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When it comes to powerful people, at least in sports, no one wields more authority than ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer. This is not a shameless attempt to get a raise (although we'd be open to the suggestion). Just last month, the Sporting News bestowed such a distinction on Mr. Bodenheimer in the magazine's annual Most Influential People list.
The exclusive 100 featured an NBA power set led by commissioner David Stern (sixth overall), Yao Ming (25th) and LeBron James (28th), he of the half-rookie season and $90 million Nike deal.
We bring up this list to include one more name -- The Person Most Powerful In The Eastern Conference Playoff Race. And no, he isn't Trader Isiah Thomas. The honor, however, does belong to one of Thomas' former players.
Because no one has the capability of taking down a title contender quite like Ron Artest.
Artest demonstrated just how much sway he holds last season when, just like this season, the Pacers entered the second half with the East's best record. Three games after the break, Indiana stood an impressive 37-15 atop the conference, only to spend the remainder of the season trying not to swerve off the road to the playoffs.
The Pacers lost 12 of their next 13 games during a collapse that was made even more spectacular by Artest's three suspensions -- once for a postgame, TV-throwing tirade and twice for exceeding the league's legal limit for flagrant fouls. Overall, Artest was suspended a total of 12 games, and a dazed Pacers club lasted all of six games in the playoffs, losing to sixth-seeded Boston in the first round.
So you can see why the team most wary of Artest would be Artest's own club. Thing is, the Pacers aren't afraid of what Artest might do next anymore. For Artest, as teammate Al Harrington put it, is finally "on the straight and narrow."
"He knows what he has to do now," Harrington explained.
Which, in Artest's world, means everything and anything in his power to make sure the Pacers have more points than that night's opponent. He's just staying within the rules now.
"Last year, I think he got into trying to get people to notice him," Jermaine O'Neal said of Artest. "That (getting suspended) was a way of getting noticed. He realized that wasn't the (right) way of doing things."
The Pacers are so not concerned by a reoccurrence of Artest's antics that they secretly anointed him one of the team's captains along with Reggie Miller and O'Neal. With captaincy comes a certain responsibility and level of on-court decorum. Leading by example does not mean showing teammates how to insult fans with obscene gestures, another one of last season's transgressions.
So how has Artest been able to keep this extreme mental makeover intact?
"I just think about the wins," explained Artest, who has been flagrant foul-free so far. "That keeps me focused enough."
Artest's tunnel vision on the win column was interrupted back in December, when he became frustrated with coach Rick Carlisle's offense and got benched for "conduct detrimental to winning" (i.e., selfish shot selection) and got pulled from the starting lineup again two days later for being late to practice. Other than those episodes -- and Tuesday's benching for an unexcused absence at Monday's practice -- Artest has been on his best behavior ever in his five NBA seasons.
"He's not worrying about the other stuff away from the game," O'Neal said. "He plays the game. He goes out and plays hard and goes home."
Then again, Larry Bird wasn't going to let anyone be a distraction after taking the basketball reins from team president Donnie Walsh last summer.
But by keeping his emotions under control on the court, Artest has cemented his place among the NBA's power players. Because, without his newfound focus, the Pacers wouldn't be able to talk about an Eastern Conference title with such conviction.
"This year, we know what it takes to get out of the first round and finish strong in the second half of the season," O'Neal said. "We've played a lot of games, played the bulk of our schedule in the first half, and we did extremely well. We missed a whole lot of practice time, missed a whole lot of rest on our bodies, (so) the second half of the season is going to be a plus for us. I think mentally and physically we are a lot tougher than we were last year.
"It'll be all business," O'Neal added. "We're getting out of the first round. And we're going to the Finals this year."
As long as Artest lets them.
Joe Lago is in the NBA editor at ESPN.com.
Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts
And life itself, rushing over me
Life itself, the wind in black elms,
Life itself in your heart and in your eyes, I can't make it without you