Mike Monroe: Pacers can't escape shadow that is Artest
Web Posted: 12/28/2005 12:11 AM CST
San Antonio Express-News
The traveling circus that has been the Indiana Pacers for the past two seasons pitched its tent at the SBC Center on Tuesday night, minus the elephant act.
The elephant in the Pacers' room, of course, is Ron Artest, the All-Star who doesn't know who, or where, he wants to be.
Pacers players and coaches would just as soon not talk about Artest, especially since he doesn't travel with the team like the rest of the players on the inactive list. But they are still the Pacers, and the basketball world can recognize an elephant when it sees one, especially one day after Larry Bird tells an Indianapolis newspaper that Artest betrayed him when he demanded a trade.
It has been eight days since Artest asked out of Indiana, time enough for him to have changed his mind but hardly time for Bird, team president Donnie Walsh or captain Jermaine O'Neal to forgive him and welcome him back.
Ask O'Neal about Artest, and he politely insists he is done talking about him.
But he can't help himself.
"I'm not talking about Ron anymore," O'Neal said before tipoff Tuesday. "I'm burned out on that conversation, because he's not part of this team. It's tough enough trying to win games without sitting back and thinking about players that aren't here, because that makes it that much more difficult."
With no prodding, O'Neal gets to what is the heart of the Artest matter: Respect.
"This is a privilege," O'Neal said. "Sometimes guys lose sight of this. They pay us millions of dollars to play for a couple of hours, so you've got to respect the game and what it brings to you and your family.
"Right now that's what it's really all about for this team."
Neither Walsh nor Bird accompanied the Pacers on a road trip that made back-to-back stops in Dallas and San Antonio. They're too busy trying to find the right trade that will send the elephant packing. They prefer that he head out of the Eastern Conference, although one member of the Pacers' basketball staff whispered that he would like to see Artest sent to Toronto.
The Raptors, in case you haven't checked, have the worst record in the league.
Will it help the Pacers when the trade finally does come down, as it likely will before 2005 turns into 2006?
"As far as we're concerned, he's not here, so if he's traded or not, it doesn't make a difference to us," said former Spurs player Stephen Jackson, who has been plugged into Artest's small forward spot after coming to Indiana as a shooting guard. "It's not our job to sit here and figure out who is coming and when they're going to trade him. It's just to play basketball, and that's what has been great about this team. Nobody is worrying about when he's coming or who is coming in for him.
"Other people won't let it go, but it's behind us. He hasn't been with us eight games now, so we're just trying to move on."
The Pacers looked like one of the league's four best teams as the season began. That presumed an Artest who would play at the level that Bird insists makes him a "top 12" player in the league.
Instead, for the second season in a row, the Pacers will try to get through the season as best they can and hope for some sort of playoff magic.
Coach Rick Carlisle, who did a great job keeping his team competitive last season after Artest's lunacy in Michigan, just shrugs when you ask him if he wonders what a normal season would feel like.
"I don't, because part of the job description is to be able to deal with anything," Carlisle said. "I found that out last year. You've got to always hope for the best, and you don't expect the unexpected. It's not fun when you get in tough situations, but, as a team, we always talk about trying to improve every day and grow through whatever is going on.
"We'll just continue to take that tack. We've got to figure out a way to win games, and that's the deal for everyone."
Except for Artest.