Ron Artest is, undeniably, off his rocker. A favorite reclining chair that sits in the corner of his den is unoccupied on this late-September afternoon. The NBA off-season has yet to end, but Artest hasn't done much lounging lately. There are the twice-daily workouts, the completion of his next hip-hop album and the never-ending stream of houseguests to attend to. This being Wednesday, it's also his turn to pick up his two-year-old daughter, Diamond, from day care at the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center. ¬∂ The JCC is tucked in a quiet residential neighborhood, and Artest knows the place well. For the past 10 months he has worked out there daily while on unpaid leave from his day job as small forward for the Indiana Pacers. "My quadruple off-season," he euphemistically calls the period that started with his 73-game suspension for inciting a melee in Detroit. Swimming in the pool with senior citizens or rainbowing jumpers over orthodontic teens on the basketball court or noshing at the snack bar with soccer moms, the 6'7", 255-pound Artest cuts an incongruous figure. But like almost everyone else who enters his unique orbit, the JCC regulars were soon charmed--especially Diamond's classmates, whom he drops to his knees to hug. ("Whassup, Rivkah?") Artest might be a peerless NBA defender, but he does not guard his soul closely. Plenty of times he felt like unburdening himself at the JCC, so he would chat up strangers in the locker room or the lobby. "And when we were done," he says proudly, "it was like I had made another friend."
As he waits for Diamond, Artest fills the time by extolling the virtues of central Indiana. If this whole basketball thing ever fell through, the Queens, N.Y.--born Artest has a second career working for the Indianapolis visitors bureau. On and on he goes about the "crazy cheap" housing market, the family-oriented lifestyle, the wide-open spaces. "I want to spent the rest of my life here," he says. "If I ever got traded, I'd make sure my family didn't leave." Then there's his fondness for the citizenry. "People let you be yourself," he says, sounding like John Mellencamp describing life in his small Indiana hometown. "They get me."
The city might be overwhelmingly white and so traditional that the front page of The Indianapolis Star is adorned with a Bible verse, but Artest's inimitable and contradictory persona conforms to a certain Hoosier ethos. In a region where spin and guile have no currency, his candor is admired. In a place where pride and a frontier spirit are alive and well, few rebuke a man for overreacting after getting a beer thrown on him. As for the ambient, well, eccentricity, Artest is seen as everyone's Crazy Uncle Ron: distracting and embarrassing at times, but blessed with a big heart. "It kills me that they make him out like some villain," says Slick Leonard, a lifelong Hoosier and former Pacers coach. "Ronnie is just a great guy, a give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back type. That's the honest truth right there."
The rest of the country might perceive Artest as a threat to civilized society after the brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills that resulted in 11 arrests and 133 games' worth of suspensions. So be it. In Indiana, though, you don't need to go far to get an Artestimonial. His legion of supporters includes everyone from his 78-year-old neighbor, Dorothy, who invites him over for some pie and country-music singing; to the bag boy at the Marsh grocery store wearing a free artest pin; to the most iconic Hoosier of them all.
There's something jarring about seeing Larry Bird seated behind a heavy Colonial desk in his Pacers office, a laptop on one side of him, a pair of reading glasses--Larry freakin' Bird, reading glasses?--on the other. But the tableau leaves little doubt that in his role as the team's president of basketball operations, the 48-year-old Bird is no mere figurehead. He travels to Europe to scout players, works the phones to explore deals with other NBA executives and watches thousands of hours of tape. For all intents, he captains the Pacers' ship. Not throwing Artest overboard was his call and, to hear him tell it, an easy one at that. "Aw," Bird says, in his French Lick patois, "Ronnie's gonna be fine."
Bird and Artest are, at first blush, basketball's most curious coupling. They don't look alike, talk alike or act alike. Bird remains as steely-eyed and disciplined and utterly rational as an executive as he was as a player. Artest is a transcendent talent but also a walking tinderbox who, in six NBA seasons, has had an on-again, off-again relationship with self-control, serving 10 suspensions for various fits of pique. But just as Artest's respect for Bird is such that he claims to get a jolt of nervous energy when he passes him in the hall, Bird gushes over his 25-year-old All-Star. "Look, Ronnie made a horrible mistake going into the stands," says Bird, "but he tucks his shirttail in and comes to battle every day. That makes me proud."
If he can control his temper and get off to another start such as he had before his suspension, Artest is MVP material. Before you snicker, consider that he was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2003-04. The most physical player this side of Shaq, Artest not only bodies up forwards but also has the quickness to defend shooting guards. Yet unlike stoppers such as the Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace and the San Antonio Spurs' Bruce Bowen, Artest hardly conserves energy on offense. He can post up, he can score in transition, and his jumper is increasingly reliable. Before his ban by the league, he was averaging 24.6 points--10.2 points more than his career average--on 49.6% shooting. "If you look at his ability to shut down the leading scorer, that takes 20 points from the other team, and he's putting up 20," says veteran Miami Heat forward Shandon Anderson. "He's definitely an elite player."
