Passion Player No one in the NBA competes harder than Ron Artest, who makes his feelings about hoops--and everything else--refreshingly clear

December 16, 2002

If you arrived a few hours before an Indiana Pacers game earlier
this season, you would have found swingman Ron Artest seated at
his locker, hard at work. With an earnest look on his face he'd
affix star decals in the Pacers' colors, gold and blue, to his
size16 Nikes. Brandishing a blue Sharpie, he would draw
psychedelic designs on the shoes--curlicues and inverted pyramids
and tiny fractals--and in elaborate bubble letters he'd inscribe
Bible verses as well as the names of relatives and friends. He'd
then lace up his kicks and take to the court--or at least he did
until Nov. 22, when the NBA informed Artest that he would be
fined $50,000 for playing in footwear that wasn't predominantly
one color. Now his handiwork lies at the foot of his locker,
twin totems to his team, his God and his family. "Lots of
people," he says, "stop by and admire them."

Those shoes are not the only arts-and-crafts project on display
in Artest's Conseco Fieldhouse cubicle. Taped to the wooden
panels are action shots of New York Knicks guard Allan Houston,
Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, Washington Wizards
swingman Jerry Stackhouse--explosive scorers whom the 6'7",
246-pound Artest relishes guarding. The photos weren't simply
torn from the pages of magazines. Artest meticulously cut out the
images, trimming between each of the players' fingers, precisely
limning the outlines of their hips and elbows. Why had he gone to
so much trouble? Artest thinks for a second, smiles, then says,
"I guess they'd look pretty funny with their legs cut off!"

Ron Artest's teammates call him the Beast. First filling in for
the injured Reggie Miller at shooting guard and now starting at
small forward after Miller's Nov. 26 return, he had helped the
Pacers to a 15--5 record at week's end, the best in the Eastern
Conference. It has been Artest's relentlessly physical
play--"football-basketball," he calls it--more than his points
(15.9 per game), rebounds (5.8), assists (3.2 assists) and steals
(2.15) that has propelled Indiana to its early-season success.
Assistant coach Dan Burke tabulates how many "defense
disruptions" each Pacer causes and reckons that Artest deflects
the ball once every five minutes, nearly double the frequency of
his closest teammate. Like an Indy car stuck in sixth gear, he
only goes full throttle.

"Ron plays with a passion that's uncontrollable," says Indiana
coach Isiah Thomas. "He's in love--in love--with basketball."

The best perimeter defender east of Gary Payton, Artest has quick
hands, long arms and an off-the-charts hoops IQ. He is immune to
head or ball fakes, knows every player's tendencies and gambles
only when he believes he has an edge. Among those cutouts he has
shut down this season: Houston (3 of 16 from the field),
Stackhouse (2 of 16), Nowitzki (4 of 20) and Orlando Magic star
Tracy McGrady (6-of-19 shooting and 13 points, 20 below his
league-leading average at the time). "He's a bitch, ain't he?"
Magic guard Darrell Armstrong said to McGrady on the bench as the
Pacers rolled to a 106--70 victory. As Indiana forward Ron Mercer
puts it, "The Beast intimidates a lot of guys."

Yet in other ways the 23-year-old Artest might be the NBA's least
imposing player. In a league populated by prima donnas and
poseurs, he is free of both pretense and guile. Ask him a
question and he'll answer it candidly, making eye contact the
entire time. ("The Nets? We don't like them. We'll probably
fight.") Yell his name from an arena's upper reaches during
pregame warmups and, reflexively, he'll turn and wave or give a
thumbs-up. Midway through a recent lunch order of "fettuccine
alfredo con seafood with lots of seafood" at an upscale Italian
joint in downtown Indianapolis, Artest summoned the waiter.
"Please tell the chef my pasta is excellent and he's doing a
terrific job back there, a terrific job," he said. Driving home
to his McMansion in the suburbs, his voice cracked as he talked
about his fiancee, Kimisha Hatfield, and his kids, Sade, 5; Ron
III, 3; and Leron, 1.

When Artest used to go home to Queens, N.Y., in the off-season,
he found himself dispensing cash to friends and relatives until
they nearly bankrupted him. Last summer he stayed in Indy, and
when he wasn't working out, he spent a good many nights watching
the WNBA's Indiana Fever. He didn't just attend games. He sat
with his kids and yelled dee-fense! and clapped those infernal
ThunderStix. "I'm probably the biggest Fever fan in the state,"
he says. "Some of those girls have a better handle than guys in
the NBA." He particularly admires All-Star forward Tamika
Catchings. What's she like? "Oh, I've never met her," Artest
says, his eyes suddenly as wide as coasters. "I bet she's real
nice, though."

Artest is not so much unaffected by his celebrity as he is simply
oblivious to it, living in an almost constant state of
exuberance. It was a keyed-up Artest, you'll recall, who broke
one of Michael Jordan's ribs during the cloak-and-dagger workout
sessions in Chicago in the summer of 2001, before His Airness's
comeback. "Remember how Pete Rose took out the catcher in that
All-Star Game? Ron would do the same thing," says center Brad
Miller, Artest's best friend on the Pacers. "I mean this in a
good way, but he's maybe a little nuts sometimes."

