Artest Has New Name, New Perspective on Time with Pacers
2004 Defensive Player of the Year Has Emerged as a Mentor in Twilight of His Career
The Lakers' practice on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse practice court had just ended with structured shooting drills, to the accompaniment of Al Green's music, when Metta World Peace rushed out a back door.
He was on a mission. Racing upstairs, along familiar paths, he headed straight for the offices of Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird. After a few minutes of how-are-you-good-to-see-you greetings and casual small talk, he returned to rejoin his Laker teammates.
That was on Oct. 31, the day before the Lakers met the Pacers in the second week of the NBA season, but it just as easily could have been any other time. Last fall, last year, even a dozen years ago, when the wounds of World Peace's discordant departure from the Pacers were still fresh, the respect he has for Walsh and Bird, and they for him, has remained the same.
The same could be said for nearly everyone else associated with the franchise during the stretch of 219 regular season and playoff games the player formerly known as Ron Artest played for it. Comb through the various departments of Pacers Sports and Entertainment, and you would be challenged to find anyone who knew Artest (and he will remain "Artest" for the remainder of this story, because that's how he's still known to everyone in Indianapolis) who doesn't have affection for him, despite the flowing stream of headaches he brought to the franchise in the form of private disruptions and public suspensions.
"He's a sweet guy," said Walsh, the man who ultimately had to trade Artest when the headaches became too much to bear. "That's what he is. I say that and I know half the people will think I'm nuts. But I stick by it."
The Pacers will honor the first decade of the 2000s on March 12, when they play Miami at The Fieldhouse. No player represents the highs and lows of that era better than Artest, who arrived as part of a seven-player deal with Chicago on Feb. 19, 2002 and departed on Jan. 25, 2006 in a trade to Sacramento for Peja Stojakovic – an exit he had requested back on Dec. 8.
2000s CENTRAL: Remember the Decade at Pacers.com/2000s »
He's still playing, on and off the Lakers' active roster at age 37, kept around as a mentor as much as anything. That's right, a mentor. And an example.
"He brings professionalism, he brings an unselfishness that I think we need," Lakers coach Luke Walton said. "He stays after practice and gets work in. He has a great relationship with the young guys, and I still feel confident he can help us win if we need him. He's a constant in practice that makes us a stronger team."
Didn't see that one coming, did you?
Artest has played for six teams, and some of his seasons have been reduced to fragments, but he's still standing as a direct refute to all those people who thought he would wash out of the NBA a long time ago. His greatest moment came as a starter on the Lakers' championship team in 2010, but his greatest performances came with the Pacers.
A first-round pick by Chicago in 1999, he was included in the trade in which the Pacers sent Jalen Rose, Travis Best and Norm Richardson to the Bulls almost as a throw-in. That deal was made primarily to acquire a legitimate center, Brad Miller. Artest, though, put on some eye-popping displays of his complete skill-set almost immediately, such as in a Sunday afternoon game against Miami when he finished with 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting, nine rebounds, nine assists and eight steals.
"He brings a different dimension that we haven't seen the likes of," Reggie Miller said after that game.
In more ways than Miller could have imagined, it turned out.
Artest's peak season came in 2003-04. The Pacers won a franchise-record 61 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, while he was voted an All-Star and became the first player in franchise history to win Defensive Player of the Year honors. He locked down opponents like no Pacers player — and perhaps no player period — had ever done that season, striking what often looked like literal fear into the hearts of some of the NBA's greatest offensive players — all while scoring 18 points a game.
That Pacers team was stacked. Jermaine O'Neal was an All-Star for the third consecutive year and finished third in the league MVP voting. Al Harrington, who backed up Artest, was runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year. Reggie Miller was 38 years old, but still hitting 40 percent of his 3-point shots and offering adult-in-the-room leadership. Jamaal Tinsley was one of the league's best passers and has improved his 3-point shooting to 37 percent. Jonathan Bender, former fifth pick in the draft, was emerging, averaging seven points and showing startling potential. Jeff Foster, Scott Pollard, Anthony Johnson and Fred Jones were good enough to start for some teams, and either had or would.
"Our practices were amazing," Artest said. "I was still very disruptive in practice, but as far as getting better and the intensity...I've never been on a team that had practices like that. It was war at every practice."
PACERS VOTE: Pick Your Starting Five from the 2000s »
The following season began with even more promise. The young players had another year of maturity and Stephen Jackson, who had started on San Antonio's championship team two years earlier, was added to the mix. Miller and Johnson were injured in the preseason, but that was OK. There was plenty of depth to pick up the slack. Artest outplayed LeBron James in the season opener at Cleveland on Nov. 3, 2004, a game the Pacers won in overtime despite the absence of the injured Jermaine O'Neal. Artest finished with 31 points, nine rebounds and one turnover in 50 minutes. James, entering his second NBA season, had 28 points on 8-of-19 shooting, five rebounds, eight assists and six turnovers.
