"Just from the natural aging process, it's safe to say Ron Artest is probably 5-7 percent less crazy than he was last season."
In the "Things I Actually Wrote" Pantheon, that's probably right at the top. I wrote that Artest sentence just three weeks ago. Now he's screwed up the Pacers, the NBA and 10 percent of the fantasy teams in North America. On the bright side, he gave us one of the memorable TV nights of all time, a subject which I covered in my magazine column this weekend (which runs on Page 2 tomorrow). And he becomes the watershed example of a crazy athlete, surpassing Vernon Maxwell, Dennis Rodman, Ricky Williams, Theo Fleury and everyone else.
Without stepping on tomorrow's column, here are some random thoughts from the weekend:
1. The smoking gun from Friday night, at least for me: Artest went after the wrong fans. If you watch the actual game tape, which they re-ran on ESPN2 in the wee hours that night, there's a replay after everything settles down that shows the blue cup plunking Artest. The camera angle comes from the basket where Artest fouled Wallace, so you can see him lying on the scorer's table, plus you can see the stands behind him (and everyone who eventually becomes involved in the fight).
Thanks to TiVo, if you frame-by-frame it, you'll see the beer comes flying from behind the head of someone wearing a white sweatshirt, and that person is standing two rows behind the guy that Artest initially jumps. Once the camera shifts and everyone starts pouring into the stands, the beer tosser's identity is revealed -- a little bald guy who turns back to high-five someone else in the stands even as Artest is knocking that first guy down.
That's what changed the stakes for the Commish. Artest wasn't just flying into the stands to confront a fan in the wrong -- he had no idea who threw the cup, meaning he was randomly attacking innocent fans. In other words, that could have been you or me standing there with that "Wait a second ... noooooooooooooooo!" look on our faces. You think David Stern wants a running situation where potential ticketholders are saying to each other, "Those tickets are great, I'd love to sit three rows from the court, I don't mind spending the money ... but we're sure none of the players are gonna beat us up tonight, right?" Not happening. They want to make sure this never happens again.
(What happens if Artest went after the correct fan? It's a little more understandable. Not much ... but a little.)
2. The MVP of the night from a comedy standpoint? Stephen Jackson, who somehow came off crazier than Artest -- first he challenged the entire Pistons team, then he was throwing haymakers in the stands ... he was like the Token Crazy Guy in the Baseball Fight, multiplied by 100. I liked when Greg Anthony called him out on ESPN this weekend as a "gangsta." Perfect description. There wasn't anything even remotely rational about his behavior from the moment Artest committed that foul -- right down to him leaving the stadium with his arms raised, as people were dumping beer on him, almost like he was pretending to be a pro wrestler.
3. In a related story, if you scrolled through the lineups of all 30 teams before the season, then asked yourself, "What pair of teammates would be the most likely candidates to start a fight in the stands, eventually leading to the ugliest sequence in NBA history?", the heavy favorites would have been Artest and Jackson in Indiana, with Zach Randolph and Ruben Patterson a distant second in Portland. Those are the facts. That might have been a shocking night, but at no point did anyone who follows the NBA on a regular basis say to themselves, "I can't believe Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson are taking on Row 3 in the Palace right now!" Sketchiest pair of teammates in the league, roughest group of fans in the league. Not a good combo.
4. Most underrated part of the night: The ESPN Shootaround crew defending Artest on Friday night by saying that he diffused the situation with Ben Wallace by lying on the scorer's table, then had every right to flip out once someone tossed a beer on him. First of all, Artest was lying on the table because he was being a jerk -- there were 10 people between him and Big Ben, so there was more than a little gamesmanship in that move. He knew it would infuriate Wallace. Which it did. Second, who the heck would defiantly lie on a scorer's table like that? Would Grant Hill have done that? KG? Dwyane Wade? Steve Nash? Anyone rational? And third, if you're trying to tempt opposing fans to do something dumb, that's the perfect place to do it -- which is why Larry Brown was screaming at the refs to get him off there.
(Note: I'm not using the "He was Asking for It" defense like Pistons CEO Tom Wilson did Friday night, but at the same time, Artest should have known nothing good would happen once he intentionally blurred the barrier between the court and the fans. And it's not like they were playing in Salt Lake City or the Meadowlands here -- they were going against a heated rival that plays in the feistiest city in the league. Seriously, what were the odds of someone lobbing a beer on him? Even money?)
One more note on the Shootaround crew, which sided clearly with the players Friday night. Yes, the fans acted terribly. Yes, Artest was riled up from the Wallace altercation, so it's understandable that he could have snapped when that blue cup nailed him. But why didn't those four guys -- John Saunders, Tim Legler, Stephen A. Smith and Greg Anthony -- wonder if Artest went after the correct fan? And why wouldn't you criticize Artest for being dumb enough to lie on that scorer's table in the first place? Or at Stephen Jackson for acting like an instigator instead of a peacemaker?