Adds Minnesota Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey, "Ron Artest is probably one of the most complete players in the league. I don't know of anything the man can't do on the floor."
But what has really won Bird's heart is the way Artest plays. He buffs the court with his body in pursuit of loose balls. He gladly makes the extra pass. He's happy to play as many or as few minutes as requested. For all their surface differences, the Hall of Famer who helped rescue the NBA from the abyss in the 1980s sees more than a little of himself in Artest, who, in the eyes of many, threatens the league's image more than other player today. "He's always been the kind of guy--and I was the same way--who just wants to go out and play basketball," says Bird.
Even Artest's flashes of anger have a certain familiarity. Like Artest, Bird, who was one of the game's most celebrated trash-talkers, played with a scary intensity and a hair-trigger temper. It's just that Bird was able to channel his emotion into hitting clutch three-pointers, not courtside television sets or hostile fans. "Like me, he plays the game to win," Bird says with palpable pride. "Because of his intensity and desire to win, Ronnie's a guy I would pay money to watch play."
While Bird and Artest don't spend their off days fishing together, there's an obvious warmth between them. At Pacers practices or in the corridors of Conseco Fieldhouse, it's not uncommon to see Bird and Artest--one native Hoosier, one naturalized--off to the side, talking hoops. To Artest, Bird is not merely the boss; he's Larry Legend. After the photo shoot for this issue wrapped and Bird left the room, Artest audibly exhaled. "I still can't believe I'm posing with Larry Bird," he said. Like a fan on the street, Artest then asked if he could keep a Polaroid shot as a souvenir.
The cynic is within his rights to suggest that Bird has been afflicted with a sort of Stockholm syndrome. That is, the combustible Artest holds the franchise hostage and, perversely, Bird has grown to like his captor. "I respect Larry and that whole organization," says one Western Conference executive, "but how they can depend on a player who is so unpredictable is beyond me." Nothing if not self-aware, Bird has heard the echoes, and he knows that by tying himself--and thus the franchise--to Artest, he is gambling. But, keeping with his Indiana upbringing, he stands by his man. "Larry Joe was not going to turn his back on Ronnie," says Leonard, now a team broadcaster and a Bird confidant. "He likes him too much."
Located a few miles from chez Bird, in the Indianapolis suburb of Zionsville, Artest's home is a massive, three-level Tudor on a large tract of land with the requisite pool and tennis court (which he uses for basketball). But it's hardly ostentatious. Inside, it's cozy and functional and always open to friends and family, who sometimes visit for weeks. "Anyone who wants to stay here is welcome," he says, shrugging. Mostly to appease his wife, Kimsha, Artest does some quick tidying up and then relaxes on an overstuffed couch.
Seeing Artest flat on his back, it's impossible not to recall the last time we saw him in the supine position. Unless you've been on sabbatical in Bora-Bora, you know what happened: In the waning seconds of a road win over Detroit last Nov. 19, Artest delivered a hard foul from behind to Wallace, who retaliated with a shove. Either seeking to divorce himself from the conflict or to further goad the opposition (he says, somewhat unconvincingly, it was a case of the former), Artest lay down on the scorer's table and was plunked in the chest by a cup of beer thrown from the stands. He charged into the seats and took a swing at a poor sap he'd misidentified as the culprit, touching off the 12-minute melee.
As Bird watched from his Indianapolis home that night, his emotions were a swirl of disappointment, anger and reflexive loyalty to his players. In no way does he condone what Artest did, but get Bird going, and--ever the straight shooter--he will let it be known that he thought his team got a raw deal. "There were a lot of bad mistakes made that night," Bird says, "and Ronnie and the Indiana Pacers took the brunt of [the punishment]."
As for Artest, nearly a year after the fact, there are constant reminders of that night, some of them powerful--such as his no-contest plea on Sept. 23 to misdemeanor assault charges stemming from the fracas--others more subtle. What, for example, is with those wacky bowling shoes he's wearing? After last season Artest is radioactive to the image-makers at Nike, Adidas, even And 1. The shoe company with which he is currently negotiating is an obscure German outfit called Kix. And that water park off the interstate? He got to take his four kids (Sade, 7; Ron III, 5; Jeron, 3; and Diamond) there last season, the abundance of family time being the best part about missing a year of work.
When the topic comes up, Artest admits that the brawl affected him profoundly. He hates how he lost control and "all the kids had to see me acting crazy." He hates that he has become defined, in the manner of a modern-day Dennis Rodman, more for his outrageous behavior than for his considerable talent. (He recently changed his uniform number from 91, Rodman's number, to 15.) He hates that he hasn't played an organized basketball game since. And, yes, he hates having lost that $5.4 million in salary.
With wide-eyed awe, he describes how his team, which lost its three top scorers for a total of 118 games because of brawl-related suspensions, rallied to a 44-38 finish to reach the playoffs. How the fans closed ranks and showed up in greater numbers than they had the previous season, when Indiana won a franchise-record 61 games. How Bird backed him in public and--inaction speaking louder than words--declined numerous opportunities to trade him. As he takes inventory of the loyalty the Pacers showed him, his voice starts to catch. "It's about time I stopped acting like a knucklehead and paid some of it back," he says. "The way they treated me, I owe them a championship."
