Just where, exactly, is Ron Artest?
The most obvious answer is that he is in California, starting his second full season with the Sacramento Kings, where he has averaged more than 18 points a game—that is to say, since the erratic forward left the Indiana Pacers two years ago, after almost single-handedly dragging the team into a public image slump, he has not really been “here.”
As correct as that description may be, however, the reality of Artest’s presence lingers. Pacers representatives say they’ve recovered from his four years with the team—a tenure marred by frequent game suspensions, bizarre public theatrics, enraged outbursts, locker-room divisions, and, most devastatingly, The Brawl. This month, they say, when the Pacers launch a new season with a new coach, new players, and a new no-nonsense attitude, fresh air will fill Conseco Fieldhouse and then, as Donnie Walsh, CEO of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, puts it, the Artest Era will be something they are simply “trying to move past.”
But there is a longer answer. Artest has a house in Zionsville. Kids in school here. An affinity for his days as a Pacer. An on-again, off-again plan to return to Indianapolis when his playing days are done. And, in spite of all that has transpired between them, fond relationships with those he left behind. Walsh, for instance, still refers to Artest as “Ronnie” and calls the volatile player a “nice young man.” When I interviewed Walsh in his Conseco office shortly before the start of the current NBA season, he noted that Artest was a little closer than most fans might think. “I just saw him today,” Walsh said. “He was in here, shooting.”
In Indianapolis, Artest is far from forgotten. And, in some ways, he isn’t even gone.
The season the Pacers faithful will always associate with Artest’s antics began as one of the organization’s most auspicious. The team had fallen just short of the NBA Finals the previous season and entered the 2004-2005 campaign with a core of blossoming stars, including the veteran shooting hand of Reggie Miller. No single player aroused higher expectations than Ron Artest, the ferociously competitive forward who was, at his best, one of the NBA’s top defenders, most versatile scorers, and toughest SOBs.
The Pacers were rolling as they headed into their ninth game of the season—a November 19 showdown at the Palace of Auburn Hills against the Detroit Pistons, who had bounced Indiana from the playoffs the previous season. Led by the indomitable Artest, the Pacers punished the defending champs and took a decisive lead into the final minutes of the contest. Just a few more ticks, and the Pacers would leave the floor with a claim to the mantle of top contender.
Pacer fans know what happened next: A routine shove on the court that planted Artest on the scorer’s table, shooting the refs a “Who, me?” grin. Then, a flying plastic cup of beer. A flash of rage across Artest’s face. A vault up several rows of seats. Wild swings at a group of fans.
Hostile spectators rushed the court, and panicked Pacers, momentarily forgetting their reputation as one of the NBA’s model franchises, fought them off with giant closed fists. In the middle of it all was Artest.
“Of course, the event itself was a tough thing to go through,” says Walsh.
“But you could mark that night as the beginning of a period that was not good for our franchise. It really hurt us dramatically.” Never mind the player suspensions—most notably Artest’s season-long banishment. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that until last year, players were still going through criminal-court cases from that night,” says Walsh. “That fragmented the team. And it brought in a period of us having to react to a lot of negativity.”
All-star forward Jermaine O’Neal contends that the spectacle placed the team at a competitive disadvantage for years to come. “We’ve gotten officiated wrongfully since The Brawl,” he says.
When the next season commenced, Larry Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, allowed Artest to return to the court, even appearing with Artest on the cover of Sports Illustrated, standing—literally—behind his player. Then, on December 10, in response to unsubstantiated trade rumors, Artest showed his appreciation for the Pacers’ support by telling The Indianapolis Star that he’d like to be dealt to another team, ostensibly because he wanted to find a fresh start. He made his comments without consulting his bosses first.
“Ron comes out and asks for a trade,” says Jeff Foster, one of the few Pacers not suspended after The Brawl. “He kind of turned his back on all of us—his teammates and the organization, and they had stood behind him.”
Apparently dumbfounded, Coach Rick Carlisle dropped Artest from the active roster, eventually exchanging him for Peja Stojakovic, a vastly inferior player by almost any measure. The trade was disappointing for the Pacers, but in the margins of the deal was a sigh of relief for getting anything at all in return for damaged goods like Artest. He was now somebody else’s problem.
Still, the Pacers’ problems didn’t stop with his departure. In an organization long accustomed to squeaky-clean PR, Artest seemed to have turned a barking pack of chaos loose on the organization. “Things have been downhill after that,” says Foster. “Then all the other things started happening off-court.”
