Forward Thinking With their talented tandem of Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest in lockstep, the Pacers have emerged as a serious title threat from the East

February 09, 2004

To fully appreciate the evolution of Ron Artest and Jermaine
O'Neal into the NBA's premier forward tandem--a pairing that at
week's end had propelled the Indiana Pacers to a league-best
35-13 record--you must understand how different the two are.
Take, for example, their favorite foods. ¶ Artest really, really
likes beans. Kidney, pinto, black--it doesn't matter. He asks his
wife, Kimesha, to put them in almost every dish she serves.
"Beans have got lots of protein like meat, and they've got what
starch has [carbohydrates]," Artest says with the assurance of an
infomercial narrator. "They are the total package."

O'Neal, while lukewarm about beans, adores jerk chicken wings the
way most people adore their children. In fact, he likes the ones
at an Indianapolis restaurant, the Bahama Breeze, so much that he
hired the chef to work for him. Just walked back into the kitchen
and made an offer. Now O'Neal gets jerk chicken wings whenever he
likes, which is pretty much nightly. "They're unbelievable," says
O'Neal, who is a lean 6'11" and 242 pounds. "And they keep my
weight up."

Culinary preferences are only the beginning of the contrasts.
Growing up, O'Neal was as gangly and wobbly as a newborn deer, a
soft-spoken mama's boy from Eau Claire, S.C., who at one point
was 6'9" yet so uncoordinated that he couldn't dunk. Respectful
and polite, he asked permission from his high school coach before
getting his first earring, after his senior season. These days,
though fiercely driven, he's logical and meticulous, the type of
guy who irons his jeans. He treats the game as a job, one he must
work at to succeed.

Artest, on the other hand, plays with a manic glee, as if at any
moment the recess bell will ring and someone will take the ball
away. The son of a boxer, he was raised in Queensbridge, N.Y.,
with the understanding that you had to fight for anything worth
having. So he fought--on the playground, during high school and
now in the NBA, where he has tended to return each elbow thrown
his way, damn the consequences. Impulsive and excitable, he's
been known to change his mind daily, if not in mid-sentence.

It should come as no surprise, then, that despite being the
Pacers' two best players, O'Neal and Artest didn't exactly click
in their first year and a half together in Indy. (Artest arrived
from the Chicago Bulls in a February 2002 trade involving Jalen
Rose.) It wasn't antipathy so much as apathy, but for that, the
team suffered. Last season Indiana ran out to a 34-15 record
before the All-Star break, only to falter and finish 48-34, then
lose in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight
year. As team unity frayed, Artest and O'Neal were like a pair of
inmates furiously digging separate escape tunnels only a few feet
apart. I'll get mine, you get yours.

What they had in common was a competitive fire, a
do-whatever-it-takes attitude toward winning, but it manifested
itself in different ways. O'Neal's solution was to set his jaw
and attempt to put the team on his back. Artest, on the other
hand, tried until he couldn't try anymore, then vented his
frustration on the nearest object, animate or inanimate. As a
result of his outbursts he received 14 technical fouls, paid
$155,000 in fines and was suspended for a total of 12 games. (The
team went 5-7 in those games.) By season's end it was clear that
whatever Artest and O'Neal were doing, it wasn't working.

Fed up and fresh off signing a seven-year, $126 million deal last
summer, O'Neal decided to bridge the gap. Having been in Indiana
for four years, he already had a support network in forwards Al
Harrington and Jonathan Bender, who like O'Neal had made the jump
from high school to the pros. Artest, however, had left behind
friends in Chicago and had yet to make new ones on the Pacers. He
kept to himself on the road, and after games he raced home to see
his family. "He was kind of a loner last year," says O'Neal.
"Outside of [reserve guard] Jamison Brewer, nobody really talked
to him that much."

So at the beginning of this season, O'Neal invited Artest
everywhere: to lunch, dinner, movies, nightclubs, even the
bowling showdowns that Bender, Harrington and O'Neal stage on a
regular basis. (O'Neal owns his own ball, a custom-made replica
of a red-white-and-blue ABA basketball.) To Artest, what mattered
was not whether he went, though he often did, but that he was
included. "Jermaine reached out to me and made me feel
comfortable," he says. "It took a while, but he was always trying
to do stuff for me, for the whole team, to make us closer."

The newfound camaraderie is evident on the court. O'Neal no
longer feels as though he has to do it all himself--Artest
praises him for becoming a better, and a more willing, passer
this season--and Artest knows he is appreciated and understood.
The effect has been calming: At week's end Artest had received
only two technicals, one of which the league later apologized
for. To a man, the Pacers point to their stars' connection as the
reason for the team's success, mentioning the "improved chemistry
between those two" (point guard Jamaal Tinsley) and the duo's
"increased focus and motivation" (center Jeff Foster). Says
O'Neal, "Ron isn't afraid to say, J.O., you gotta drop down, you
gotta box out. Because he knows I'm going to take that out of
respect. And he knows if I say, Ron, you gotta do this, you gotta
do that, I'm coming to him in respect. Last year we might have
taken it personally. Now it's all about winning."

It certainly has been. Boasting a deep bench and playing
smothering defense under new coach Rick Carlisle, who succeeded
Isiah Thomas, Indiana has become a contender for the NBA title,
with an 11-6 record against the West at week's end. Even more
chilling to opponents is that the Pacers' nucleus is so
young--O'Neal and Tinsley are 25, Artest is 24 and Harrington is
23. As Miami Heat forward Caron Butler says, "In order to win the
East, you're going to have to go through them for a long time."

