A Season Over The Brink

Look what Ronnie has wrought. The Pacers finally rid themselves of talented but troubled Ron Artest, who made his debut with the Kings last week. But back in Indiana, a team that was once talking title is now facing an overhaul
February 06, 2006

Until last thursdayafternoon the name ARTEST was still on a chalkboard in Rick Carlisle's lockerroom office. "Hmm, guess I haven't changed that starting lineup in awhile," said the Indiana Pacers' coach, picking up an eraser. When toldthat he might want to wipe off O'neal too--All-Star power forward JermaineO'Neal will miss at least two months, and perhaps the rest of the regularseason, with a torn left groin muscle--Carlisle considered it. "No," hesaid finally, "I think I'll leave him on." ¶ Who could blame Carlislefor pretending that his best player was still available? Over the last fourmonths Carlisle has presided over an underachieving and flawed team (21-21 atweek's end) held hostage by Ron Artest, a troubled and often troubling soul whowas traded to Sacramento on Jan. 25. "The Tru Warier meets the Kings,"the 6'7", 246-pound Artest said in a TV interview last week, hyping himselfand his record label. Ah, just what they need at sign-happy Arco Arena: a newslogan. ¶ The Pacers' post-Warier era officially began last Friday with a 93-89loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Conseco Fieldhouse, their fifth straightdefeat and 13th in their last 19 games. Still, there were positive signs.Indiana was missing not only O'Neal but also point guard Jamaal Tinsley (soreright elbow) and demon rebounder Jeff Foster (back spasms). Plus, sharpshootingforward Peja Stojakovic, obtained from Sacramento for Artest, was unavailable,having arrived in town only hours before the game. Yet Indy played hard andstayed in thegame until the end, getting solid performances from rookie forwardDanny Granger (21 points, 14 rebounds) and young gun Fred Jones (20 points)."We fought together," said guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, "and thatshowed we can be a good basketball team."

After months--nay,years--of being Ar-tested by one of the strangest personalities on the sportslandscape, the Pacers could not be blamed for looking at the bright side. Infact, both teams put a happy face on the swap--It's a deal that helps bothteams!--but no one can say with certainty if any lasting good will come out ofit. It's likely that Artest (page 53) will eventually lock horns withshoot-first point guard Mike Bibby. And though the 6'10" Stojakovic's sizeand touch have led to comparisons with Pacers president Larry Bird,Stojakovic's model as a player, Peja lacks Bird's toughness, post-up moves,rebounding skills, playmaker aptitude and get-in-the-passing-lane defensiveinstincts. He is Larry Ultra Lite.

Larry Legend, whostill stops traffic when he goes on international scouting missions, is acentral figure in the Artest saga. Bird wanted to swap Artest for Stojakovicafter the 2003-04 season--the deal was nixed by Pacers owners Melvin andHerbert Simon--yet he is also the member of the organization most closelyaligned with Artest, so much so that the Artest Era seems destined to go downas Larry's Folly. If the old, tough-minded Celtic immortal likes him, thethinking went around Pacer Land, everyone had to like him.

But Bird wasn't theonly one seduced by Artest. The Simons liked Artest the people's favorite, aman whose strong rapport and gentleness with fans masked the turmoil within.Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh liked Artest the talent, a player whose on-courtrepertoire includes three-point range, a post-up game and demon defense. (Hewas the league's Defensive Player of the Year in '03-04.) Bird liked Artest thegym rat, the human sweatbox who would practice nonstop for two hours in theoff-season. "Then Ronnie might get on a plane and go play a couple ofpickup games in Chicago," says Bird. "I wish I had a guy like that towork out with when I was playing."

Fact is, all thePacers' execs liked Artest so much they were sounding like the Four Seasons:"Ronnie. Ronnie. Ronnie, I am regretting but can't stop forgetting because... you were my first love."

CertainlyRonnie-love was in the Hoosier air this past summer. Artest, as is his wont,worked out dutifully, and Bird, among others, became convinced that he wouldcome back physically fit (understandable) and mentally stable. (Huh?) The lastglimpse of Artest in the 2004-05 season for many Pacers came after Detroiteliminated them in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semis, when Artest drove ablack Escalade wildly onto the Conseco loading dock in full view of thePistons' team bus, then jumped out of the SUV, ripped off his shirt and walkedinto the arena. By some accounts he was heading into Conseco to play alate-night shooting game with teammate Jonathan Bender. It was a classic momentfrom the Theater of Artest--strangely endearing, seriously loony.

Still, says Bird,"with all that happened last season [a reference to Artest's 73-gamesuspension for igniting one of the ugliest brawls in sports history at ThePalace of Auburn Hills], we really felt that this year would be, maybe notperfect, but all right." O'Neal and Stephen Jackson even joined Artest foran off-season tête-à-tête with Walsh and Bird, during which the players arguedfor keeping the core together, proving that Artest's seductive powers extendedeven to those teammates he had let down so often.

