SPORTS: Artest’s future bright as long as Bird’s in his corner

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In this space and in other media forums, I have expressed optimism that the Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest will (a) make it through an entire NBA season without incident, (b) perform like the selfless allstar he has been and can be again, and (c) therefore justify the Pacer management’s faith in keeping him in a blue-and-gold uniform.

What I fear, of course, is that he’ll do (d) none of the above.

Artest’s talent is obvious. Unfortunately, so is his volatile, short-fused temperament and the Pacers, now officially devoid of the professionalism Reggie Miller brought to the practice court, locker room and playing floor, will not only need all hands on deck in his absence, but all minds there, too.

A hallmark of Pacers basketball, beginning with the Larry Brown era, reaching its zenith under Larry Bird and resumed, to an extent, under Rick Carlisle, has been precisely that: professionalism. And while Isiah Thomas’ name may be conspicuously absent from the previous sentence, it’s not an out-and-out knock, since he inherited a team that, save Reggie, had gone decidedly young. That said, Thomas didn’t maintain the firmest of grips on the steering wheel.

It was hoped that with the arrival of Bird as president of basketball operations and Carlisle as his coach-both no-nonsense guys-that we would see more knuckling down and fewer knuckleheads. Carlisle, in fact, wasted no time in speed-dialing that message to Artest. In the Pacers’ first preseason game two years ago, he benched Artest after Artest drew a technical foul.

And while there were moments thereafter when the pot boiled over, and Artest did an occasional numbskull thing, his enormous all-around skills and a 61-victory season helped smooth over the bumps in the road, up to and including a flagrant, retaliatory foul in the closing seconds of the concluding playoff loss to the Pistons.

Fast forward to last season, which begins with Artest suspended by Carlisle for conduct detrimental to the team. It later is revealed that even with the Pacers in the throes of a series of injuries, the everbizarre Artest had requested time off to promote his rap album.

Then, shortly after his return, came that dreadful night of Nov. 19, the Pacers’ day of infamy, when Artest did the right thing (refusing to retaliate when Detroit’s Ben Wallace clocked him upside the head), then the oh-so-wrong thing (charging into the stands when a fan tossed a beer in his face). For Artest, it meant a 73-game suspension and loss of more than $5 million in wages. For the Pacers, it meant a dark stain on a proud franchise, partly wiped away by the remarkable resolve the team showed by putting together another winning season and a playoff run to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Now, the first preparations for a new season have begun. Last week, the Pacers assembled for their rookie/free agent camp and Artest, in need of the work, made his semi-official return to the fold by attending.

In doing so, he consented to his first local interview since last November. His management “people,” whoever they are, had allowed Artest to do an occasional national media exposure, but had kept him off limits locally. The strategy involved in that decision is beyond me.

Artest’s comments to the local hacks were absent any real contrition, not that I expected any. But he said he would be a new man, with a new attitude, and that we can count on him. Really. Truly. Seriously.

Again, I have been among those willing to give Artest the benefit of some real, true, serious doubt. I’ve interviewed him. He seems a good guy, and definitely a good family man. I’ve chalked up his excesses to his youth, and to his incredibly tough upbringing in the Brooklyn projects. It is an environment which most of us-in particular this white-bread boy from Center Grove-simply cannot relate to.

But, in continuing a theme from last week’s column, at some point the excuses, the justification, the rationalization, cease. The responsibility for one’s actions-especially one so blessed with talent and fortune as Artest-begins and ends with oneself.

I also believe, however, in the power of redemption. People can change if they are willing to change, especially young people.

Ron Artest, you have to remind folks, is just 25.

Yet he lives in a grown-up world and it is time he did just that. Larry Bird, for one, thinks he will. There are few in basketball I trust more than Bird in making judgments both about a player’s physical skills and his mental makeup. Larry Legend has spent his career proving doubters wrong.

We can only hope Ron Artest follows that example.

Benner is 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 email to

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