Undeniably, however, his time with the Pacers is mostly remembered for that historic franchise-turning night at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Nov. 19, 2004 when he responded to a fan tossing a beverage at him by going into the stands to confront the (wrong) man. He was suspended by commissioner David Stern for the rest of the season, ruining the legitimate championship dream of a team that had taken eventual champion Detroit to six games in the conference finals the previous season.
Walsh and Bird stuck with him yet again and welcomed him back the following season, but were rewarded with an out-of-the-blue trade demand in December that became the last straw in a tilting haystack of controversies.
Artest, who played in 16 games that season, says the trade demand was the result of a strange brew of emotions left over from that November night in Auburn Hills.
"Oh, man," he said. "Nervousness. I did not want to go back to Detroit. It was out of fear of going back to Detroit. That, along with...I just didn't know how to get along with people. I didn't know how to get along with my teammates, you know? They were going out on the road and I'd stay in my hotel room. I didn't even go out to eat with them.
"I was having a bad time emotionally, spiritually at that time. I was in a bad place."
Artest has never apologized to Walsh and Bird, but his feelings are obvious in his words and actions, and that's good enough for them. He can't think about the teams he played with here without thinking about the lost opportunity. That's why he brought up the Pacers when addressing the media after the Lakers clinched the 2010 championship.
"We were supposed to win a ring together," he said. "Everything revolved around me, because I was unstable.
"That's what I feel bad about to this day. That's something I can never, ever forgive myself for. It's something I have to recognize. We were on our way. Donnie put a helluva team together. I wanted to win a championship here. That was a big thing to me. And to Reggie. At my most unstable point, it was the end of Reggie's career. So, that's really ------ up."
The Pacers tried to help Artest, whose instability showed mostly in displays of temper, by arranging private counseling for him, at one point flying him to Texas for sessions. After winning the title with the Lakers, he publicly acknowledged receiving professional help, and later auctioned off his championship ring to raise money for mental health awareness. He remains grateful to Walsh for that.
"He started me down that path," Artest said. "That's why I respect him. I just feel so much for that man, because he was taking care of me. You know what I'm saying? When I wasn't stable."
Artest describes Walsh as an uncle figure. He saw Bird, meanwhile, as a "straight-up friend," one who remained loyal to him and tried to help him with his game. Bird, who took over the team presidency from Walsh in 2003, posed with Artest on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, a show of support that backfired, but he never turned on Artest, and has never said a bad word about him.
Artest recalls those summer days while he was with the Pacers when he would show up at The Fieldhouse practice court to work on his game. Bird often came down to talk and offer pointers, some of which Artest passes along to his sons now. They occasionally talked about other things, but mostly it was just basketball — details, such as how to come off a screen, how to maintain your balance when shooting.
"I learned a lot from a legend," Artest said.
Bird downplays his role, but has no regrets. He did what he could to help him, it didn't work out, and everyone moved on.
"I always liked Ronnie," Bird said. "I never understood a lot of the things that went on, but I didn't grow up like Ronnie did. I didn't know what he was thinking. But I also was very disappointed in some of the things he did."
That about sums it up, for both Bird and Walsh. They understood how growing up in a large family in a one-bedroom apartment in a dangerous section of Queensbridge could affect a kid, understood there might be genetic factors at work, understood there was a lovable child inside the macho man. There's a reason they both call him "Ronnie." They also know the risk that goes with every second chance, every act of forgiveness, but it was all done for the benefit of helping Artest and helping a contending team win a championship.
Besides, he was one helluva player at his peak, and they were in the business of getting and helping helluva players. He also is the kind of guy you have to know to appreciate, and they got to know him.
"It's almost impossible to tell people what Ronnie's really like," Walsh said. "They want to picture him as this guy who goes around beating everybody up, but he's really the opposite of that.
"People don't remember how hard that guy played. He played harder than anybody in the league, by a lot."
That obviously appealed to Bird, who saw Artest as a throwback to another era.
"Some people thought Ronnie fought everybody every day in practice, but Ronnie was never like that," Bird said. "He did some things to irritate guys, but he wasn't out here trying to fight guys. He played hard when he played. He had his moments where some days he would come in and for some reason wasn't into it, but … once you got him here and got going, he would never leave. But he was never a guy who got in scuffles or things like that.
"If he had played when I was in the league, that was all part of the game."
Artest sold his house in Zionsville, on North Michigan Rd., just last summer. He says he kept it in case he ever returned to play for the Pacers, something he hoped to do. He knows that won't happen now. He also knows he'll have to retire soon. He would like to hang on for another year or two as a player, but is ready to move on when necessary.
He wants to coach someday.
"In the NBA!" he says. "Absolutely!"
If that sounds crazy, try to remember if at any time during the previous decade you thought Artest would still be playing in the NBA today. At age 37. Under a different name. As a mentor to younger players.
You just never know what a man's future might bring.
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