The notion of a Pacers' championship, which would be the franchise's first since its ABA days, is not a far-fetched one. Run down a list of perquisites for winning a ring--a pair of stars, a commitment to defense, expert coaching and depth--and the Pacers satisfy them all. "A lot can happen," says Bird, "but I really like this team."
Yet, spend enough time around Artest and you are reminded how easily he--and, by extension, the Pacers--could implode. His contrition, it turns out, has its limits. As Artest maneuvers his Ford Explorer down a state road, past stands selling pumpkins and a haunted house under construction, the question is put to him: What, finally, did you learn from last season? He pauses and then responds, "People want to be like, Ron Artest is changed. He's a new man. Wait. I never said that I changed. I'm pretty much the same guy. I got a better understanding of things, but it wasn't like I was provoking all that stuff that happened. So what's there to learn? Nothing. Only thing to learn is that [commissioner] David Stern was trying to kick me out of the league."
And what about that anger-management counseling that Artest was to undergo during his suspension? "I was supposed to do it, but I didn't," he says. "[The incident in Detroit] had nothing to do with my anger. It had to do with a knucklehead [in the stands] being stupid. Everyone in the world would have done that, so everyone in the world should be taking anger management?"
Then, mere minutes after expressing a desire "to show that I'm not a violent person," he makes one of his characteristic head-scratching leaps: "I'm going to train next summer, and it might take me a while to get in shape, but I am going to fight!" He hands his BlackBerry over to an inquisitor riding shotgun. What's this? "Angelo Dundee's number," Artest beams. "He's going to train me."
Moments later Artest bobs his head to a track he sings on his new CD. The song is titled La La Ladies, and Artest raps:
"It's hot in here/Cranberry, Belvedere/Plus the Pistons are here, so you know there's gonna be drama up in here/Get Ben Wallace in a choke hold and cut his hair/Yeah, and the ladies is laughin' as I smack with my left/While my right's signin' autographs."
Whenever the Pacers head from their locker room to the Conseco court, they pass through a doorway above which hangs a message: be a great teammate. Much like Bird, Artest is hailed as a dream colleague and employee. He willingly helps on defense, sublimates his offense and cheers on the role players. "I wish I had 12 Ron Artests," says coach Rick Carlisle. "The Number 1 thing that affects his mood is winning or losing.... He would come off the bench tomorrow if I asked him to."
Beyond his selflessness on the court, there's an abiding--and how often does this word characterize a professional athlete?--kindness to Artest. He hands out $100 tips to waitresses and bellhops, buys dinner for the training-camp invitees who have no chance in hell of making the team. As Bird puts it, "If you know him as a human being, you can't not like him."
And then, of course, there are the other times when Artest embodies today's disconnected jock. In late September the Pacers unveiled new uniforms, symbolizing that the Reggie Miller Era is over, that the brawl has been consigned to history, that the team is, as Carlisle puts it, in a "moving-forward situation." Bird was on hand to schmooze the media. So were Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson, the starters whose seasons were interrupted because they followed Artest on his mad dash into the stands. It would have made all the sense in the world for Artest to be present and utter some talking points about "a fresh start." No such luck. In his typically cryptic way, he left word that he was away, on a "business trip." He was, in fact, in New York laying down a track for his album.
Naturally, the subject of Artest came up at the press conference. Where does he fit into the fabric of the team? "We've accepted him back, not that we ever pushed him away," said O'Neal, who has had his share of tense moments with Artest. "We're all cool with him [on the team]." When O'Neal addressed Indiana's team chemistry, he added, "You're either with us or you aren't with us. We've got to be on the same page all the time." There was no doubt to whom he was referring.
Ron Artest is back from his business trip and strolling casually down the D concourse of the Indianapolis Airport. He's wearing a black shirt--tucked in, his boss would be pleased to know--a black baseball cap turned at an angle and, as usual, a wide smile. He does not obscure his face with sunglasses or have a lackey to pick him up. On his way to baggage claim he compliments the pilot on "an excellent flight" and stops to chat with the women working the dollar-a-minute massage concession: "Y'all got to show me some tricks next time!"
When an autograph seeker wishes him luck this NBA season, Artest stops and turns. "Thanks," he says, signing for the fan. "I'll be better than last season. I guarantee you that!" Artest is back home in Indiana, back in the Land of Larry. And watching this walking riot of contradictions from behind as he saunters out the door--his brim going one way, his body going another--you're left to draw one of two conclusions. Either Ron Artest's head isn't quite screwed on straight. Or that black hat doesn't fit him at all.
Bird wouldn't deal Artest, the key to Indiana's title hopes.
Artest still gets giddy when he bumps into his boss in the hallway.
Artest took on the Pistons, then took a pass on anger-management classes.
Artest's well-rounded game is strong enough to earn him MVP votes.
Kids accept him readily, but the often charming Artest is still hard to read.