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A Season Over The Brink
Look what Ronnie has wrought. The Pacers finally rid themselves of talented but troubled Ron Artest, who made his debut with the Kings last week. But back in Indiana, a team that was once talking title is now facing an overhaul
By Jack McCallum
Until last Thursday afternoon the name Artest was still on a chalkboard in Rick Carlisle's locker room office. "Hmm, guess I haven't changed that starting lineup in a while," said the Indiana Pacers' coach, picking up an eraser. When told that he might want to wipe off o'neal too -- All-Star power forward Jermaine O'Neal will miss at least two months, and perhaps the rest of the regular season, with a torn left groin muscle -- Carlisle considered it. "No," he said finally, "I think I'll leave him on."
Who could blame Carlisle for pretending that his best player was still available? Over the last four months Carlisle has presided over an underachieving and flawed team (21-21 at week's end) held hostage by Ron Artest, a troubled and often troubling soul who was traded to Sacramento on Jan. 25. "The Tru Warier meets the Kings," the 6'7", 246-pound Artest said in a TV interview last week, hyping himself and his record label. Ah, just what they need at sign-happy Arco Arena: a new slogan.
The Pacers' post-Warier era officially began last Friday with a 93-89 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Conseco Fieldhouse, their fifth straight defeat and 13th in their last 19 games. Still, there were positive signs. Indiana was missing not only O'Neal but also point guard Jamaal Tinsley (sore right elbow) and demon rebounder Jeff Foster (back spasms). Plus, sharpshooting forward Peja Stojakovic, obtained from Sacramento for Artest, was unavailable, having arrived in town only hours before the game. Yet Indy played hard and stayed in the game until the end, getting solid performances from rookie forward Danny Granger (21 points, 14 rebounds) and young gun Fred Jones (20 points). "We fought together," said guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, "and that showed we can be a good basketball team."
After months -- nay, years -- of being Ar-tested by one of the strangest personalities on the sports landscape, the Pacers could not be blamed for looking at the bright side. In fact, both teams put a happy face on the swap -- It's a deal that helps both teams! -- but no one can say with certainty if any lasting good will come out of it. It's likely that Artest will eventually lock horns with shoot-first point guard Mike Bibby. And though the 6'10" Stojakovic's size and touch have led to comparisons with Pacers president Larry Bird, Stojakovic's model as a player, Peja lacks Bird's toughness, post-up moves, rebounding skills, playmaker aptitude and get-in-the-passing-lane defensive instincts. He is Larry Ultra Lite.
Larry Legend, who still stops traffic when he goes on international scouting missions, is a central figure in the Artest saga. Bird wanted to swap Artest for Stojakovic after the 2003-04 season -- the deal was nixed by Pacers owners Melvin and Herbert Simon -- yet he is also the member of the organization most closely aligned with Artest, so much so that the Artest Era seems destined to go down as Larry's Folly. If the old, tough-minded Celtic immortal likes him, the thinking went around Pacer Land, everyone had to like him.
But Bird wasn't the only one seduced by Artest. The Simons liked Artest the people's favorite, a man whose strong rapport and gentleness with fans masked the turmoil within. Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh liked Artest the talent, a player whose on-court repertoire includes three-point range, a post-up game and demon defense. (He was the league's Defensive Player of the Year in '03-04.) Bird liked Artest the gym rat, the human sweatbox who would practice nonstop for two hours in the off-season. "Then Ronnie might get on a plane and go play a couple of pickup games in Chicago," says Bird. "I wish I had a guy like that to work out with when I was playing."
Fact is, all the Pacers' execs liked Artest so much they were sounding like the Four Seasons: "Ronnie. Ronnie. Ronnie, I am regretting but can't stop forgetting because ... you were my first love."
Certainly Ronnie-love was in the Hoosier air this past summer. Artest, as is his wont, worked out dutifully, and Bird, among others, became convinced that he would come back physically fit (understandable) and mentally stable. (Huh?) The last glimpse of Artest in the 2004-05 season for many Pacers came after Detroit eliminated them in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semis, when Artest drove a black Escalade wildly onto the Conseco loading dock in full view of the Pistons' team bus, then jumped out of the SUV, ripped off his shirt and walked into the arena. By some accounts he was heading into Conseco to play a late-night shooting game with teammate Jonathan Bender. It was a classic moment from the Theater of Artest -- strangely endearing, seriously loony.
