted to talk to him," Thomas said. "From time to time they've done this with several different players in the league. Anyone who has the opportunity to sit down with Ron will see he's a very caring young man, and he does have some issues he's trying to deal with and trying to overcome.

"Anyone who has the opportunity to sit down and get to know him, they want to try to help him with those issues. We're trying to help him. He has the potential to be a great basketball player, and he is a great person. He has some things to overcome and we'll try to work with him on overcoming those things."