But everything wenthaywire a month into this season, either because Artest believed that thePacers were trying to trade him (Walsh and Bird say No, no, a thousand timesno!) or because, well, because he's Artest. Two Pacers told SI that Artestregularly started physical altercations during practice. The skirmishes"weren't boxing matches," says one of the players, but they didn't domuch for team unity. If Artest believed that he was being treated unfairly inpractice by Carlisle or one of his teammates, he refused to run through a play.Or hours before a game he would announce in the locker room that he wasn'tgoing to play that evening, only to change his mind soon thereafter. At leasttwice this season, he was outside the locker room, in street clothes, talkingon a cellphone 20 minutes before tip-off. He came to believe that everything hedid wrong in Indianapolis was magnified, which was true, but he ignored thefact that the hometown fans had cut him enormous slack despite his 87 games'worth of suspensions over 4 1/2 seasons as a Pacer. Among his teammates he wasclosest to Jackson and Tinsley, but eventually the Tru Warier had no trueallies. "It was Ron against the world," says one player.

Still, until Dec.11, the day Artest announced in an interview with the Indianapolis Star that hewanted to be traded, management spun furiously for him. It was Artest's passionthat led him to overreact in games and practices, Pacers execs would say. Sure,the team might be affected by his outbursts, but Artest was "a guy whocould walk into a restaurant and get into a conversation with anyone," Birdsaid last week.

Despite Artest'srap sheet the Kings weren't the only team that tried to get him. Far from it.Dealing Artest for Corey Maggette of the Los Angeles Clippers would have almostcertainly gone down three weeks ago had Indiana not been scared off by recenttests on Maggette's left foot. According to a Pacers source, talks with theDenver Nuggets about Artest for Kenyon Martin were serious, but Indiana wasunwilling to take on Martin's contract (five years remaining for $70.9million). The New Orleans Hornets wanted Artest but offered only draft choices.Walsh and Bird had conversations with many other teams, including the BostonCeltics, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors,but nothing ever came close to being cemented. Eventually, only the Kings, whoare trapped in their own going-nowhere nightmare, had enough to get it done,offering a player that Bird had apparently wanted before he became reseduced bythe beguiling Warier. "We made a mistake, obviously," says Bird."When you're in the business of figuring out what's best for a team, youcan't fall in love."

So now Indy'sspotlight is on Stojakovic, who is in some ways the anti-Artest: shy, modest,congenitally unable to foment discontent. Though the way he found out about thetrade angered him--Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof spilled the beans ontelevision before they told Stojakovic--he seems genuinely glad to be inIndiana under the watchful eye of his hoops role model. "Being on Larry'steam," he said last Friday, "is kind of like a dream." Stojakovic,28, can opt out of his contract at season's end, but Bird says, "I've beenafter this kid for two years, and I don't want him to be here twoweeks."

Stojakovic willnever be the defensive warrior Artest is, but he will have to improve his D tosatisfy Carlisle, not to mention the hoops-savvy fans at Conseco. Since Indyplans to dust off some old Reggie Miller--type plays for him, Stojakovic willhave ample opportunity to prove that his declining scoring average (from 24.2points per game in '03-04 to 20.1 last season to 16.5 in 31 games throughSunday) resulted from nagging injuries (pinky, groin, back) and a Sacramentooffense that turned from move the ball to move out of Bibby's way.

There are otherissues for a team that was seventh in the East at week's end. With the arrivalof Stojakovic, Carlisle will have to find minutes and shots for Granger andJones. Tinsley's shot-clock-devouring, back-back-back-it-down style needs anoverhaul. And with O'Neal out, it might be a good time for Jackson--a sometimesdelightful guy who occasionally stares absentmindedly into the stands duringgames, as he did on Friday during an abysmal 6-for-20 shooting performance--tozone in instead of zoning out. Most important, the franchise will have todecide whether O'Neal is a franchise player or just a talented opening act whoneeds a headliner. Many around the league suspect the latter.

The one certaintyis that, for now, all is quieter on the Conseco front. "Ron was a funnydude, and we'll miss some of that," says backup point guard AnthonyJohnson. "But it was time for it to be over." Make that way past time,A.J.


Nash or Parker? Shaq or Big Ben? Jack McCallum fills outhis All-Star ballot at SI.com/NBA.

"We made a mistake," says Bird. "When you'rein the business of figuring out what's best for a team, you can't FALL INLOVE."

PHOTOPhotograph by Manny Millan KINGS'RANSOM
Artest was greeted warmly by his new mates after burning bridges with Tinsley(top, left) and Jackson.
PHOTOGREG NELSON (INSET) [SeeCaption Above.] TWO PHOTOSGREG NELSON (TOP); JOHN BIEVERINDY .500 With Jackson (1) up and down and Stojakovic (lower left) in a long shooting slump, Bird may have a lot more work ahead. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER AHANDFUL
Will Artest's need for touches clash with Bibby's (10) shoot-firststyle?

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