Still, says Bird, "with all that happened last season [a reference to Artest's 73-game suspension for igniting one of the ugliest brawls in sports history at The Palace of Auburn Hills], we really felt that this year would be, maybe not perfect, but all right." O'Neal and Stephen Jackson even joined Artest for an off-season tête-à-tête with Walsh and Bird, during which the players argued for keeping the core together, proving that Artest's seductive powers extended even to those teammates he had let down so often.
But everything went haywire a month into this season, either because Artest believed that the Pacers were trying to trade him (Walsh and Bird say No, no, a thousand times no!) or because, well, because he's Artest.
Two Pacers told SI that Artest regularly started physical altercations during practice. The skirmishes "weren't boxing matches," says one of the players, but they didn't do much for team unity. If Artest believed that he was being treated unfairly in practice by Carlisle or one of his teammates, he refused to run through a play. Or hours before a game he would announce in the locker room that he wasn't going to play that evening, only to change his mind soon thereafter.
At least twice this season, he was outside the locker room, in street clothes, talking on a cellphone 20 minutes before tip-off. He came to believe that everything he did wrong in Indianapolis was magnified, which was true, but he ignored the fact that the hometown fans had cut him enormous slack despite his 87 games' worth of suspensions over 41Ú2 seasons as a Pacer. Among his teammates he was closest to Jackson and Tinsley, but eventually the Tru Warier had no true allies. "It was Ron against the world," says one player.
Still, until Dec. 11, the day Artest announced in an interview with the Indianapolis Star that he wanted to be traded, management spun furiously for him. It was Artest's passion that led him to overreact in games and practices, Pacers execs would say. Sure, the team might be affected by his outbursts, but Artest was "a guy who could walk into a restaurant and get into a conversation with anyone," Bird said last week.
Despite Artest's rap sheet the Kings weren't the only team that tried to get him. Far from it. Dealing Artest for Corey Maggette of the Los Angeles Clippers would have almost certainly gone down three weeks ago had Indiana not been scared off by recent tests on Maggette's left foot. According to a Pacers source, talks with the Denver Nuggets about Artest for Kenyon Martin were serious, but Indiana was unwilling to take on Martin's contract (five years remaining for $70.9 million). The New Orleans Hornets wanted Artest but offered only draft choices. Walsh and Bird had conversations with many other teams, including the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors, but nothing ever came close to being cemented. Eventually, only the Kings, who are trapped in their own going-nowhere nightmare, had enough to get it done, offering a player that Bird had apparently wanted before he became reseduced by the beguiling Warier. "We made a mistake, obviously," says Bird. "When you're in the business of figuring out what's best for a team, you can't fall in love."
So now Indy's spotlight is on Stojakovic, who is in some ways the anti-Artest: shy, modest, congenitally unable to foment discontent. Though the way he found out about the trade angered him -- Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof spilled the beans on television before they told Stojakovic -- he seems genuinely glad to be in Indiana under the watchful eye of his hoops role model. "Being on Larry's team," he said last Friday, "is kind of like a dream." Stojakovic, 28, can opt out of his contract at season's end, but Bird says, "I've been after this kid for two years, and I don't want him to be here two weeks."
Stojakovic will never be the defensive warrior Artest is, but he will have to improve his D to satisfy Carlisle, not to mention the hoops-savvy fans at Conseco. Since Indy plans to dust off some old Reggie Miller-type plays for him, Stojakovic will have ample opportunity to prove that his declining scoring average (from 24.2 points per game in '03-04 to 20.1 last season to 16.5 in 31 games through Sunday) resulted from nagging injuries (pinky, groin, back) and a Sacramento offense that turned from move the ball to move out of Bibby's way.
There are other issues for a team that was seventh in the East at week's end. With the arrival of Stojakovic, Carlisle will have to find minutes and shots for Granger and Jones. Tinsley's shot-clock-devouring, back-back-back-it-down style needs an overhaul. And with O'Neal out, it might be a good time for Jackson -- a sometimes delightful guy who occasionally stares absentmindedly into the stands during games, as he did on Friday during an abysmal 6-for-20 shooting performance -- to zone in instead of zoning out. Most important, the franchise will have to decide whether O'Neal is a franchise player or just a talented opening act who needs a headliner. Many around the league suspect the latter.
The one certainty is that, for now, all is quieter on the Conseco front. "Ron was a funny dude, and we'll miss some of that," says backup point guard Anthony Johnson. "But it was time for it to be over." Make that way past time, A.J.
Issue date: February 6, 2006