(Note: Legler is my favorite ESPN guy for hoops. But I hope he doesn't actually believe that, in the same situation, any player in the league would have done what Artest did that night? You're telling me Grant Hill would have done that?)
5. If you watch the game -- which has already earned coveted "Save until I delete" status on my TiVo, by the way -- two plays led to Artest's hard foul. With 6:43 remaining, Rip Hamilton threw a cheapshot elbow into Jamaal Tinsley's back after a defensive rebound (they called a foul as the Pacers bench erupted). That could have been a flagrant since it looked like Hamilton went out of his way to belt him. And with 1:25 remaining, down by 11 points, Wallace knocked Artest into the basket support while blocking his layup -- from the camera angle, you can't tell if it's a foul or not. So if you're playing the "Why was Artest fouling Wallace with such a big lead?" card, the play wasn't much different than Wallace's block. He just got more of a piece of him.
6. If one more person makes the Vibe Awards joke, I'm going to impale a pen into my temple.
7. This seems like a good place to bring up the suspensions:
Artest (season) -- Given his past history, this seemed fair to me. The NBA wanted to make it clear that players aren't allowed in the stands under any circumstances -- you want situations where players are pointing out the culprits, not punching them. But do you really think the Players Association will allow one of their guys to lose an entire season of paychecks? Please. If he's not back by March 15, I'll be absolutely stunned. (Note: The union is already appealing the suspensions; the league claims it's an on-court incident, which cannot be appealed. The union will no doubt counter that it became an off-court incident. Stay tuned.)
Anyway, here's my compromise idea: For the rest of the season, before every game, Artest gets wheeled out to midcourt like Hannibal Lecter -- you know, tied to one of those white stretchers and wearing a strait jacket and the metal facemask. Then, they untie him, and he gets to warm up with his team. I think this would get the message across to the fans -- stay away from this guy.
Jackson (30 games) -- Should have been more. Even though Artest charged the stands, it still seemed like he was holding something back. Jackson came off like a bad guy in an action movie who just starts spraying his Uzi into a crowd of people for no reason. And if you watch the Wallace-Artest altercation, in the seconds leading up to Jackson challenging Lindsay Hunter and Derrick Coleman, those guys didn't do anything that would have made him angry. He was like an enforcer in a hockey game who just wanted to drop the gloves with someone. What a nutjob.
O'Neal (25 games) -- This was the one that bothered me. On one of the Detroit TV websites, they have a clip of Artest fighting those two guys in front of the Pistons bench -- the situation was a little more dire than it seemed on the ESPN replays. When O'Neal landed his Kermit Washington punch, from the Detroit TV replay, it looked like that guy was getting up to charge Artest again before O'Neal belted him. More importantly, what were they doing on the floor? Doesn't that make them fair game? By all accounts, O'Neal is one of the best guys in the league -- he does a ton of stuff for his community, wins awards, all that stuff. The fact that O'Neal, out of anyone, was so upset out there shows how dangerous it was. I bet this suspension gets knocked down.
Wallace (6 games) -- Seems a little low. Wallace kept escalating the incident by trying to get to Artest, leading to the blue cup getting thrown from the stands. If you're making an example out of Artest, make one out of Wallace -- none of this would have happened if he didn't keep pouring gasoline on the fire.
(Intriguing note on Wallace: One of his posse members was the huge guy who attacked Fred Jones from behind. During the initial altercation, you can see the guy lurking behind Artest as Artest lies on the scorer's table, almost like he's ready to jump him. You can also see him consoling Wallace's kids after the fact.)
Pistons fans (no games) -- Because the Detroit fans threw all that stuff on the court, I would have suspended the Pistons from selling beer for 60 days. There has to be SOME accountability there. I would fine them for not having enough security on hand for the first Pistons-Pacers game of the season -- maybe the toughest rivalry in the league right now other than Minnesota-Denver -- and I would fine the Pistons CEO for unveiling the "He was asking for it" defense about Artest (just a sleazy thing to do).
8. Adam Carolla had an interesting take on this incident: Imagine being the guy at the game who was first attacked by Artest? You've been watching these guys for two hours, you're pretty buzzed, you're loving the seats ... and then this fight breaks out, and it's riveting as hell, and then suddenly Artest gets nailed by the cup and he's coming right at you. As Carolla said, it would be like watching "Captain Hook" in the movies for two hours, then Captain Hook comes right out of the movie screen and attacks you. Would you have blamed that first guy for soiling himself?
