Playing with Fire Ron Artest, Jordan's favorite Bull, has some of the master's passion

February 11, 2002

It's another Bulls game, and that makes everyone and everything
in the vicinity of the court a potential target for Chicago
swingman Ron Artest. He launches towels into the crowd in
disgust, assaults stanchions with staccato jabs, slams balls to
the floor with gavel-pounding force. Even reporters and
cheerleaders behind the baseline scatter like tenpins when
Artest drives wildly to the hoop. Watching him, one wonders
whether the United Center ball boys get combat pay. "Yeah, I get
pretty emotional," says Artest with a laugh. "I'm a little
obsessed with being competitive."

That passion has turned the third-year player into one of the
league's most promising young talents. "I love Ron Artest," says
Michael Jordan, who developed an appreciation for his physical
style when Artest broke two of Jordan's ribs the first day the
two played together last summer in Chicago. "He's got so much
intensity and such drive. I wish I could have played against him
six years ago." Adds Chicago coach Bill Cartwright, "When
somebody brings that much energy to the court, it's beautiful."

Amiable, approachable and refreshingly candid off the court--he
appears to have missed media cliche training day--the 6'7",
247-pound Artest has always been nearly maniacal when he steps
on it. As a kid growing up in Queens, N.Y., he would prowl the
outdoor court at his housing project until late at night, taking
on all comers and ready to resolve any scoring disputes with his
fists. In AAU ball he once got so pumped that he fought with his
teammate and best friend, Clippers forward Elton Brand, in the
pregame layup line. Last month, when Jordan faced his old team
and scored his 30,000th career point after an Artest foul, a
disappointed Artest unloaded three of what he calls his
"Muhammad Ali punches" on the scorer's table. "I almost put a
hole in it," he says. "I didn't want him to get to 30,000 on us."

Known for his tenacious, on-the-ball defense, Artest spent part
of the off-season working with a shooting coach, and it has paid
off. Through Sunday he was averaging 15.4 points and shooting
42.3% on three-pointers--career bests--to go with 2.65 steals and
5.1 rebounds per game. Since Cartwright took over from Tim Floyd
on Dec. 28, Artest has been particularly productive, averaging
16.5 points in 19 games. "With [Floyd], you had to worry about
getting yanked all the time," says Artest. "[Cartwright] lets me
play. I'm not afraid to take a fadeaway, take a three in
transition, take it coast to coast."

Artest's play has been one of the few bright spots for the Bulls,
but their 10-36 record through Sunday, the worst in the league,
has worn on him. "Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm bad luck," he said
after a Jan. 21 loss to the Pacers. "Maybe they should trade me,
and everybody will stop being miserable."

With on-court triumphs so rare, Artest has had to find other ways
to get his victory fix, beating up on friends in video games and
in his favorite pastime, checkers. "I got checkers down like a
science," he says. "I got my own strategy. I know everything
you're doing, and I'll beat anything you bring at me." Good thing
for the board.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)