Things like the player skirmish at Club Rio, a “gentlemen’s club,” which ended with guard Stephen Jackson discharging a handgun in the parking lot; allegations that point guard Jamaal Tinsley, accompanied by two other Pacers, assaulted a manager at 8 Seconds Saloon; and, most recently, the arrest of forward Shawne Williams on charges of marijuana possession, driving without a license, and other offenses.
“Artest didn’t make Stephen Jackson go to a strip club and shoot his gun in the air,” says Sam Amick, who covers the Kings for the Sacramento Bee. “[But] it is absolutely correct to trace back to Artest the beginning of a rough stretch for the Pacers.”
In Sacramento, on the other hand, Artest seemed to find the fresh start he wanted—at least at first. He gave the flagging Kings a jumpstart and nearly helped his new team pull off a playoff upset of the heavily favored San Antonio Spurs. As with his earliest exposure to Indiana fans, his game toughness quickly endeared him to the Sacramento faithful.
“It was hoped that in Sacramento he would flourish,” says Amick. “The Maloof brothers [who purchased the Kings with the fortune they made building casinos] didn’t think Ron was as wacky as the rest of the country did. They called it a gamble. They’re from Vegas-that’s what they do.
“But,” he adds, “things have not gone as smoothly as they wanted.”
Sadly, the most glaring parallel between Artest’s time in Indiana and his tenure in Sacramento has emerged over the past year: First came the inevitable outbursts, followed by eye-rolling from his new teammates. Then, early last season, reports surfaced that authorities had found Artest’s neglected and half-starved dog at his Sacramento-area home, and that sheriff’s deputies had made at least a half-dozen runs to Artest’s property on domestic-disturbance complaints, one of which ended in Artest’s arrest. The Kings weren’t winning, either, and the distraction of Artest, says Amick, “was a big part of the formula of what didn’t work for the team.”
As the situation soured in Sacramento, Artest kept his estate off State Road 421, in Zionsville. The main house, a brick-fronted mansion, sits on a curving paved driveway far back from the road, separated from the prying public by a black steel fence and a sliding gate controlled by an electronic lockbox. On adjoining lots sit two smaller ranch-style homes that Artest bought later and incorporated into the main estate. Together, the three properties form a kind of rural fenced compound.
The estate would come to serve as a family refuge, at least according to a neighbor who owns a home that sits between Artest’s two smaller houses, and who wished to remain anonymous. When Artest’s marital relations reached their nadir in Sacramento, Artest’s neighbor says, the player’s wife and children retreated to the Indiana home. Artest told reporters this summer that he has made the sprawling Zionsville mansion his permanent base, and that he hoped Indiana would remain his home even after he retires.
But even in the innocuous, Artest remains difficult to pin down. Last year, he listed all three of the Zionsville properties for sale, and they remained on the market through September, when the listings expired. His real-estate agent, Regina Jones, says that in spite of having fielded several inquiries, the listings will not be renewed. “He wants to remain in Indianapolis,” she says. “I know that he and his family like living here.”
Attempts to contact Artest through the Kings, the Pacers, his agent, and at the gate of his Zionsville home were unsuccessful. “He pulled me aside a few weeks ago and told me he wants to limit his interviews,” says Kings spokesman Darrin May. “He wants to concentrate on basketball right now.”
In June, however, Artest’s business manager did approach the player’s neighbor about selling his house. But after the neighbor agreed and completed some preliminary paperwork, no one contacted him about closing the transaction. Still, the neighbor says, “as far as I’m concerned, he’s a good guy. And I still think he’s the best basketball player who ever played the game.”
The Pacers, too, have a soft spot for Artest. From Bobby “Slick” Leonard, Pacers radio analyst and former head coach: “I like Ronnie—a lot of people around here like Ronnie. Ronnie was just young, and those were mistakes that he made.”
From Foster, the player who was stunned by The Brawl but flabbergasted by Artest’s request for a trade: “I don’t think anybody who has ever played with Ron has any animosity toward him. He’s actually a really good guy. He’s nice to be around. He just has his moments on the court where, for whatever reason, he lets the game get the best of him.”
And from guard Jamaal Tinsley: “I miss him a lot, both as a basketball player and a friend.”
For fans in Central Indiana, Artest’s name will probably always be synonymous with bad behavior. But Amick says Artest recalls Indianapolis more fondly than the city remembers him.
“When Ron talks about his days with the Pacers, he gets kind of animated, even wistful,” he says. “He talks about the team they had, all the great players in the lineup. He still thinks they could have won a championship.”