By Skip Bayless
Page 2

When you heard on Tuesday night that the Artest-to-Sacramento trade had blown up, you undoubtedly thought: "Here we go again."

That's what I thought, too, but for a different reason.

I thought: Ron Artest's image is taking another hit it doesn't deserve. Artest is the most overvilified, overpunished player in sports. No, he's no angel. Yes, he can be a knucklehead. But I'm actually beginning to feel a little sorry for this kid.

First, NBA commissioner David Stern got away with suspending him for 73 games -- the rest of the season! -- after Artest didn't land a single punch in the stands at Detroit last year and threw only a couple over his shoulder in self-defense. Now, Larry Bird has managed to turn poor Artest into the bad guy when the real bad guy all along was Bird.

But it's always so easy to make Artest the fall guy because his name has become a sports-media synonym for trouble. Ron Ar-trouble. Most fans want from spectator sports what they get from dumbed-down movies and kill-or-be-killed video games -- easily identifiable heroes and villains. No gray area. For those who live in the shallow end of the pool, Artest is sports' biggest villain.

He's also the easiest target because he often isn't perceptive or eloquent enough to defend himself. So it doesn't really matter that he plays as hard night after night as any player in the league at both ends of the floor, that teammates (except for Jermaine O'Neal) like having him on their side and that his heart is basically in the right place -- that he's so much that Terrell Owens has never been. Yet Artest has been indelibly stamped: VILLAIN.

Funny, but in a recent GQ story, Owens was No. 1 among the 10 athletes identified as most despised by their peers. Artest didn't make the list. Players know.

But most fans need Artest to be their favorite bad guy, and sometimes I think he shrugs and thinks, "OK, I'll give 'em what they want."

But I (for one) am pulling for him to turn the Kings into The Team Nobody Wants to Mess With in the Playoffs. That would be justice. Wouldn't it be great if this trade turned into the shrewdest personnel decision since Red Auerbach drafted Larry Bird?

Oh, did that old hustler Bird ever fake us all out in Sports Illustrated's preseason NBA issue.

Bird literally stood behind Artest on the cover, as well as raving about him in the story. Bird even compared Artest's desire to win with ... his own! The message: Ronnie's a good kid who gets so intense on the court, and that night in Detroit, he lost control of his emotions.

Bird, after all, once decked a fan who ran onto the court at the end of one of his Indiana State games.

I applauded his support of Artest, swallowing it hook, line and trade bait.

After all, Artest had shown newfound maturity near the end of a Pacers blowout at the Palace in Auburn Hills by backpedaling away from a raging-bull attack by a frustrated Ben Wallace. But moments later, as Artest rubbed it in by kicking back on the scorer's table, he obviously should not have overreacted to the slightly filled cup of beer that landed on him. He absolutely should not have gone after the guy he thought had thrown it. But remember, there hadn't been a scenario like this before that brawl in Detroit. Players hadn't had it driven into their psyches by fines and suspensions and seeing a thousand replays of shameful video that they cannot go into the stands.

Artest was right: That night, a lot of guys would have done the same thing.

Yet he didn't slug the kid he thought had thrown the cup. He grabbed him. When other fans jumped on Artest, the only punches landed were by teammate Stephen Jackson, flying in to the rescue.

Only after Artest returned to the court, where he was confronted by a dukes-up fan, did he respond by throwing a punch. Then, flying in and landing what could have been a kill shot on the face of the fan's buddy, came Jermaine O'Neal.

O'Neal was suspended for 15 games, Jackson for 30, Wallace for six -- and Artest for 73, costing him $5.4 million in salary. You would have thought Artest had sent an entire row of fans to the emergency room. But Stern needed to blame someone for this P.R. nightmare, so why not the easiest target in sports? Yes, toss Artest to the angry talk-show mob and it will be satisfied.

Artest had a rap sheet of flagrant fouls and angry outbursts. But who cared that they all were the result of Artest playing basketball too hard, playing it the way the Pittsburgh Steelers play defense? Artest had no known drug problems. No wife-beating charges. No alcohol-fueled bar fights. No quitting on his coach. No pouting. No dogging it.

In fact, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle has often said he wished he had 12 Artests. To the end, Carlisle sounded as if he genuinely wanted Artest back on his team.

