By Anthony Bosco
It seems like many moons ago, but I can still see him clearly, a serene and smiling Ron Artest, a Queensbridge native, surrounded by a throng of supporters after his LaSalle High School basketball team defeated St. Francis Prep for the CHSAA ‘A’ division championships.
Nowadays, the word “serene” is seldom within three-point range of Artest, a former star at St. John’s University. You are more likely to see words like “fined” and “suspended” when reading about the one-time Red Storm standout, something I took the time to do Monday.
Artest has been on my mind quite a bit in recent months and not because he has been playing so well for the Indiana Pacers — which he has. More and more frequently his name has been in the national press for his out-of-character antics on and off the court, resulting in multiple fines and three suspensions over the last two months.
Someone from Indiana reading this piece might wonder what I am smoking to say that Artest’s recent antics are out of character. But having covered him in his younger years, both in high school and college, I really do not see any resemblance to the Artest I recall and the guy who busted a television monitor and camera after a loss to the Knicks in January.
I haven’t had the advantage of being around Artest over the past several years since his departure from St. John’s following his stellar sophomore season, in which he led a revitalized Red Storm to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
At the time, everyone knew Artest had to leave St. John’s. He was physically as ready for the NBA as he ever would be and he had the talent to succeed on the next level. I certainly thought he was emotionally and mentally up to the task, as well.
I’m not trying to say that Artest isn’t all there, not at all. But some of the stuff he has pulled over the past two months has me and a whole lot of other people scratching our heads, wondering what happened to that sweet guy who used to play at Alumni Hall.
Artest was always intense about basketball. You can’t be that good at something and not be focused. But he was absolutely tenacious, putting as much emphasis on his defensive prowess as his offensive game, maybe even more so.
While he can score — he averages 12.8 points per game for his career — it is his defense where he makes his money. Artest is averaging 2.07 steals per game, good enough for seventh in the NBA this season.
Like Dennis Rodman before him, Artest is quickly becoming the league-leading bad boy in the NBA. When you think of Rodman now, you think of a once great basketball player wearing lipstick and a dress to hawk a book. I can’t see Artest going down that road, but how soon do we all forget how good a basketball player he is because of the mounting suspensions?
Artest, who was drafted No. 16 overall in the 1999 draft by the Chicago Bulls — after a notable snub by the New York Knicks — had a respectable, if not uneventful 2 1/2 seasons in the Windy City before being traded to the Pacers in the middle of last season.
He played well enough for Indiana down the stretch of last season to get signed to a contract extension at the start of this season. At the time, everything seemed rosy.
“It feels great to know that I will be a member of the Indiana Pacers for years to come,” Artest said. “I said all along that I wanted to re-sign with the Pacers. Now I can focus on playing winning basketball and winning a championship.”
Fast forward a few months and Artest is walking through the tunnel at Madison Square Garden, caught on camera hurling a television monitor to the floor. For that little outburst Artest netted a three-game suspension and a $35,000 fine.
Less than a month later Artest picked up a four-game suspension and a new adjective, “volatile,” after an on-the-court confrontation with Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, taunting the Heat bench and flipping the crowd the proverbial bird.
This time Artest got his with a $66,000 fine.
All these fines may be the reason Artest reportedly wanted to get a part-time job in the off-season at an electronics store to cash in on the employee discount. That’s not a joke, by the way.
Then came the latest incident late last month when Artest was suspended by Pacers coach Isiah Thomas for reportedly smashing a framed picture against the locker room wall following a 3-for-17 performance against the Washington Wizards.
Clearly Artest needs to get back to having fun on the court. Intensity is one thing, but when you start smashing up the locker room or jawing with an opposing coach while the game is going on, you need to self-examine, just a little bit.
Artest is a fan favorite in Indiana, the leading candidate for team MVP and a player who was clearly deserving of an All-Star Game nomination. He can either get better or worse, the choice is his. But I’d much rather he become the next Moses Malone or Charles Barkley than the next Dennis Rodman.
Unfortunately, it looks like it can go either way right now.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.