Sports Business

SPORTS: We trusted and got burned; now it's time to move on

December 19, 2005

Reaction to the news that a soon-to-be-former Indiana Pacers forward wants to relocate his talents elsewhere reminds me of a scene from the classic cinematic comedy "Animal House."

One of the most noticeable results of a fraternity night out that had gone hopelessly awry was the destruction of a car that character Kent "Flounder" Dorfman had "borrowed" from his brother.

As the Deltas surveyed the damage, Eric "Otter" Stratton looked at his distraught fraternity brother and said, "Face it Flounder; you [messed] up ... you trusted us."

Certainly, that's what the vast majority of us are guilty of. We trusted Ron Artest.

We trusted what we heard him say. We trusted in the possibility of redemption. We trusted in the concept of lessons learned and mistakes not repeated. We trusted that support given would be support returned, and that loyalty is a two-way street. In the face of enormous evidence to the contrary, we trusted the quaint notion that someone-a professional athlete, no less-would place a higher value on lofty ideals than on personal enrichment.

So we're guilty-certainly, I'm guilty-of gross naiveté.

Despite all the bizarre behavior, the vast majority of us chose to believe the best about someone. That's not a bad thing. What is a bad thing, however, was that some, perhaps most, of that belief was based on strength of skills rather than on strength of character.

In other words, the muscle on the body made us forget the muscle between the ears.

The Pacers, for so long a franchise that has served this community well by bringing together athletes who could both compete and conduct themselves at a high level, this time rolled the dice and crapped out.

If there's some positive news in all this, it's that by getting rid of the problem, they can really go to work on getting rid of the stain. Like Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh remarked, "Ron says he's haunted by his past. Well, we're haunted by his past, too."

After the news broke of No. 15/91/23's desire to bid adieu to the franchise that stuck with him through thin and thinner, I was asked repeatedly if I was surprised.

I replied that I was surprised.

Having interviewed Artest, having listened to others profess his basic goodness, having believed that if he was good enough for astute basketball people like Walsh and Larry Bird then he was good enough for me, I believed that rehabilitation was just around the corner, and that the Pacers-and their loyal fans by extension-would find their abiding faith rewarded.

Hey, sometimes you hit. Both the sports world and the real world are filled with inspirational comeback stories. But sometimes you miss, too, and this was one of those. A huge miss.

It's not that knuckleheads are new to pro sports in general or basketball in particular. I covered the Pacers during the American Basketball Association days, and the league was full of them.

But there was also a culture that would allow a coach to perhaps brandish a hockey stick if that was what was required to make a point. Methinks that TruWarier wouldn't have been much of a true warrior in Slick Leonard's locker room. And if Slick didn't take care of the problem, Mel Daniels would have.

That was another time.

Artest did observe that he couldn't be "a Reggie Miller" or "a Michael Jordan," and of all his cockeyed, confounding, confused mutterings during the dozen or so "exclusive" interviews he granted, those were as close to the truth as he got. Miller and Jordan were professionals who knew their individual brilliance still had to be contained within a team. Artest talks about that concept, but at the end of the day, it was all about him. Again, not unusual in sports, or in human nature.

So, yes, we feel betrayed, although this is not Judas at Gethsemane but merely a basketball player who played many in his audience for fools, including yours truly. Consider some innocence lost and skepticism sharpened.

Still, I wonder, if that cup of beer had missed by a foot, other than Mark Boyle's getting wet, would we be having this citywide discussion?

Now, I must conclude, yes.

Because of Artest's talents, there will be takers in the swap market, but it's doubtful the Pacers will get proper return on their investment. Without him, though, the ongoing distraction is removed, and opportunity beckons for guys like Danny Granger and Sarunas Jasikevicius. Addition by subtraction has happened before.

Perhaps Artest is correct when he says he can best help the Pacers by leaving them.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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