To the millions who witnessed it, the scene from November 19, 2004, was like a train wreck — horrifying, yet impossible to turn away from.
Every television outlet, from cable to network, replayed the grisly footage over and over — and over — again: children crying, fists flying, bodies flailing, debris strewn about, and clusters of seemingly average citizens venting murderous rage. But these images weren’t coming from the Middle East. They were beaming out to the world from the Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan, where the Detroit Pistons were playing the Indiana Pacers in an NBA game.
With 45.9 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, and the visiting Pacers on the brink of a 15-point victory, Indiana forward Ron Artest was called for a flagrant foul on the Pistons’ Ben Wallace. Wallace retaliated with an open-handed blow to Artest’s chin. The two players were separated, and the referees huddled to assess the situation.
Oddly, Artest, who has a history of flare-ups, lay down on the scorer’s table — almost as if to say, “I’m calm. It’s over.” That’s when a beer cup flew out of the crowd and hit him squarely in the chest. Artest leapt up and charged into the stands, heading for one very frightened spectator. Pacers swingman Stephen Jackson followed him, and a full-blown melee erupted. Fans rushed the court. Artest pummeled one spectator as others grabbed him from behind. Jermaine O’Neal took a running punch at a would-be local hero in front of the Pacers bench. There was more. None of it was pretty. All of it was caught on camera.
Suspensions and fines were levied. Criminal and civil charges were filed. Sports writers, editorial pages, and talk shows decried the end of civilization — or at least the end of professional sports. Bloviators from all quarters weighed in. What kind of violent society had we become, and what responsibility did professional sports bear?
Artest became the poster boy for the pro-sports apocalypse. The NBA suspended him for 73 games, costing him approximately $5 million in salary and making it the longest and most expensive suspension in league history. Just days after the incident, Artest went on The Today Show and, appearing only somewhat contrite, took the opportunity to promote a new CD from his record label. Just days after that, his Website began selling FREE RON ARTEST T-shirts for $15.99.
The merchandising of his persona non grata status did little to improve his public image.
That was a year ago.
I spent a day with the man as he prepared for the 2005–06 NBA season, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever met anyone so placid and easygoing. The Ron Artest I met bore no resemblance to the emotional time bomb who hurled a TV camera onto the court at Madison Square Garden in 2003, or bumped coach Pat Riley in front of the Miami Heat bench that year, or tried to take on an entire hostile arena at Auburn Hills. He was patient, professional, good-humored, and downright serene. Even the music has gotten kinder and gentler — Artest’s new single, “Oh Yeah,” is a catchy mix of smooth R&B and rap. “I don’t want to put out songs that no one will play on the radio,” he says. “No more hard rap.”
Artest was also eagerly looking forward to the new season. In 2003–04, the last season in which Artest played a full schedule for the Pacers, the team finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record. Artest was voted Defensive Player of the Year and made third-team All-NBA. He had arrived as a force in the league. At the time of his suspension last season, he was averaging 24.6 points per game. Yet without Artest (and with O’Neal missing 38 games), the Pacers exceeded everyone’s expectations, advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they gave Detroit a stiff challenge before bowing out in six games.
That set the stage for the current skyhigh expectations in Indianapolis. Watching Artest scrimmage this summer, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations and resident legend, Larry Bird, called him “the best player in the league on both sides of the ball.” (Bear in mind that basketball compliments from Larry Bird are about as frequent as snowflakes in Florida.) The Pacers organization and its fans want an NBA title this year. They just may get it.
Of course, much of this depends on Artest — his performance and, for lack of a better phrase, his anger management. Returning to the NBA after a year’s suspension, Artest will face constant scrutiny, especially at the start of the season. He’ll probably encounter some provocation from opponents and fans alike. How will he respond?
When tempers flare on national television, who decides how much is too much? After the longest and most expensive suspension in NBA history, Ron Artest wants to prove he's risen above it all.
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