It's not anger with Artest, but a fierce will to win

Commentary

Pro Basketball

February 23, 2003|By William C. Rhoden | William C. Rhoden,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Ron Artest hangs in and hangs around the NBA by the fragile thread of his emotions. In a game that relies so much on energy and mood, Artest is the league's raw and unpredictable nerve. He is the soul of the new NBA.

This isn't exactly what league officials want to hear. In their world, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki and Tracy McGrady are the league's new faces.

That may be, but the soul of the game, the passion, the hand-to-hand combat of basketball is embodied by players like Artest, 23, the Indiana Pacers' volatile forward.

When the faucet of his emotions is on, the Pacers are difficult to beat; when the faucet is off, or clogged, as it was last Thursday against the New Jersey Nets, the Pacers are vulnerable.

Indiana lost to the Nets for the second time this season and dropped their third straight game, 98-81. In good part, they lost because of Artest. He was called for a flagrant foul and a technical foul, and he guarded Jason Kidd during Kidd's fourth-quarter offensive explosion.

You won't see Artest's picture in any sportsmanship-training videos. You will, however, find his image on instructional footage of what actions constitute crossing the line. Artest crossed the line last month when he challenged the Miami Heat bench. His young teammates looked on - probably in amazement - as Artest exchanged words with assistant coach Keith Atkins and brushed into coach Pat Riley, who shoved Artest. Artest then confronted the rest of the Heat, in Miami.

No blows were thrown, but in one dramatic move, Artest exorcised the ghost of fragility that had so often defined the Pacers. It did come at a cost: a four-game suspension.

Thursday night's game against the Nets was an example of the sort of mixed bag that has made Artest so valuable and yet so exasperating in his four NBA seasons.

Artest said Thursday at the Pacers' shootaround at John Jay College in Manhattan that he wasn't focusing on changing anyone's image.

"I don't know what the reputation was," he said. "I just want people to know we're coming to play. We're coming to play to win."

Indiana used to be Reggie Miller's team, and the team was like Miller: respected but not physically intimidating. The Pacers were good, really good, good enough one year to get to the NBA Finals.

Now, for their own sake, opponents have to look at Artest and the Pacers much differently, and quizzically.

The great misconception about Artest - and this has been the case since he was at La Salle Academy in Manhattan - is that he plays with anger. Artest, while not always in control, has never been angry, just driven by a force no one could quite understand.

He's still driven, but Artest plays at times by his own rules. Isiah Thomas, the Pacers' coach, understands this about Artest; Byron Scott, the Nets' coach, understood this about Kenyon Martin last season.

Thomas and Scott know what buttons to push, know better than most what it takes to achieve excellence. That's why the Nets and Pacers have developed what is now the NBA's most intense rivalry.

"People mistake competition or competitiveness for anger," Thomas said. "When you see guys really competing, you have a tendency to say, `Boy, he's mad' or `He's angry' or `Something's wrong with him,' because they're not used to seeing people compete that hard.

"When you see people compete really hard, with that type of intensity and passion, people say, `Well, they're angry.' No, they're not."

Thomas understands that Artest's energy must be harnessed. After a game at Madison Square Garden in December, Artest broke a camera and threw a television monitor, resulting in a three-game suspension.

But Thomas also understands what a tremendous force Artest is when unleashed.

"If you're going to be a champion at any level," Thomas said, "there has to be something about your personna that lets the other person know that you're just not going to walk through me. Then it becomes a game of skill."

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