It is a fitting word choice, because attempting to "go through"
Indiana's defense can be hazardous to one's health. The rugged D
starts with Artest, who plays as if he's a linebacker instructed
to blitz on every down. Picking up the opposition's best
perimeter player, whether it's a point guard or a 6'10" forward,
Artest pokes and prods and bumps him into submission. Asked how
much contact Artest absorbs, Carlisle frowns. "I don't like the
word absorbs," he says. "Ron's like Jim Brown was as a running
back: When people tackled him, they got physically punished."
Through Sunday, Artest was third in the league with 2.15 steals
per game, and opposing starters at small forward, his primary
assignments, were averaging just 9.8 points when he was in the
lineup. Such is his reputation that, asked to describe Artest's
defense last Saturday after the Pacers' forward had five steals
in a 99-98 win over the Celtics, Boston guard Paul Pierce merely
shook his head and said, "I can't give him any more love. I've
given him too much juice already."

On those rare occasions when an opponent eludes Artest, he still
has to deal with O'Neal, who at week's end was averaging 2.7
blocked shots to go with 10.5 rebounds. (After straining his neck
against Boston, he was listed as day-to-day.) "If Jermaine were
into statistics, he could lead the league in blocks," says
Carlisle. "But he'd have to break the rules of our system to do
it, and that's not the kind of guy he is."

On offense, the duo is equally deadly. At 6'7" and 246 pounds,
Artest has the quickness of a guard but the strength to post up
many power forwards. Though not a pure shooter, he is a scorer
(17.5 points per game through Sunday) with three-point range
whose repertoire includes all manner of spin moves,
up-and-unders, bull rushes to the basket and midrange jumpers.
"He's deceptive because he doesn't look like a great ball
handler," says Indiana reserve guard Anthony Johnson, "but
believe me, he gets where he wants to go."

O'Neal, on the other hand, is a classic post player who prefers
the ball on the right block, where he can take one dribble and
drop in a soft jump-hook with either hand, lean back for a
fadeaway, or pump fake and spin baseline to the basket, a move so
quick and slippery that it brings to mind the light feet of
Hakeem Olajuwon. His productivity on offense--he was averaging
20.4 points per game and led the East with 29 double doubles
through Sunday--has made him an MVP candidate. Carlisle calls him
"our rock" on offense, and Johnson says, "He gets to the basket
as quick as any four I've seen."

Put it all together, and you have the league's most multifaceted
pair of forwards. The Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett and
Latrell Sprewell are close, but that's mainly because of
Garnett's transcendent abilities. Peja Stojakovic and Chris
Webber of the Sacramento Kings are supremely talented offensive
players but play average D, while the New Jersey Nets' Kenyon
Martin and Richard Jefferson are but lesser versions of O'Neal
and Artest. "Factoring in offense and defense, they're the top
forward combo in the league," said one Eastern Conference scout
as he watched the Pacers demolish the Phoenix Suns 101-79 last
week. "Throw in Harrington, who's becoming a monster, and it's
not even close."

Both will likely be All-Stars--the fans voted in O'Neal as a
starter, and Artest is a shoo-in to be chosen by the coaches this
week--and increasingly they find they have much in common. For
one, despite their relative youth, both are settling down. O'Neal
proposed to his girlfriend of nine years, Lamesha Roper, at five
minutes past midnight on New Year's, presenting her with a
14-carat diamond ring. He says he was motivated in part by the
fact that he wanted his four-year-old daughter, Asjia, to grow up
with a strong father figure, something he didn't have.

Artest is a step ahead, having married longtime girlfriend
Kimesha Hatfield last June. Since then he's been bringing his
three children--daughter Sadie, 5, and sons Ron III, 4, and
Leron, 2--to games on a regular basis, which he rarely did last
season. In the training room Ron III and Leron gleefully climb on
the StairMaster and the treadmill, or do pull-ups and push-ups.
(Leron can already do five of the latter, his father proudly
notes.) Recently, Carlisle was holding a closed-door team meeting
when a little head poked into the room. The head, which belonged
to Leron, proceeded to request that the TV in the clubhouse
family room be changed to the Cartoon Network. As the players
chuckled and Carlisle steamed, Artest quickly hustled his son out
the door.

All this is not to say that Artest and O'Neal are suddenly best
friends, or even that they've become more alike. Case in point:
At a photo shoot last week O'Neal calmly posed, occasionally
making conversation with the photographers. Next to him Artest
fidgeted like a nine-year-old in a doctor's office. He paced,
talked to whoever would listen about his poor performance in
practice that day ("I was shooting bricks! Bricks!") and took the
ball he was supposed to be cradling and bounced it off the wall
or off the bright yellow construction paper that served as a
photographic background.

Regardless, the two joked around and appeared to be perfectly
comfortable together, and to the Pacers, that's all that matters.
For while love may indeed conquer all, sometimes plain old like
will work just as well.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE UNLIKELY ALLIANCE O'Neal (far left) has reached out to befriend Artest, who in many respects is his polar opposite. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER J.O. ON THE JOB The 6'11" O'Neal is the East's double-double leader. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO D MERIT Small forwards average a mere 9.8 points against Artest.



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