Jackson Prepares for First Game Back
INDIANAPOLIS -- Ron Artest practiced with the Indiana Pacers on Monday for the first time in over two months since he was suspended for fighting with Detroit fans.
Artest did not comment as he left the practice court at Conseco Fieldhouse, but teammates and coach Rick Carlisle said his presence gave the struggling Pacers a much-needed lift.
"Having a guy like Ron in practice helps raise the level of practice in terms of intensity because he's one of the real warrior-type players we have in this league," Carlisle said. "He came back in here today and it was like he never left."
Commissioner David Stern suspended the All-Star for the remainder of the season after he bolted into the stands at The Palace on Nov. 19 and exchanged punches with Pistons fans, who showered Artest and the rest of the Pacers with debris.
Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said late last week that Artest's presence at practice is in no way an indication that his suspension could be reduced, but several Pacers are clinging to that hope, however slim.
"All we can do is pray," forward Stephen Jackson said. "Even to think about having him back in that uniform with the No. 91 jersey on, that's definitely making us happy, but that's frightening a whole lot of teams. They don't want to see him back, but we do."
Jackson said Artest was clearly pleased to be back on the court with his teammates. And if anyone should know, it's Jackson, who has been practicing with the team for a few weeks but will play in his first game since the brawl on Wednesday at Boston.
"The best thing for him is what was the best thing for me and that's to be with the team," Jackson said. "Obviously sitting at home, watching media, watching the news … he needs to be around his team with people who care about him and people who support him."
Jackson was suspended for 30 games for his role in the melee. Jermaine O'Neal has been playing since Dec. 25 after his 25-game penalty was reduced to 15 games by an arbitrator and upheld in federal court.
"I'm so happy to be back I want to scream," Jackson said.
But his enthusiasm was tempered because he knows what Artest is going through.
"If anybody who basically grew up like we have and was able to work their butt off to get to the NBA, and to lose money and not be able to play and do the things you love?" Jackson said, shaking his head. "Guys like me and Ron, we look at basketball like it's our life. This is all we can do. … I feel sorry for him because this is what he loves to do. He thrives on basketball and for him to be away from it, it has to be hurting."
Carlisle could see the impact returning to the court had on last year's defensive player of the year.
"My sense is that he was a little humbled by the chance to come back," Carlisle said. "It's a meaningful day. It's a meaningful opportunity for him given what's transpired. … It's a big deal."
Jackson will start at the small forward spot -- Artest's position -- against the Celtics and said Artest's intensity will make him a better player.
"Ron's a warrior. He comes to practice everyday and works hard and that's what I need right now," Jackson said. "I've been out for a while, so I need to bang against an All-Star and Ron is the best person I can go up against to make my game better. So I'm glad he's back."
If Artest can elevate Jackson's game, the Pacers will be much better off for it. The Pacers are 20-19, but just 4-6 in their last 10 games, and have struggled mightily with consistency.
The fiery and skilled Jackson figures to provide a big lift.
"Having him back is not going to solve every problem we have, but it's certainly going to be an important part of the solution to some of our issues of consistency and energy loss," Carlisle said.