"If only Ron Artest were here . . . Could you imagine this Detroit series with Ron Artest? . . . It sure would be different if Ron were playing."
There are a number of reasons we need to shut up about Ron Artest, who is having as much influence on this Pistons-Pacers series as the Mohawks of John Edwards and David Harrison.
First, this is a series, even without Artest. The matchups page says it shouldn't be a series and common sense says it shouldn't be a series. But after Wednesday's victory in Auburn Hills, Mich., the Pacers can put the defending champs on the ropes tonight in Game 3 at Conseco Fieldhouse. Pistons coach Larry Brown is said to be so upset, he's ready to blame the Olympic selection committee. (Just kidding.)
Second, I'm not convinced Artest would have survived this season long enough to be a factor in the playoffs. If the meltdown hadn't happened Nov. 19, it was going to happen Dec. 22, or Jan. 18, or (pick your date). Remember, this season began with Artest's bizarre I-want-some-time-off request and the resulting suspension. Later came the Throwdown in Motown.
What was next?
With Artest, you never knew.
But you knew there would be a next time.
Third, I'm not convinced the Pacers would be making this run even if Artest were in the lineup. On paper, yes, Artest makes the Pacers a title contender. But his suspension changed the emotional dynamics of that locker room, leaving a team that became mentally stronger and more united than ever before. With Artest gone, Reggie Miller was allowed to reprise his 1994 role on a nightly basis, and a bunch of kids, most of them named Jones, got serious playing time and produced.
I bring up the Artest issue now because Artest is back in the news.
He recently was profiled by Gentlemen's Quarterly. Then, two days ago, ESPN ran its two-part interview with Artest. And that was just the beginning. Artest's new Nashville, Tenn.-based management team has him doing this Ron Across America Tour, in which Artest dresses nicely, smiles broadly and says mea culpas until he turns blue in the face.
As we've long known, Artest is an absolute master at expressing contrition.
Now, I don't take issue with Artest's desire to repair his image, although he'd help himself most by staying out of trouble for an entire year.
I take issue with the timing.
It's the playoffs. It's time to be concentrating on basketball. Specifically, it's time to be concentrating on Pacers basketball, and the best story in this year's NBA. The whole idea was to leave the brawl behind. But heeeeeere's Ronnie, smiling for those cameras, reshaping his image, doing everything but shilling for the Whizzinator.
And why now?
Why would his new management folks deem it to be in Artest's best interest to get him out there doing damage control? Is he suddenly going to grace the front of a Wheaties box? Will it help CD sales? What's the point?
As for the timing, well, if I were a member of the Pacers' organization, I would be appalled and angry.
Here's the guy who put his team's season in jeopardy and now, as his Pacers make this playoff run, he's out there selfishly trying to convince corporate America he's really a nice guy who's misunderstood.
All of this tells me something else: The idea of trading him, even if it means coming away with less than equal value, makes more sense than ever. We are seeing for ourselves that he is not indispensable. The Pacers won 44 regular-season games and have reached the second round of the playoffs. And they have done it despite losing 435 games worth of suspensions and injuries.
They may have lost scoring, rebounding and defense, but they gained something intangible and powerful, something that is helping them to achieve beyond all expectations.
Publicly, the players and management types all say they're supporting Artest and believe the year out of basketball will result in a transformation. Maybe it's all a ploy to convince potential trade suitors that he's centered and better than ever. More likely, though, they say it because they truly believe it.
Which makes me wonder which side is guilty of failing to think straight.
Think the 10th guy on the bench would be enjoying such patience and compassion? Do they really think he's going to go from hellion to St. Francis of Assisi?
I hope he found a certain sense of peace during these long days away from competitive basketball.
I hope he can come back, here or somewhere else, and show people he's a great basketball player and not a damaged soul who happens to be a great talent when he's right.
I honestly, fervently hope I'm wrong about his capacity for change, and that his fans are justified in their loud and often angry support.
Right now, though, I just don't need to see Artest on my TV, telling me he's going to return a changed man. Don't tell me. Show me. Show everybody.
In the meantime, there's one heck of a playoff series we need to be covering.
Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Call him at (317) 444-6643 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org