9:38 PM January 24, 2006
Ron can score, defend, redefine free agency
I've completely changed my mind about Ron Artest: He is, in fact, the smartest man in professional sports. He is Albert Einstein in baggy shorts. As the Guinness guys like to say, "Brilliant.''
Not only is he being paid more than $6 million a year for doing absolutely nothing, he is now dictating the terms of engagement, engineering things so he gets moved to a team and city of his liking.
This isn't like free agency; this is better than free agency. With free agency, if nobody wants to sign you, you don't play and don't get paid. With Artest free agency, you get your guaranteed money plus you wield the power to ensure the most personally beneficial deal.
Could it be this was all part of Artest's uber-devious master plan? Get himself thrown out of Indiana? Give himself lots of paid vacation -- and why isn't he putting out a CD now, when he's got plenty of time? Mess with the system and make sure he ends up in a more glamorous town than Sacramento?
Artest is in charge here.
And there's nothing anybody can do about it.
The Pacers can't take away his pay, although I'd love to see them try. The NBA can't suspend him, although I'd like to see it try. And even if the Sacramento Kings had remained committed to a deal, they couldn't have forcibly compelled him to play. Artest would have then done for the Kings what he's done for the Pacers most of this season -- nothing.
For the Pacers, Artest is the gift who keeps on giving, busting management's chops whether he's on the roster or not. You want to direct your anger at Artest? It's misplaced. Direct it at team CEO Donnie Walsh and team president Larry Bird, who are being played for fools once again. They kept playing with fire, and now they can't complain that they've been burned.
There is a certain comic justice to all of this.
First, the Corey Maggette deal fell through. Now the Peja Stojakovic trade has failed. What's next? Plan C? Plan X?
Stojakovic would have represented a reasonably good bailout, a decent value for damaged merchandise. His game and his health have declined -- it would have been a better trade two years ago -- but at least he would have made the Pacers more fun to watch.
Of course, we'll never know.
Now, the way we understand it -- and with Artest, we never really understand -- the prodigal Pacer didn't say he absolutely, positively wouldn't go to Sacramento. Apparently, his agent, whoever that might be today, let word slip publicly that Artest was reluctant to go to the Kings. When the Kings caught wind of that, they understandably balked. But Artest later told The Star's Mike Wells he simply wanted a chance to meet with any prospective employers before embracing a trade.
By then, though, it had been reported everywhere that Artest didn't want any part of Sacramento, leaving the Kings with a monstrous public-relations problem.
It would have been hard enough selling Artest to the fans, especially in exchange for Stojakovic, a fan favorite who had played more games in Sacramento than anybody in team history. Now, though, they were looking at the prospect of having to sell their fans on the addition of controversial player who apparently didn't want to be there.
Now the Kings will have an unhappy Stojakovic on their hands, but it could have been far worse.
In theory, if this had been handled correctly -- yeah, right -- this deal could have happened. Had Artest and his agent privately told the Kings he wanted to meet first, the sides could have met and there could have been a trade.
It's not much different from the way Artest got himself shoved off the Pacers' active roster. He could have gone to Walsh and Bird and shared his concerns. Instead, he went to the media. The Pacers, like the Kings, had absolutely no choice.
Give it up to Artest, though.
He has turned into a master puppeteer. He's playing the NBA like a cello. Intentionally? Unintentionally? Genius is rarely understood in its time.
Of course, all of this could change in a heartbeat. For all I know, the minute this column goes into print and lands with a thud on your doorstep, Artest will have straightened out this whole thing and Stojakovic will have put a down payment on a condo in Geist.
Remember, one day Artest wanted out of Indy. Another day, he desperately wanted to stay.
Let's just say, I'm going to hold onto the "Hello, Peja'' column I wrote earlier Tuesday, just in case.
As for Artest, I can only give him his props. There's a method to the madness, after all. He has shown that common free agency is downright yesterday. The Artest version of free agency, that's the way to go.
Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Call him at (317) 444-6643 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.