WHEN WE go outthere," said a Houston Rockets security guard to forward Ron Artest,"don't stop for autographs." ¬∂ "O.K.," said Artest. ¬∂"They're going to want to take a picture with you," warned anotherRockets employee, a community relations director, as they strode an uncongestedhallway inside the Toyota Center, on their way to a meet-and-greet withthousands of Rockets season-ticket holders being staged in the arena'sconcourse. "But don't stop." ¬∂ "O.K.," said Artest. ¬∂ The samecautions had been issued to all of his teammates—keep moving, don't cause anincident—but there appeared to be an urgency in the message to Artest, givenhis unfortunate history of mixing with crowds in NBA arenas.
"You can signif they ask you to," said yet another security guard, "but keepwalking."
"Don'tstop," said the Rockets' community relations director.
"Don'tstop," echoed the security guard.
The doors wereflung open to the concourse and Artest began to wade through the fans. Somelooked exultant in his presence; others intimidated. Then Artest noticed, onthe far side of the concourse, a handful of grade-school children playing avirtual-reality game. They were leaping to swat at large images of spellingblocks that had been projected onto the wall.
"Hey!" hesaid. "What's that?" And just like that he was among the children,reaching up to tip the blocks as if they were soft rebounds around the rim. Hetapped the final block upward so that it came to rest alongside two others tospell a word.
"C-A-T,"Artest told his audience. "Cat."
He had won thegame. The kids were jumping around him, celebrating.
"But I don'tthink I was really touching [the blocks]—was I?" asked Artest. "Yes,you were," said a security guard, who explained the mechanics of the gameas they moved along. Then Artest caught sight of rookie teammate Joey Dorseyplaying Wii boxing. He stopped again.
"Do you wantto play?" asked Dorsey, and suddenly there stood Artest among a cheeringcrowd, throwing (gulp!) punches. For how many spectators did a certain meleecome to mind as Artest delivered virtual lefts and rights that knocked Dorsey'scharacter flat on his back?
"Kobe!"yelled a fan behind Artest. "Hit him like he's Kobe!"
"Someone saidKobe?" yelled Artest, laughing over his shoulder as he threw puncheswildly. "Yeah! Kobe!"
Soon the fightwas over—Dorsey in a decision, in spite of the knockdown—and the fans laughedand reached up to pat Artest on his thick blacksmith's shoulders. The people'schampion.
TO THIS point inthe season (and all pronouncements on Artest must be carefully couched) theNBA's most volatile star has surprised in a positive way. At a time when theRockets could have fallen apart, it was Artest who reinvigorated the team thatis now battling the Spurs for the Southwest Division title. Is it fair to nowdefine Artest as, of all things, a stabilizing influence? "Yes,"affirms Houston forward Shane Battier. "Ironically."
The Rocketsgambled by acquiring Artest last summer from the Sacramento Kings in the hopethat he, swingman Tracy McGrady and 7'6" Yao Ming would form a championshipBig Three. Before long that vision appeared to be doomed: McGrady was unable torecover from off-season left knee surgery, Artest was limited for the firsthalf of the season by a bone bruise in his right ankle and the Rocketsstruggled to figure out how to play together. "We won games, but it wasn'tpretty and I don't think we were happy," says Battier. "We didn't knowwho we were. It was frustrating. We needed something to flip."
The flipper wasArtest. After McGrady shut himself down in February to undergo season-endingmicrofracture knee surgery, Artest took up the vacated leadership role. A teamthat had been built around the half-court offense of T-Mac and Yao suddenlybecame a defensive outfit that pushed the ball off the stops generated byArtest, Battier and power forward Luis Scola. In the previous four years theRockets had gone 20--46 without McGrady, but at week's end they were 28--12 inhis absence.
Artest, 29, hasevolved as a player. After having long seen himself as a go-to superstar, hehas accepted his role as a complementary scorer, averaging 17.2 points throughSunday to Yao's 19.6. The 6'7" forward, who once bulked up to an estimated280 pounds in order to punish opponents inside, has trimmed down to 246 whilegenerating 41% of his scoring from beyond the three-point line. The DefensivePlayer of the Year in 2004 is even taking his cues at that end of the courtfrom Battier, who often dictates which of them will guard Kobe Bryant or LeBronJames. "I let Shane decide because he's always thinking the game," saysArtest. "Even though I've become more mature, I still get a little bitemotional."
