O'Neal's request: Let Artest 'finish his own story'
INDIANAPOLIS -- You go to Conseco Fieldhouse because that's where you have to go as the NBA starts anew. Everyone's doing the Ron Artest story these days.
You go to Indy because Reggie Miller is gone after an eternity of killer 3s and because Artest is finally back from his lengthy banishment, even if you know it's a tad early for a reliable read on Artest's dependability.
You go to the basketball heartland because Jermaine O'Neal wants to plop down on a couch and tell you he already can see signs of a new Ron-Ron, no matter how skeptical you are, and because O'Neal so bluntly describes what will happen if Artest or any other prominent Pacer doesn't prove dependable.
"We would love to stay together and win championships together," O'Neal says, insisting that he and Artest are building daily on a closer-than-ever bond.
"But we know the nature of the game," O'Neal continued. "We know if we don't get it done, they're going to split us up."
It's the issue that never goes away in Indy, outlasting even Reggie.
Trust him or trade him?
Can the Pacers continue to allow their dreams of an NBA championship, unfulfilled for Miller, hinge on Artest?
Before you say no ...
Can the Pacers really afford to deal Artest away, knowing they'll probably never get close to equal value for the game's best two-way perimeter player?
Having returned from his 73-game suspension at an imposing 260 pounds, big enough to masquerade briefly as a center in a Tuesday's exhibition victory over San Antonio but still quick enough to shadow Manu Ginobili, Artest leaves little doubt as to why the Pacers want to give their young tag team every chance to win it all before abandoning this group and its dream.
At Artest's chiseled best, there's no one out there like him, capable of scoring an efficient 25 points and checking elite scorers of almost any size.
Of course, after five minutes of listening to Artest contradict himself from statement to statement, you're reminded again that there's no one out there like him.
Here's Artest conceding that the unprecedented punishment he received for his role in last November's melee in Detroit just might wind up having a positive impact on his career: "As much as I don't want to say it, I think so."
And there's Artest insisting that the commissioner -- more than the Pistons -- eliminated Indiana in last spring's second round: "Sometimes I say, 'If David Stern didn't do what he did, we would have gone further.' "
Trade him or trust him?
It's up to Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh, as the club's decision makers, to wrestle with that one. O'Neal and coach Rick Carlisle, meanwhile, have made it their mission of the season to convince Artest that the burden of resolving that conflict belongs to the whole team.
"We're a team that, on paper, it's a contender," Carlisle said. "But we've got a lot to prove. We've got a lot to prove as a group, and I put myself in the same category. With Reggie being gone and Dale Davis being gone, this group has to prove it can sync together."
And stay together.
"We all know that the media is waiting," O'Neal said. "Not just about Ron -- really about our whole team. That's been our downfall the last couple years. We get to that fine line and we take that one step over."
Said swingman Stephen Jackson: "The challenge for this whole team is keeping our emotions under control. It's not just Ron. We need to be more like San Antonio [composure-wise]."
Especially because, as O'Neal warns: "I've been telling Ron that there's going to be situations where people are going to try to get under our skin." Jackson concurred, saying: "It's only smart for them to try that."
Until the Pacers prove they can handle it, in other words.
O'Neal, though, is especially hopeful. The optimism started flowing when almost every Pacer showed up for informal workouts some three weeks before camp began. He also believes the Pacers have the deepest team in the league "from 1 to 15."
Yet the main source of O'Neal's self-belief stems from his own dealings with Artest, which have been so much more productive than they used to be.
It has been suggested that O'Neal, at various times over the past couple of seasons, was ready to join the trade-him movement, weary of all the drama and unreliability. Asked this week to address those whispers, O'Neal acknowledged that he viewed his relationship with Artest as no better than "decent" until this fall.
"We had little to no relationship off the court," O'Neal said.
Artest is interacting in the locker room, leaving his headphones at home more and gradually shedding his loner persona. O'Neal clearly was moved by the fact that after he suffered an allergic reaction at a recent dinner out, Artest called before anyone else in the organization to check on him.
"You've got to have that connection," Artest said. "You've got to have it. You can't be an outsider. To win a championship, you've got to be together as a team."
Said O'Neal: "It's hard for me to explain and it's probably hard for you to picture what I'm talking about, but our communication has been unbelievable [since camp began]. If I had to look at our situation from last year and see a positive that would come out of that [brawl], I really couldn't see any positives. But now when I look back at it and I see how our team accepts each other now, it's probably the best [atmosphere] since I've been here.
"The biggest problem with me and Ron in the past has never been dislike for each other as people. It's been both parties not really knowing each other. Our communication was nothing, and I put a lot of the blame on my shoulders, too. How can I, as a leader, come to the gym every day and not know everything about these guys?"
Total knowledge and understanding of the Artest enigma?
You can't say O'Neal lacks ambition.
Then again ...
If Artest can make the cover of Penthouse, quite a stretch even in these times of blanket coverage, isn't anything possible?
"What I've been asking the media to do is give Ron a chance to finish his own story," O'Neal said, "since he's trying so hard."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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