There were no airborne beers, no flying fists, no thrown folding chair and no chaos. Instead there were empty seats and a pervasive silence. Ron Artest's return to the Indiana Pacers was as quiet as a golf tournament during a player's backswing. Was this a bizarre condition of his NBA parole? "I needed some more energy," Artest complained after making his comeback last Friday afternoon in a Minnesota Summer League game before 200 spectators in the 19,006-seat Target Center. "I wish there would have been more fans screaming and yelling. That would have been great."
The last time Artest was surrounded by a packed house of screamers and yellers, at The Palace of Auburn Hills last Nov. 19, he made the catastrophic decision to go into the stands and join them, setting off a riot and earning a seasonlong suspension that destroyed Indiana's title hopes. So maybe it was a good thing that Artest returned to competition with a supporting cast made up of mostly rookies and free-agent hopefuls, at 3 p.m. on a weekday, in an arena offering only limited beer sales. "I sensed he was jittery," said Pacers assistant Dan Burke, who served as head coach in a 72--64 loss to the Houston Rockets. "Even though it's summer league, it's a big step for him."
During his suspension the 6'7" Artest maintained a manic regimen of up to five daily workouts, which helped him become leaner even while his weight remained a robust 255 pounds. As a result he looked as if he hadn't missed a game, backpedaling on defense to muffle opposing fast breaks as efficiently as he did when he was the 2003--04 Defensive Player of the Year. "I've been playing basketball ever since I was suspended," said Artest. "I played with the kids in my neighborhood, I played with the guys at Butler University. The game is too big, too strong to be taken away from me. The game loves me, and I love the game."
The biggest question, though, is whether Artest has learned to channel that passion--which has often triggered emotional on-court blowups--in a nonviolent manner. In postgame interviews over the weekend he avoided numerous opportunities to discuss what he had learned from a mistake that cost him more than $5 million in salary. "Things happen and the higher power [commissioner David Stern] made a decision," said Artest. "I did what I had to do, they did what they had to do, then you just move on." Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh, however, is guardedly optimistic. "The only thing I can tell you is that he's calmed down," says Walsh. "He knows there are not many things you're allowed to do."
Last week Artest played the role of leader in his first two games, scoring a team-high 39 points but passing up many shots and feeding the aspiring Pacers. He also showed the maturity befitting a seven-year veteran. "His teammates have made bad passes and bad plays, but he hasn't berated and belittled them the way other NBA guys do," Seattle SuperSonics head scout Steve Rosenberry said on Saturday.
While the Pacers have not ruled out trading Artest, they won't give him away for a lesser but more dependable talent. "The right offer is going to have to be a player who's in the top five to 10 in the NBA," says Walsh. Indiana officials believe Artest may be on the verge of an MVP-caliber season. "He's the best player in the league on both sides of the ball," says team president Larry Bird, As long as he's on the court.
Here are five players who have turned heads thus far in summer league play.
Travis Diener, G, Magic The 38th overall pick out of Marquette shows signs of being a ready-made pick-and-roll point guard.
Ryan Gomes, F, Celtics Providence product (50th overall pick) looks like a solid post-up scorer and rebounder.
Travis Outlaw, F, Trail Blazers Athletic third-year forward is developing a reliable outside shot.
Nate Robinson, G, Knicks (above) The 5'9" sparkplug (21st overall pick, out of Washington) wows with his athleticism and strength.
Nikoloz Tskitishvili, F, free agent Fourth-year forward exploded for 25 points for Timberwolves' team--then broke his right hand.