Reserve centerDikembe Mutombo believes Artest grew up while dealing with the kidney cancertreatments of his five-year-old daughter, Diamond, who Artest says hasresponded positively to the chemotherapy she underwent last fall. Artest alsogained perspective from visiting Africa with the players' union two summersago, and he is committed to returning to Kenya after the playoffs. "He hasseen the suffering of the poor, the disease, and he relates it to what ishappening to him with his daughter," says Mutombo. "You don't find thatin so many players; that they wake up in the morning and say, 'I am going toAfrica and I am going to do more.'"
While thoseexperiences have no doubt reshaped Artest, he credits his steadier play to theRockets' coach, Rick Adelman, who spent half of the 2005--06 season with Artestin Sacramento. "He's nothing more and nothing less than a coach," saysArtest. "He doesn't hold grudges, he doesn't try to teach you to be a man,he doesn't teach you how to become a boy, he's not trying to tell you how tohandle your life."
If previouscoaches have sought to fill that role with Artest, it would be understandable:This is the player who once asked if he could take off the early part of theseason to promote an R&B album, then infamously went into the stands inDetroit to instigate the brawl in November 2004, earning a 73-game suspension.So far in Houston, Artest's behavior has been more endearing than infuriating."He has some idiosyncrasies that are quite interesting," says Rocketsguard Brent Barry. "Sometimes he'll come to practice and never get into thelocker room, he'll just change up in the weight room. Usually during halftimeswe'll find him in just his hightops and his boxers, which is an interestingsight to see. Sometimes he has some choice words in a timeout, or before a gamein the huddle, that have absolutely nothing to do with what we're about to tryto accomplish, and Shane and I enjoy a brief moment glancing at each other.Much like Manny being Manny, Ronnie is Ronnie."
Artest fitscomfortably with Houston's blend of up-and-comers, internationals and erudites."I think Ron's a fan of James Joyce: He talks in streams ofconsciousness," says Battier. "I don't think Ron's concerned aboutbeing a diplomat. He's concerned about winning, and the quickest route for himto win is to be blunt."
As he sits on atilted bench in the Rockets' weight room, Artest acknowledges he is trying toself-edit. "Sometimes I don't even speak nowadays," he says,"because I'm not sure I'm going to say it the right way." Staring athimself in the mirrored walls, he says of his early career, "I took it forgranted. I was young, I was athletic, I was shutting down Kobe, I was shuttingdown LeBron. I was just cocky: I'm the best defender in the league. Can'tnobody score on me. I was not humble at all and I just continued to get introuble. I knew my talent was needed on a lot of teams, and I took all that forgranted. I should have cherished those moments a couple of years ago. Some ofthat was out of my control, some of that was in my control. But now I haveanother shot at it."
TWO QUESTIONSremain in Artest's immediate future. The first: Can he and Yao lead the Rocketsdeep into the playoffs? The Rockets will struggle to score enough points toknock off the Spurs or the Los Angeles Lakers, but their defense—which yieldeda miserly 44.6% shooting at week's end, fourth in the league—should giveHouston hope of advancing to the second round for the first time in a dozenyears, dating to the reign of Hakeem Olajuwon.
The moredifficult question is whether Artest, who will be a free agent after theseason, has been on good behavior simply to earn a new contract. "Iunderstand that argument," says Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whothen dismisses it. Morey believes that Artest has grown through his hardexperiences, and that with Adelman's oversight and his comfort in the Rockets'system, Artest can continue to flourish.
Battier, for one,would like to keep him around. "After this year, my lasting memory of RonArtest is, he loves the KissCam," says Battier, referring to the timeoutentertainment in which couples in the stands are shown on the arena jumbotronand prompted to smooch. "We'll be in the middle of a game and we're allfocused, and I'll look over at Ron, and Ron will be on the floor cracking uplaughing at the KissCam. We've all seen it a million times, but every time hefinds it the funniest thing ever."
"KissCam isfunny," says Artest, "but I hate it when they put it on me and one ofmy teammates, and then I have to put the towel over my head." It's all partof growing up, to realize there is no beating the KissCam.
Artest, on why he lets Battier decide whom he shouldguard: "Even though I've become more mature, I STILL GET A LITTLEEMOTIONAL."
"Usually at halftime, we'll find him at some pointin just HIGHTOPS AND BOXERS," Barry says. "Which is an interestingsight."
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Photograph by Greg Nelson
A CORNER TURNED When Houston's season was in danger of slipping away, Artest dug down and energized the team.
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (JAMES)
ROCKED STARS The slimmed-down but ever-physical Artest has put a body on (from left) James, Bryant and Paul Pierce.
NOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (BRYANT)
[See caption above]
BRIAN BABINEAU/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (PIERCE)
[See caption above]
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
TWO IS ENOUGH Artest and Yao have formed a heady partnership after the other member of Houston's Big Three went down.