Will hits keep coming from Artest?
Even after hiring a new coach and GM, the Pacers still need an attitude adjustment from Ron Artest to be a contender.
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"To go platinum," he says with a smile. "I'm ready to go platinum."
Platinum? Artest has the talent, drive and creativity. But right now, Artest is still an indie artist -- an acquired taste that hasn't found the acceptance of the masses.
He's Howard Dean in a tie dye. Not Ahnold in a neck tie.
He's got diehard fans (most of them in the NBA) that see him for who he really is. But for too much of the general public, he's enemy No. 1.
To the true believers, the flagrant fouls, the flying cameras and the suspensions are just part of the game -- the price of passion. To teammates, coaches and fans, all of those things are background noise that takes away from the purity of an otherwise virtuoso performance.
To go platinum this season, Artest needs to reinvent himself. The sad part is, he's the only one left in Indiana that doesn't know it.
Clearly there's nothing wrong with his game at the moment.
Defensively, he's the best lockdown defender in the league. His lethal combination of strength, athleticism and toughness allow him to go out and shut down any given player on any given night.
Offensively, he's dramatically improved. Two summers ago, Michael Jordan challenged Artest to use some of that fierce defensive energy on the offensive end. Slowly but surely, Artest has become a threat to score 20 a night. This summer, he kept refining his perimeter shooting, his only glaring weakness to his offensive game. Through the Pacers' first four preseason games, he leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.8 points a game. In a game against the Nuggets on Wednesday, Artest dominated, scoring 28 points in a losing effort.
There's nothing wrong with his head, either.
He's not crazy, though the media, largely fueled by jealous coaches and general managers who had a vested interest in seeing him fail, would like you to believe it. Immature? Perhaps. Quick to anger? At times. But he's not that different than numerous other players around the league.
Artest is competitive. He works as hard as anyone, both in games and on the practice court. His desire to win sometimes consumes him. His focus is so singular, he'll run through a brick wall, or a player, just to grab a loose ball.
In a sports world starving for professional athletes that play with passion, Artest is a pure adrenaline rush.
He's different, entertaining and speaks his heart. He should be one of the most marketable players in the league.
However, to a largely vanilla media and fan base, his occasional violent antics only fuel cultural stereotypes. We live in a culture of fear, and Ron Artest, to many, can be downright scary.
"A lot of people took it kind of far," Artest said concerning the media outcry over his antics last season. "Too far. I'm just from the 'hood and I grew up around gangsters. A lot of people in the NBA never grew up around gangsters and don't know nothing about where I'm from so I don't try to explain it. I just roll with the punches."
He smiles and says it doesn't hurt. But deep down, it's killing him. Artest's desire to be recognized for his actions on the court keeps getting derailed by his antics off of it.
|“||I'm just from the 'hood and I grew up around gangsters. A lot of people in the NBA never grew up around gangsters and don't know nothing about where I'm from so I don't try to explain it. I just roll with the punches. ”|
|— Ron Artest|
If only life worked that way. Artest's basketball IQ may be out of this world. But five years into his NBA career, he's still unable to grasp that being the best encompasses more than just being the best ball player on the floor.
"He wants to be the best player in the NBA. Literally." his agent Mark Bartelstein said. "He believes that much in his ability. He kills himself to get better on the court; to get the recognition for his skills. Then he does things that always puts the focus elsewhere."
Bartelstein has become something of a father figure for Artest. He claims the public perception of Artest couldn't be further from the truth.
"He's a wonderful guy," Bartelstein said. "The misconception people have is that his aggressive play has something to do with violence. He's so passionate about basketball. The problem he has is that he can't control that passion. So what happens is, he has these moments that he just reacts out of pure emotion."
What gets Artest into trouble, Bartelstein says, is a naivete about how his words and actions affect others.
"He has no agenda with everything he does," Bartelstein said. "He's pure. I'm trying to tell him that you can't always express how you feel. People aren't ready for that."
"Players all say they don't care what others think when they're young," Pacers president Donnie Walsh said. "But then when they get a little older, they learn that perception quickly becomes reality when you're in this business. Ronnie's beginning to figure that out."
Maybe, but it's coming slower than everyone would like. Last week, after Artest received his first technical of the season (for playfully keeping the ball away from a ref) he got into it with coach Rick Carlisle for benching him.
After the game, Artest, hurt at Carlisle's reaction, told reporters that he wanted a trade.
"If I'm going to be taken out for stuff like that, I'd rather not be in the game," he said after the game. "I'd rather be with a different team. I apologized to the ref and it was that simple. That's all it was."
A week later, he's still licking his wounds.
"All that stuff that happened last year, I still maintained a pretty good basketball game individually and still contributed to the team," Artest said. "So a little technical foul, people should know that it won't distract me from the game. It made no sense to me. There's a stereotype there. I felt if it's going to be like that, I'd rather play somewhere else."
No one in the Pacers office took him seriously. That was Artest being Artest -- speaking in the heat of the moment. According to Walsh, Artest is not -- and has not been -- on the trading block, despite persistent rumors all summer.
"Just because everyone wants him, doesn't mean he's on the block," Walsh said. "For all of the talk about Ron being out of control, you should see how many teams tried to pry him away this summer."
"We think Ron has the ability to be a star," Walsh added. "He's already one of our most important players. The distractions are just that -- distractions. The bottom line is, you're willing to be more forgiving when a kid comes and plays as hard and as well as he does every night."
Carlisle claims that he already loves him.
"I've really been pleased with his approach," Carlisle said. "He's playing at a high level right now. I knew he was a good player but he's shown me that he's better than good. He's very good & He's a guy that's hard to get off the court. He gives you so many positives on both ends of the floor."
Still Artest's blind spot is troubling. Larry Bird and Carlisle are no-nonsense type of guys. They have little tolerance for what Bird terms "unwanted distractions." Artest can control how his actions affect him. But he can't control how they affect the team. The team struggled at times when Artest became the prodigal son last season. When Artest hit the darkest days last February his averages slipped to 11.4 points on just 33 percent shooting from the field. They'd prefer to have that period in the past.
This season, teammates like Jermaine O'Neal are reaching out in an attempt to keep Artest focused on the good of the team.
"The biggest thing is not having him feel like he's isolated," O'Neal said after the incident. "We need to open up to him and feel comfortable with him off the court. We know who he is on the court. But he's so into his family we don't have that many chances to talk to him off the court. Once we do that and he understands we just want the best for him, stuff will fall into place."
"Once he gets comfortable to where he can open up and talk to us and let us know what's bothering him we'll be fine," O'Neal added. "That's my job this year. It's not the coach's job or management's job, it's my job to help him understand. Because at the end of the day we're the ones on the court."
It's a lesson that has to sink in. Artest wants desperately to be on the court. To take the winning shot. To lead his team to a championship. He won't get there (in Indiana anyway) just by being Ron Artest. Everyone else around him understands it. Does Artest?
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com's ESPN Insider.