In early July, Artest underwent surgery to correct a congenital
heart murmur and seal a hole between his aorta and pulmonary
artery. After the operation, doctors told him to rest for a
while. Less than 24 hours later Artest left the hospital and went
directly to the Pacers' practice facility. He worked up a sweat
and decided to cool off by shooting free throws. As he stepped to
the line, he was distracted by the sight of something pulsating
in his pectoral region. "I swear I could see my heart pumping
through my jersey, like an overworked heart in a cartoon," he
says. "I thought for sure that was the end for me." He gathered
his gear and went home--then came back the next day.

Not that it was the first time he had risked his life for a run.
Last March, shortly after Indiana acquired him from the Chicago
Bulls in a seven-player deal for Jalen Rose, the Pacers had a
game in Detroit. As Artest sat in his suburban hotel room hours
before tip-off, his basketball jones became unbearable. Though it
was snowing, he put on shorts and a hooded sweatshirt and called
a limo. "Take me to some outdoor courts," Artest instructed. The
driver shrugged and headed into a neighborhood straight out of 8
Mile. A crowd gathered at the playground to watch--not because
anyone recognized Artest as an NBA player but because a madman
was hoisting jumpers in such frigid conditions. It turned out the
Detroit police were conducting surveillance that day, and several
members of the crowd were wanted on gun possession charges. Says
David Craig, the Pacers' trainer and team administrator, "Now we
tell Ron, 'When you want to go out and play ball on your own,
take our security personnel with you.'"

Artest is forever walking that fine line that separates intensity
from hotheadedness, excitability from immaturity. Last May,
Artest's girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Palma, alleged that he
grabbed her around the neck and by the arm during an argument.
Though no charges were filed, Palma was granted an order of
protection, which Artest violated several days later when he
called her. (Charges of harassment and criminal contempt were
later dropped.) Artest reunited with Hatfield, his girlfriend of
eight years and the mother of his two oldest kids. On Sept. 15,
he called the police claiming that Hatfield had scratched and hit
him; she was charged with domestic battery and faces a March 6
trial date. Despite their tumultuous history, Artest and Hatfield
are now engaged. "All that stuff, me being in the papers, I gotta
change it," Artest says. "I don't want to give little kids a bad
impression, so I have to be better at [doing] the right thing."

The hotheadedness that earned him headlines doesn't serve him
well on the court, either. When things go against him, he has
been known to punt balls, punch tables and kick basket
stanchions. Most recently, during a Nov. 23 home loss to the
Pistons, Artest was whistled for a foul and grabbed the closest
thing he could find on his way to the bench, the receiver to a
courtside telephone. He carried it with him until he'd yanked it
out of the console. Thomas, while wary of such outbursts, is
willing to give his emerging star some Artestic license. "Ron
does so many positive things that I don't want to take away from
his intensity," he says. "He's unique, one of the purest
individuals you'll ever have a chance to meet. Other than winning
basket-ball games, there's no agenda whatsoever."

Artest's abiding hope is that his kids grow up in better
conditions than he did. His unplaned edges--and aggressive
defense--can be traced to Queensbridge, a rough-hewn housing
project that was Artest's home before he spent two years at St.
John's. The rule of the asphalt there: No gaping flesh wound, no
foul. "I probably fought every day," he says. "That was the
environment." To make matters worse, when Artest was 15, his
sister Quanisha died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Ten weeks
old at the time, she was buried with one of her big brother's
basketball plaques in her casket.

His Queensbridge upbringing and FUBU attire notwithstanding,
Artest is in many ways the archetypal Hoosier hoopster. His
commitment to defense and unstinting effort have made him a
favorite at Conseco, and on Oct. 31 the Pacers rewarded him with
a six-year, $42 million deal. "Indiana fans know their
basketball, and they can tell right away which players really
have a passion," says Brad Miller, who grew up in Kendallville,
Ind. "They know from watching him play that Ron lives for the
game, that he is thinking about basketball every minute he's
awake."

And even when he's not. Artest has a recurring dream in which
he's playing one-on-three against a team of Jordan, Charles
Barkley and 7'7" Manute Bol. (Hey, it's his dream.) "They're
giving me the business at first," he says. "But then I use my
size and strength against Michael, my quickness against Charles
and my athletic ability against Manute. I'm always stealing the
ball from Manute. I even block his shots!" Artest can never
recall who wins these clashes. "We're playing in an old gym and
there's no scoreboard, no fans, no bright lights or nothing like
that," he says. "Just a bunch of guys who love basketball, going
at it."

Even in his sleep the most unguarded of NBA players is obsessed
with guarding the opposition.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER THE EYES HAVE IT A keen defender, Artest has stymied some of the league's most skilled scorers this season. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH ATTACK MODE Though he's best-known for his defense, the 23-year-old Artest is also Indiana's second-leading scorer. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (2) BRUTE FORCE Whether he's locked in on Stackhouse (top, left), Jordan or a loose ball, Artest's ferocious intensity has earned him the nickname the Beast. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (2) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON FORWARD MARCH After taking Miller's place at off-guard, Artest has shifted to the frontcourt without missing a beat.

The best perimeter defender east of Gary Payton, Artest has quick
hands, long arms and an off-the-chart hoops IQ.

Artest's relentlessly physical play--"football-basketball," he
calls it--has propelled Indiana to its early-season
success.

"Ron's unique," says Thomas. "Other than winning basketball
games, there's no agenda whatsoever."

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)