But the Pacers director of basketball operations obviously did not. That's Bird.

Early in the season, rumors sprang up that the Pacers were working on trading Artest to Sacramento for Peja Stojakovic. As much as Bird genuinely seemed to like and admire Artest and his game, he clearly was trying to rebuild Artest's trade value in the Sports Illustrated piece. Bird and general manager Donnie Walsh obviously had decided they no longer trusted Artest and wanted to go forward without him.

When the rumor made it into print in the Indianapolis Star, Artest's pride was understandably stung. After all, he had taken his 73-game medicine without complaint or grievance or lawsuit. He even had volunteered to regain his edge by playing with rookies on the Pacers' summer league team. This, remember, was a former All-Star and defensive player of the year.

So Artest basically said, "If they don't want me, I want out." He also went public with what had become obvious to anyone who watched Pacers games: He was being phased out of the offense. It appeared O'Neal no longer was satisfied with sharing the low block with Artest when Artest was covered by a smaller man he could bully.

So as rookies Danny Granger and Sarunas Jasikevicius proved they could play, Bird and Walsh obviously chose to make the Pacers O'Neal's team instead of O'Neal's and Artest's. And that's when Bird slyly turned the tables on Artest, telling the media, "Ronnie's demanding a trade, so we'll try to accommodate him."

Sure, why not take the pressure off management by making it all Artest's fault? Most media members and fans are so predisposed to blaming Artest that no one seemed to notice he was merely responding to what now appears to be a very true rumor.

Walsh told ESPN.com's Chad Ford the Pacers and Kings had no early-season discussions about Artest-for-Peja. But it seems awfully coincidental this saga came full circle back to that very deal.

And Artest, of course, fell right into the trap, failing to make this clear in subsequent interviews. If only he could defend himself off the court the way he defends on it. For Bird, this was like playing one-on-one against the ball boy. But the early-season media leaks appeared to give the Kings management time to get cold feet. After all, they were considering trading their most popular player -- Peja, who had played seven seasons in Sacramento -- for the league's least popular player.

This forced Bird and Walsh to basically go through the charade of shopping Artest while Peja was the player they wanted in return all along. And this forced Artest -- though being paid -- to miss 25 more games. What did a guy who loves to play basketball do to deserve that? Yes, I know: Artest once needed some time off to rest up and promote an album for his record label. That I can't defend. Occasionally, he can be an idiot.

But as the Kings fell seven games under .500, they finally agreed to the deal on Tuesday. That's when Artest's agent, Mark Stevens -- apparently acting without consulting Artest -- called Kings GM Geoff Petrie to question him about the franchise's direction. Petrie was alarmed by Stevens' tone and expressed his concern to owners Joe and Gavin Maloof, who called Pacers ownership wondering what was going on. Bird and Walsh said they would bring in Artest the next morning to see what his reservations were about going to Sacramento and to basically tell him he had no choice if he wanted to get paid. But in this case, Artest can be blamed only for picking an obscure agent who sometimes doesn't handle things any better than Artest does.

Still, Artest took the fall. By nightfall, it was widely reported -- and believed -- that Artest had told the Kings he ain't playing in no Sacramento.

Artest At It Again, Nixes Trade!

Not true. On Wednesday, Jim Gray reported on ESPN what baffled the Kings about Artest's objections was Artest and his agent had recently run into the Maloofs, and Artest had told them how much he would love to play in Sacramento.

Not true, Joe Maloof said Thursday. The first time he had ever talked to Artest was by phone Wednesday, and that Artest had said all the right things. That prompted the Maloofs to again green-light the deal.

Stevens said Thursday he called Petrie only because "I thought me and Donnie Walsh had an understanding that we'd kind of be involved in the trade process." Fair enough; Artest deserved that much respect. So, said Stevens, he called Petrie merely to find out how serious the Kings were about continuing to rebuild a championship contender. Stevens said he heard all the right things.

Artest now says he's excited about starting over in Sacramento -- as he surely would have been early in the season.

I am rooting for Artest to jump-start the Kings with the enforcer's toughness they've always lacked on both ends. Come on, Ron, lock in and prove Bird wrong. For once, make someone else look bad.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.




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PROVE BIRD WRONG