(Which reminds me, two people are going to become very rich from this thing: The first guy Artest attacked and the first guy Stephen Jackson punched. They didn't do anything wrong. They didn't provoke anybody. They were basically attacked for no good reason. Somebody get Jim Sokolove on the phone!)
9. Ironic turn of events: Artest might have time to promote his rap album now, but the album would have to sell as many copies as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to pay for his lost paychecks and his legal fees.
10. Silver lining from the suspensions: More Darko over the next few games! He needs to show something here -- even Chad Ford is turning against him at this point.
11. Random question: What chain of events would need to happen for you to pour beers on players as they were leaving an NBA game? Would anything cause a reasonable human being to do this?
12. Underrated moment of the night: Jim Gray's one report where his voice started inexplicably quivering ... someone on the SOSH message board compared it to Michael Jackson breaking down at the end of the "She's Out of My Life." And this was the same man who interviewed Mike Tyson after the second Holyfield fight! How could he be rattled by this melee? By the way, the way his career is going, I'm surprised Jim Gray wasn't on hand when Jack Ruby shot Oswald and O.J. was first introduced to Nicole. He's like the Zelig of horrible incidents.
13. Funniest running subplot: Sending taunting e-mails to That Guy in your Roto League who has Ron Artest. Mine is Matt "Money" Smith. He's reeling. Imagine being his fantasy owner as Artest headed into the stands? Wait, Ron ... noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!
14. Don't count out the Ewing Theory with the Pacers and Artest. You only need 35 wins to make the playoffs in the Trainwreck East. And if you're worried about the Pacers competing with a depleted team, as Chad Ford points out in today's column, they still have some cap money left for free agents, plus they can always find someone dumb enough to give them fair value for Artest -- you know, like Isiah Thomas, for instance. If they can remain within striking distance in March and get everyone healthy and unsuspended, there's no reason the Ewing Theory couldn't carry them from there.
Still, the Pacers need to move Artest -- get 50 cents on the dollar for him, give him a fresh start somewhere else, and that's that. Larry Bird is smart enough to know that Artest's presence on his team, from this point on, will overshadow everything they do. They also need to get help immediately for him before the season possibly slips away.
But who would have the intestinal fortitude to trade for a guy who's clearly one of the best 25 guys in the league?
Three teams make sense but would be too afraid to pull the trigger:
A. Portland -- Something like Artest, Scot Pollard, Anthony Johnson and a No. 1 for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Doesn't it seem like his destiny to play there? Unfortunately, after everything Portland fans have gone through, the Blazers would probably rather trade for Scott Peterson.
B. Boston -- Artest and a No. 1 for Jiri Welsch and Yogi Stewart. Unfortunately, the local media would skewer the Celtics for this one ... so it's not happening. Red Auerbach would have made this trade though. He's the same guy who traded for Kermit Washington 27 years ago.
C. Memphis -- Artest, Johnson and a No. 1 for Bonzi Wells. Indy gets another scorer, Jerry West gets another potential All-Star. But he would never subject Hubie Brown to the Artest Era, not at Hubie's advanced age.
That leaves the following teams:
A. Philly -- Artest and Pollard for Glenn Robinson. Basically a straightforward salary dump -- Robinson's contract expires this summer. And if there's one city that would embrace Artest and forgive his past mistakes, it's Philly.
B. Dallas -- If Artest's suspension was cut down, couldn't you see the Benefactor rolling the dice with Artest, Pollard and a No. 1 for Jerry Stackhouse and cap filler? Remember, this is the same man who once shelled out $100 million for Raef LaFrentz and Shawn Bradley. Anything's possible.
C. New York -- Artest, Pollard and a No. 1 for Tim Thomas. Isiah coached Artest, knows what he can do, played with people like him, would love the fact that it would get the city talking ... and considering that New York is the same city that embraced Sprewell five years ago, the thought of Artest thriving in Manhattan doesn't seem far-fetched. I bet anything he lands here.
15. Here's the shame of it all: The Pacers thumped the Pistons that night. Just a dominating performance. Remember how close they came to beating Detroit last spring? Considering that the Pistons have a weaker bench this season, plus the Pacers upgraded from Al Harrington to Jackson -- who gave them consistent scoring and another top-notch defender -- as Friday's game winded down, it seemed pretty clear that Indiana was the best team in the East. At least right now.
Then all hell broke loose.
And with the way Dwyane Wade is playing right now -- ironically, his MJ-level crunch-time performance against Utah wrapped up minutes before the melee in Detroit -- Miami has to be considered the favorite in the East. In fact, I think I need to go place a wager on them ... until tomorrow.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.