Artest Begins Long Way Back to Uncertainty
By LIZ ROBBINS
Published: July 17, 2005
MINNEAPOLIS, July 16 - Silence, a few hands clapping and then the sound of a ball bouncing in the cavernous Target Center on Friday welcomed Ron Artest back for his first game in eight months.
It was not much louder than when he was alone.
Only two months earlier, when the Indiana Pacers' season had ended in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Detroit Pistons and the players were walking out of the arena for the summer, Artest was walking in to begin his season.
At midnight on May 19, Artest was allowed back in the N.B.A., his six-month suspension for igniting the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Nov. 19 lifted. He took shots that night on the practice court at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the same 3-pointer that swished again Friday.
In uniform again alongside the Pacers' young players and journeymen in the Minnesota Summer League before barely 200 fans Friday, team employees and reporters, Artest seemed taken aback by the quiet. Perhaps people were holding their breath, wondering what might happen.
"What did they want to see?" Artest said afterward with a sweetly sly smile, understanding his mixed image.
Off the court, he is generous and gentle, defying the horror reels of the fight that have been continuously replayed since last November. On the court, you just never know. "Sometimes, I'm unpredictable," he said.
On Friday, concluding a lost season spent on charity, workouts and parenting his four children, Artest was on the court looking as chiseled and intense as ever. Back wearing the No. 15 he had at St. John's, Artest scored 23 points in 35 minutes, his jumper smooth, even if his defensive timing was off. On Saturday, he scored 16 points in 27 minutes.
The Minnesota fans were polite; beer sales were limited.
It was a cup of beer thrown at Artest by a Pistons fan that enraged him and sent him rushing into the stands swinging on Nov. 19. N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern suspended Artest for the final 73 regular-season games and the playoffs.
"Just one day, something happened," Artest said Friday. "It was just a decision by a higher power. You move on."
Along the way, he learned what not to do. "Thinking first before reacting, that's real important," Artest said in an interview Friday night in the team hotel. "You use your mind, you get more accomplished in a better way. Next time, I'll be able to handle those situations better."
Next time. Will there be a next time in Indiana?
Donnie Walsh, the Pacers' chief executive and president, said teams had been calling every day for the past eight months wanting Artest. "We're not trading him," Walsh said.
Larry Bird, the Pacers' president for basketball operations, agreed. "We know what we have in him," he said.
That was not what two team executives in the Eastern Conference said last week, suggesting that for the right trade, Indiana would consider a deal. They requested anonymity because their teams had not discussed a trade.
At four years and $29 million remaining on his contract, Artest is a bargain and a wild card. One of the top players in the league, the defensive player of the year in 2004, he has the talent and aggressiveness to change a game in an instant.
Certainly, the arc of his career changed in an instant on Nov. 19. "I just know Ronnie missed the game so much - it's one thing in his life he truly loves, other than his family," Bird said. "This is his job. Any time you have something taken away from you, you miss it. We'll see how he reacts this year."
Artest's volatility and competitiveness on the court belie his sensitivity off of it. He financially supports most of his family from Queens. His annual Queensbridge Projects basketball tournament, where he pays for nearly 600 campers, is this week.
While doing sports television shows in Los Angeles last month, Artest visited the Dream Center, a mission to feed, educate and involve homeless children and adults, and he said he wanted to start a similar center in New York. In Los Angeles, he also took in a W.N.B.A. game, at which he saw an old friend from Queens, Chamique Holdsclaw, play for the Sparks. She recalled how she had routinely beaten "Ron-Ron" in one-on-one as teenagers.
Traded in March from Washington, Holdsclaw did not have a replica Sparks jersey yet. "Ron went out and bought a white T-shirt and wrote my name on it with my number in big letters," Holdsclaw said. "That's Ron."
Artest said: "I never gave people a chance to see another side, and right now I'm giving people a chance to know me. Everybody has different days and emotional roller coasters, that's just me.
"I'm not trying to redo my image and please anybody. I'm going to continue to be myself, so I'm not trying to get Cheerio commercials or Coca-Cola commercials; I want to do a commercial in the hood."
Besides keeping it real, Artest insists he will keep it under control next season, which will be his seventh in the league.
"The game is too big, it's too strong to take away from me," he said. "The game loves me, and I love the game. No matter what happens, it'll be with me."