By Anthony Bosco
Queensbridge native and former St. John’s basketball star Ron Artest was traded from the Chicago Bulls to the Indiana Pacers last month as part of a multi-player deal that also included Jalen Rose, Travis Best, Brad Miller, Ron Mercer and Kevin Ollie. And while Artest essentially left one sub-.500 team for another, it is as if he has been released from the Gulag.
In his first public appearance as a member of the Pacers on Feb. 20, Artest brandished an ear-to-ear grin and made no attempt to hide his unmistakable glee.
“First off, it means a lot to be here and to finally come to a team that can win,” Artest said of the trade on the Indiana Pacers’ Web site. “In the NBA, I’ve never had more than 20 wins. To come to a team that’s winning a little bit — even though we’re out of the playoffs right now, we’ve got a chance — means a lot to me.”
Artest has languished in Chicago since leaving St. John’s after his sophomore season — a season that saw the Johnnies go all the way to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. And while going to Chicago might not have seemed such a horrible sentence when drafted, Artest quickly discovered that the Bulls he had grow up watching, featuring Michael Jordan, head coach Phil Jackson and Scotty Pippen, were nothing but a memory.
Artest and longtime friend Elton Brand, formerly of Duke, were supposed to lead Chicago through its post-dynasty years into a new era, but success never materialized. Brand was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers and Artest’s departure, like that of his friend, was long-rumored and finally delivered last month.
But as bad as the teams were that he played with, Artest still managed to put up respectable offensive numbers as a member of the Bulls. In his two-plus seasons in the pros, he averaged 12 points per game in his first two seasons with the Bulls and was scoring 15.6 per game this season until his trade to Indiana.
Since his arrival in Indiana, Artest has been a fixture in the starting lineup, getting more than 30 minutes of floor time per contest and scoring 13.2 points per clip. He has seen his rebounding average jump from 4.9 per game to 5.8 per game, which is 1.6 boards more than his career average.
Artest has been a streaky shooter in the NBA with a career field goal percentage of .411 and has not been called upon to carry any of his teams the way he did with St. John’s or in high school while at LaSalle Academy, a team he led to the Catholic High School Athletic Association city championship his senior season over St. Francis Prep.
While at LaSalle, Artest was named a McDonald’s High School All-American and New York City and State Player of the Year.
Artest is just one of a handful of Queens players currently in the NBA, including Lamar Odom (Clippers), Kenny Anderson (Celtics), Anthony Mason (Bucks), Mark Jackson (Knicks) and Rafer Alston (Bucks).
Perhaps Artest’s greatest contribution to any team is his defense. At 6-foot-7, Artest has shown above-average speed and ball-handling skills and the ability to bang underneath with the big boys. He was averaging 2.78 steals per game with the Bulls before his trade and ranked seventh in the league last season in the category.
“My role is to basically go out there, first and foremost, and play defense. Everything else will take care of itself. I’m versatile. Any given night it can change. You can see me do many different things, but the main thing is to go out there and get stops.”
When I saw Artest play last summer in an exhibition game, I was amazed at how much bigger he seemed physically than during his days at St. John’s. And though it was not a competitive game, Artest was a monster who made one tomahawk jam still indelibly imprinted on my frontal lobe.
Artest has made a name for himself this year as the guy who held up Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA by breaking two of The Greatest’s ribs during a pick-up game over the summer.
We were just playing, hustling hard down low in the post,” Artest said in his “Player’s Diary” on the Pacers’ Web site. “I was on D, accidentally caught him with an elbow. It was no big deal.”
The deal that brought Artest to the Pacers was not the one he was expecting, he said. According to Artest, he was anticipating being dealt to the Washington Wizards, where he would have played with Jordan and not against him.
“For a while I thought Michael Jordan was going to make a push to bring me to the Wizards,” he said. “I kept hearing about it and people were telling me about it, so I thought I was going to be there this year. But I’m here in Indy and I plan on staying here and winning in the same place Reggie Miller plays.”
Unless a miracle happens and both the Pacers and the lowly Knicks make the playoffs, Artest will not be back in New York this season. Still, it is at least nice to see that a hard-nosed player like Artest, who makes his living hustling, finally has found himself on a team in contention, at least, for the post-season.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, ext. 130.