Conciliatory Artest reassures Yao on chemistry concerns
Some two weeks before he can actually join his new team, Ron Artest was already trying to neutralize his first Houston Rockets controversy Thursday, insisting that there will be no tension with Yao Ming once a trade sending Artest from Sacramento to Houston goes through as expected Aug. 14.
Artest told ESPN.com that he and Yao have spoken by telephone to address the concerns Yao voiced about team chemistry to the Houston Chronicle in response to the deal hatched Tuesday by the Rockets and Kings.
The trade calls for Houston to receive Artest in exchange for Rockets draftee Donte Greene, a 2009 first-round pick and Kings alumnus Bobby Jackson, who's entering the final year of his contract at $6.1 million. The deal can't be completed until Aug. 14, according to league rules, because Greene signed with Houston on July 14 and is not eligible to be traded sooner.
But suggestions that Yao's reservations or Artest's outspoken, unpredictable nature could convince the Rockets to walk away from the trade between now and Aug. 14 were strongly dismissed by one source close to the process.
"The deal is done," said the source.
Artest also denied suggestions that he would demand a contract extension before reporting to the Rockets -- "I'm not demanding anything," he said -- and reiterated his initial giddy reaction to news of the trade by describing the move as "a big opportunity for me."
I spoke to Yao and I told him I can't wait to play with him. I was a little bit down, because I'm so far beyond [the brawl]. But everything is going to be good.
"I don't think Yao meant to say that," Artest offered Thursday, referring to Yao's comments to the Chronicle which referenced Artest's involvement in the infamous Indiana-Detroit brawl that spilled into the stands in 2004.
"I spoke to Yao and I told him I can't wait to play with him," Artest continued. "I spoke to Tracy [McGrady] and I told him I can't wait to play with him. I was a little bit down [upon hearing Yao's initial statements], because I'm so far beyond [the brawl]. But everything is going to be good."Artest expounded on his conversation with Yao in a broadcast appearance later Thursday on ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption," revealing that he asked McGrady for Yao's number.
Said Artest: "When I spoke to Yao, I just said, 'Everything's going to be all right, I really know how to play the game, I'm not a selfish player, I can adapt to any type of system and I can't wait to be part of the Houston Rockets.'
"I was a little bit disturbed, mainly because [of] the brawl comments. That's four years removed from now, maybe four or five years removed I wanted [Yao] to know I was a little bit frustrated, but I understand where he's coming from. But I cannot wait to be a part of that team. I don't care if I have to come off the bench. I could be the sixth man, a seventh man, all I want to do is just really contribute and win a lot of games."
Later in the PTI interview, Artest added: "I'm not just some knucklehead head case who's bipolar, [like] everybody is always saying. I'm Ron Artest. Everybody's different. That's why we've got different DNA They gotta come up with a better story than Ron's crazy. There's a lot better stories that they can come up with."
Yet Artest clearly was unsettled by his lack of long-term security in his final days as a King, as the 28-year-old enters the final year of his contract at $7.4 million. Artest's oft-cited regrets about passing on the opportunity to opt out of his contract June 30 to become an unrestricted free agent and his increasing desire to leave Sacramento stem largely from the Kings' refusal to extend his contract.
Artest denied, however, that he needs his future in Houston to be clarified before joining the Rockets.
"I'm not demanding anything," Artest said. "I will play in Houston [this season] and I will have a great year and they will have the first option to re-sign me. This is a big opportunity for me because I'm going to be playing with the best center in the game."
Questions about Artest's willingness to fit in with a team that already has two franchise players were inevitable. But they materialized with the Rockets perhaps even faster than the biggest Artest skeptics might have expected, after Yao declined in his interview Wednesday to give the trade his unconditional endorsement.
"For some reason, I like [Artest]," Yao told the Chronicle. "Because in the games we play against him, I hate him.
"When I text messaged with [teammate] Luis [Scola], we talked about team chemistry. That's only what worries us. We worry about the new attitude to the team. We are adding talent to the team and we need that, but building team chemistry is important. This is not bad. I don't mean he is not welcome to Houston. But a new player always needs some time.
"There's worry. Obviously, yes. We will think about it, of course. Hopefully, he's not fighting anymore and going after a guy in the stands. I haven't talked to Ron yet, so it's hard to say. I have to find a way to talk to him and see what we can do as a basketball team. He has a history. But we know he is a physical player. He is a good player. He really can help us. And Ron is on a contract year, too."
Artest was admittedly stung by the remarks when he heard them Wednesday, specifically the comment about "going after a guy in the stands," saying that Yao's words "hit me in the soft spot when I read that."
By Wednesday night, though, Artest was already downplaying the controversy in an appearance on a Sacramento radio show he frequents -- KHTK-AM's Carmichael Dave show -- and describing himself as "a Yao Ming soldier." Artest also tossed out the possibility of traveling to China to show support for Yao during the Olympics.
Much of the Rockets' confidence in dealing with such episodes -- since this was likely only the first, judging by Artest's history -- stems from the relationship Artest had with Houston coach Rick Adelman in Sacramento. It was a brief marriage, lasting just 40 games in the 2005-06 season before Adelman's ouster from the Kings, but Artest has repeatedly described Adelman as his favorite pro coach.
The Rockets, furthermore, have ample motivation to take this gamble, entering Year 5 of the McGrady-and-Yao partnership and still waiting for that tag team to lead them out of the first round of the playoffs.
"I just think so highly of Mr. Adelman that I can't really speak on it," Artest told ESPN.com after learning of the trade. "When I first got to Sacramento, he believed in me. I said, 'Coach, we're going to the playoffs,' and everybody laughed at me. He said, 'Ron, we're going to go as far as you take us.' I've never had a coach do that before.
"How can you say no to Rick Adelman? How can anyone not be happy playing for Rick Adelman?"
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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