MINNEAPOLIS -- Ron Artest's season of exile finally is over.
His long road back to the brink of NBA stardom, however, is only beginning.
That road began here, at the Minnesota summer league, where he
played with rookies, unproven veterans and desperate journeymen,
trying to get comfortable in a uniform in front of referees again.
It didn't take long.
Less than a minute into his first game, the Indiana Pacers forward took a pass at the left elbow of the 3-point line, elevated and drilled the shot. It was as though he never left.
"Stopping on a dime and throwing it up and making it swish, that was cool," he said, his eyes bright and his smile beaming.
The pure love of the game always has been there. Unfortunately for him, that love has been accompanied by a volatile temper that snaps in the blink of an eye and overshadows his considerable skills.
Despite being one of the best all-around players in the game -- able to shut down an opponent's top scorer on defense and drop 30 points with a near limitless repertoire on offense -- Artest is known more for his boorish behavior.
Smashing high-definition television monitors, leading the league in flagrant fouls and asking for time off to rest from promoting an album on his record label will have that effect.
But it all came to a head on Nov. 19, when Artest charged into the stands in Detroit after a fan he thought hit him in the face with a cup. He exchanged punches with some fans, who relentlessly
pelted Artest and his Pacers teammates with debris.
He lost 73 regular-season games, nearly $5 million in salary and
the chance to pay back those Pistons fans in the playoffs.
Instead of sulking and pouting about his suspension, Artest went to work. He retained his linebacker's physique and soft jumper
despite not playing in a pro game for eight months, much to the
amazement of center David Harrison.
"Every day he was in there working out like he was playing,"
Harrison said. "That taught me a lot, just seeing him out there
still working after everything. If they told me, 'You're out for
the year,' I don't think you'd see me for a long time."
Now he's back. That much was evident by the dozens of media
members who waited for Artest outside the locker room after a
meaningless summer league game in the middle of July.
He knows he might never change the negative perceptions that
"I'm not trying to redo my image and I'm not trying to please
anybody," Artest said. "I'm going to continue to do what I have
to do and be myself."
Comments like that, and his irresponsible actions, have kept
Artest out of the mainstream, and that's just the way he likes it.
"I'm not looking to do any Cheerios commercials or Coca-Cola
commercials," Artest said. "I want to do a commercial in the
What he wants to do more than anything is move forward and play
with his teammates.
"When you have to sit out 73 games and not get paid, you're
going to look forward to being back," coach Rick Carlisle said.
"And you're probably going to have a little different perspective
on things than you did before. I just know Ronnie's ready to come
back and really looking forward to being part of the team."
Carlisle's not the only one to notice a change.
"I admire the kid," team president Larry Bird said. "Not for
what he did, but how he's come back and he's worked and he's done
things to improve himself. I look for a great year out of him."
So has Artest induced his last headache? When talking about a
player so unpredictable on and off the court, Bird knows not to
make any promises.
"You never know," Bird said. "I just know Ronnie missed the
game so much. It's the one thing in his life that he truly loves
other than his family. Any time you have something taken away from
you, you're going to miss it. We'll see how he reacts."
And how opposing fans react to him.
"Even before everything happened, fans were always trying to
get on me," Artest said. "They know my history, they know my
personality and they know my character, so they try to find ways to
get under my skin, but we just have to go out there and play."
He was greeted warmly last week. In a near-empty arena where
even casual conversation was clearly audible, nary a smart-aleck
remark was uttered.
"Fortunately, there was a bunch of people in the stands that
respect the game," he said in a not-so-subtle shot at the unruly
Detroit fans. "That was the only thing. There was nothing I did
different, just the people that were in the stands had respect for
the game. That's good."
He expects that to be the case in most cities.
"I think you'll only see problems in Detroit, Boston and
Philly," Artest said of the notoriously hostile cities. "Even
when I went to L.A. for a Sparks game, half the crowd was like,
'AR-TEST! AR-TEST!' Everywhere I go, it's cool. It's not as bad as everybody thinks it is. It's cool."
For now, Artest isn't worried about the fans. He's not worried
about commissioner David Stern watching his every move and he's not
even worried about facing endless questions about his behavior.
The only thing he's worried about is fine-tuning his game. He
said he actually is thankful for that long road that lies ahead.
One would think that after sitting out 90 percent of the season,
no one would be more eager for next season to start than Artest.
"Nah, not really," he said. "I still need to get better. I
still have to get to the point where I want to be when the opener
comes, so I'm not too eager for the season to start right now.
"I want to get to where everything's automatic. That's a long
He's certainly off to a good start. In five games at the summer
league, he averaged 19.8 points and 5.3 rebounds, albeit against
vastly inferior competition.
"I'm proud of him," said Pacers assistant Dan Burke, who
coached the summer league team. "I think he was chomping at the
bit to get out there, but he kept his patience. Overall, he looked
And he exhibited some maturity and intellectual growth while
being bombarded by questions from reporters, a gigantic leap from
the confused youngster who was prone to incoherent rants in the
He bordered on the philosophical at times, particularly when
asked how hard it was to have the game taken away from him last
"It wasn't taken away. I just wasn't able to play in the NBA,"
he said. "The game is too big and too strong to be taken away from
you. The game loves me and I love the game. No matter what happens,
the game will always be with me."