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What a smooth turnaround by Artest
All-Star focuses his fire on winning
By Shira Springer, Globe Staff, 2/15/2004
LOS ANGELES -- The scene surrounding Ron Artest is hard to reconcile with what you know about the player. Last season, the small forward earned a reputation as volatile for attacking perimeter players and television monitors with equal fury. But now, he sits at a corner locker, the center of attention among a gathering of reporters. He answers questions with an almost childlike earnestness. He smiles sweetly when asked about playing in his first All-Star Game.
You think this must be an aberration, a rare instance when Artest appears charming and likable. But a very similar scene takes place a couple of days later when the 2004 All-Stars meet the media Friday afternoon and Artest entertains with stories about working on his shooting in Greece. Then, yesterday at an otherwise dull Eastern Conference practice, Artest engages the fans by tossing balls into the bleachers and asking for passes back, which he promptly tries to convert into crowd-pleasing dunks.
This is not a new, kinder, gentler Artest. It is simply the Artest few could see through all the technicals, suspensions, fines, and emotional outbursts.
Early in his career, when Artest played for Chicago, he said he would someday be an All-Star. The pronouncement met with equal parts skepticism and derision. Last year, Artest was in the running for a spot as a reserve on the Eastern squad, but his temper, not his defense, drew the most attention. This season, with his competitive aggression under control and the Pacers atop the conference in large part because of his play, Artest is right where he predicted he would be.
''The best thing about being in the All-Star Game is that it means [the Pacers] are heading in the right direction,'' said Artest. ''I have more experience and realize that last year we gave up an opportunity [losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Celtics].
''I'm playing better and I've learned I can still be effective and stay under control. It took a couple of first-round exits to understand that. All the stuff that was going on wasn't working, so I had to find another way.''
There may be no greater testament to how much an under-control Artest means to Indiana than the team's decision to name him a captain. The players and coaching staff sensed Artest was ready for the responsibility and deserving of the title. Artest assumed the captaincy before the Pacers played the Hawks Jan. 19, joining Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal as official team leaders. But coach Rick Carlisle did not announce the addition until the start of All-Star weekend.
''This year, [Artest] wants people to see the type of things that he does on the court rather than people looking and watching for the things he did off the court,'' said O'Neal. ''This year, he's played under control. He's an All-Star this year, and it's well-deserved. He has an opportunity to be an elite player in this league, and I think he's definitely on the right track right now.
''We don't have to watch and look over our shoulder and see what he's doing [this year]. We don't have to police him. We know that we can go out and handle our own business and worry about what we have to do individually and as a team. It's all about basketball, and that's what's most important to him this year. He doesn't care about all the other stuff off the court. He cares more about what we do on the court and about us winning.''
At the root of all the sound and fury from Artest last season was his ultracompetitiveness. The best example of that came when the Pacers suffered a disappointing loss against the Wizards, with Artest playing poorly against his boyhood idol, Michael Jordan. After the game, Artest vented his frustrations by smashing a framed photograph of himself that hung in a corridor outside the Indiana locker room. A one-game suspension caused Artest to miss a contest against the Celtics. With his competitive energies properly channeled, Artest has become not only an All-Star but also a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. No one frustrates Paul Pierce quite like Artest.
Artest will stop at nothing to contain Pierce, even going so far as to try and pull down Pierce's shorts in a game earlier this season. Artest ranks among the league leaders in steals with 2.06 per game, while also averaging 18.1 points per game and 5.3 rebounds.
''Long before I got here, Ron had made the statement that this year was going to be different,'' said Carlisle. ''He had been the center of a lot of turbulent situations last year. He lost untold hundreds or thousands of dollars for suspension fines and fines for broken equipment. He was, quite frankly, tired of spending money on things that were unrelated to basketball. He has kept his word and made this year about basketball and about winning. The reason he's an All-Star is because our team is doing well, and one of the major reasons our team is doing well is because of Ron Artest.
''But I'm just impressed with how kind a person he is, how generous he is as a guy. He's a little bit of a puzzle because he has that personality off the court, and on the court he's as tenacious as anybody you're ever going to play against, maybe that's ever played the game. That's one of the things that makes him special. He's a soft-spoken family man off the court. And on the court, he's a cold-blooded killer. He wants to beat you and he wants to keep you from scoring points and he's going to do everything he can to make that happen.''