Artest deserves blame, especially from Pacers
Sean Deveney / TSN
Posted: 1 hour ago
INDIANAPOLlS - Imagine being an employee who must sit in a chair while, a few feet over either shoulder, crowds of observers loudly register their opinions, mostly negative and sometimes grossly profane.
This is what NBA players do nightly. You must sit there and accept it, without confronting the observers in question the verbal abuse is just part of the job. Now imagine that abuse turns physical. Instead of hurling epithets, the observers hurl objects. Maybe a bucket of popcorn, maybe a cup of beer. This is not part of the job. This is assault. What do you do?
If you're Ron Artest, you leap to your feet, you bound into the crowd and you find someone who might (or might not, as it turns out), be the guy who tossed his drink at you. If you're Ron Artest, you then treat that guy as if he were a too-stiff pillow you try to pound him until he's soft. This leaves several players recognizing your actions as self-defense, a natural human instinct, but others looking at it differently.
If Artest does not go into the stands, says Magic forward Pat Garrity, "Nothing happens. The whole thing does not happen."
Plenty happened Friday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills, when a skirmish between the Pistons and Pacers devolved into a bizarre and revolting display after Artest stormed into the crowd seeking revenge for the apparently heinous crime of being hit in the chest by a plastic cup. Fans and players fought in the seats and on the floor, and nearly every kind of food product available at the Palace was hurled at Pacers players. Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said he feared for his life. Pistons coach Larry Brown said it was the ugliest thing he has seen as a coach or a player. Commissioner David Stern, in a statement, called the incident, "shocking, repulsive and inexcusable a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA."
Blame fans. Blame alcohol. Blame a security force that was not prepared (and, realistically, could not have been prepared) for widespread chaos. But most of all, blame Artest. The NBA did, suspending him for the rest of the season a punishment that was warranted. Restraint in the face of fan hostility is difficult, but necessary. Artest showed none. True, he was hit with an object from the stands, and the idiot who threw it should have been arrested. But it was a cup that hit him, not a brick or a Molotov cocktail. Artest apologists have pointed out that he was assaulted when he was hit, but remember: He was assaulted by a plastic cup, and he responded by administering a beating from his 246-pound body.
NBA officials were in Auburn Hills and Indianapolis the next day, interviewing players and coaches, deciding how suspensions should be doled out. The league did not go lightly on anyone, suspending nine players for a total of more than 140 games. After Artest, the most severe penalties were handed to Pacers Stephen Jackson (30 games), Jermaine O'Neal (25) and Anthony Johnson (five). Pistons center Ben Wallace, whose shove of Artest ignited the fracas, got six games. Artest is the most controversial figure in the NBA, and possibly in all of sports. (The brawl made Terrell Owens' Desperate Housewives skit look like an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.) Artest is an All-Star, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and a wonderfully unique player. He is 6 foot 7, a defensive stalwart, and a guy who can pour in 25 points. Yet he is a player who has done more harm to than good for the Pacers.
Whether you think of Artest as a victim or a menace, he has unquestionably jeopardized Indiana's chances at a championship. Artest's suspension was costly enough. But he also led O'Neal and Jackson to suspensions, costing the Pacers their three best players. When Indiana played Orlando at home the night after the Detroit melee, Indiana had just six players available and lost. The Pacers figured to battle Detroit and Miami for the East's best record. Now they'll be fighting just to reach the playoffs.
The question of what this does to the Pacers seems silly. "I think it's self-explanatory what this does," says rookie center David Harrison. "We've got six players. What do you think it does?"
The fact is, Artest has done this to his team, and if you're a talent evaluator, you must weigh his temperament against his skill. Asked if he would want Artest on his team, radio analyst and former Warriors coach Eric Musselman said, "If you know he's going to be out there 82 nights, you want him. He plays hard all the time, he's a player the opposition fears and respects. ... But when there are suspensions, your ballclub is affected. Then he becomes a distraction you don't need. What Artest did in Detroit really hurt his team."
The exercise of weighing how much Artest helps his team against how much he hurts it is not new it's just reached a new level. Go back to Artest's days in Chicago, where his personality pushed the Bulls to trade him. He allegedly almost came to blows with coach Tim Floyd because Artest wore sweatpants on the bench while sitting out a game with an injury. Reporters in Chicago still recall with astonishment the time an angry Artest lifted and chucked a heavy stretching machine across the team's practice floor.
Two years ago, after the Bulls sent him to Indiana, Artest was uncontrollable, missing 12 games because of suspensions. He cut out his bad acts last season, at least publicly. Still, one Eastern Conference scout says that the Pacers simply did a better job of covering for Artest, and that he still was a distraction. Then, just a week before the fight in Detroit, Artest was mysteriously benched for two games and told reporters he was, "tired from doing a little too much music," a reference to his work as a producer. Artest apparently had asked Carlisle for a month off, though Artest later hedged his statements after a torrent of negative commentary.
A few weeks earlier, Artest complained about not being asked to be part of the Olympic team. Then, he turns around and says he needs more time for his music career?
Even when focusing specifically on the incident in Detroit, Artest's actions leading up to the cup being thrown at him raise questions. The faceoff between Artest and Wallace that ignited the brawl started because of Artest's hard foul on Wallace with 45 seconds to play and the Pacers up by 15 points. Why commit a hard foul with so little time left? Artest had been upset when Wallace blocked his layup attempt with 1:25 to play, and some trash-talking had been going on between the two, probably leading to the hard foul.
"I would not take (Artest)," a Western Conference general manager says. "The Pacers won a lot of games last year with him. But I don't know that I could trust that, over the long run, he would not hurt the team, especially at some really important time."
What easily is overlooked is that the Pacers are a very good team that came into the season determined to repeat last year's methodical, 61-win production behind Carlisle's suffocating defense and controlled offense. O'Neal is the best power forward in the East, and Jackson had been providing the clutch shooting expected of him when he was acquired last summer. The Pacers picked apart the Pistons (before the ruckus, of course) to move to 7-2, despite early-season injuries to O'Neal, Reggie Miller and Jeff Foster. With the Pistons struggling, the Pacers had established an early edge in the East. And now?
The Pacers entertained trade offers for Artest this summer but could not complete a deal. The team is sticking by Artest, because, really, it has no choice. Whatever trade value he had took a nosedive with his music-career comments and all but disappeared during his Auburn Hills rampage. The Pacers are stuck with him. "The coaching staff, the franchise in general, steadfastly supports our players," Carlisle says.
Artest is one of those players, and that is not going to change, certainly not this season. He has the steadfast support of his team. But Artest, despite his marvelous on-court skill, has not earned that support off the court. That will be the downfall of the Pacers.
Sean Deveney is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.