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An Enigma In the Hall Of Infamy

Suspended NBA Player Is Full of Contradictions

By Mike Wise and Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page A01

The basketball player branded America's menace is on the telephone, calling from a children's pizza parlor in suburban Indiana. Ron Artest knows television does not lie. That's him on videotape, balling his fists, over and over.

He also explains that trauma is relative, pleading for everyone to move on -- beyond even the endless televised loop.

Ron Artest is restrained following a fight with fans at a game in Detroit on Nov. 19. He was suspended for the season and could lose $5 million in salary. (Duane Burleson -- AP)

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After all, when Artest was 12, he saw someone get shot in front of his housing complex in New York City, but life kept moving then, too. "We just gathered the kids around us and told 'em it would be all right," Artest recalled. "They could go outside again.

"People say I'm a thug or whatever," Artest said. "But my cousin got life for killing someone. I have other cousins who sold cocaine and drugs. So what type of person am I supposed to be? Don't I deserve some credit for overcoming that? I didn't see a lot of nice stuff growing up, so really, who am I supposed to be?"

Who is Artest supposed to be? Villain to many, victim to some, today the all-star forward of the Indiana Pacers is at the epicenter of one of the most violent altercations in the annals of American sports, a free-swinging brawl nine days ago between players and fans in the final minute of an NBA game between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons in a suburban Detroit arena. Repeated televised replays of the fight have spot-shadowed the widening disconnect between millionaire basketball players and their suddenly emboldened customers.

Two days after the melee, National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern suspended Artest for the remainder of the 2004-05 season -- a total of 73 games, the longest non-drug related suspension in NBA history. The NBA Players Association has appealed Artest's suspension, and those of Pacers teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal, who were docked 30 and 25 games, respectively, for their role in the brawl.

But it was Artest's behavior that thrust him into a select hall of infamy, alongside basketball's Latrell Sprewell, who choked his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, seven years ago, and Todd Bertuzzi, the NHL player who is awaiting trial on assault charges stemming from an on-ice sucker punch last season.

The image of Artest leaping into the stands to confront a fan after being pelted with a large beverage -- and the subsequent punches Artest landed to another fan who approached him on the court in a threatening manner -- became career-defining. The NBA's reigning defensive player of the year stands to lose more than $5 million for his actions.

"I just plan to move on with my life and come back on the court," he said during an interview Friday night arranged by his business partner in a record-label venture. Artest phoned back to emphasize how much he deeply regretted the brawl and its impact. But on the advice of his lawyers, Artest refused to discuss specifics of the incident.

'He's Emotional'

Before the events of Nov. 19, Artest, 25, had been fined $87,500 and suspended a total of 15 games during his six seasons as an NBA player. Stern acknowledged Artest's past had influenced his decision.

When Artest was confronted with his litany of suspensions, he pointed out that most of his physical anger was channeled toward inanimate objects, such as the video monitor he destroyed at Madison Square Garden two years ago. Many of his fights, Artest said, have pitted him against immovable basket stanchions or telephones he yanked from the wall.

"I never hurt anybody in the NBA, you know?" he said.

Artest is often guileless, displaying an emotional candor that is raw and unsparing. He fits into no narrative. He seldom recognizes the magnitude of his deeds or, often, his words.

Artest seemed not to fully comprehend the fallout earlier this month when he asked the Pacers for a month off to help promote a record he was financially fronting and to rest his sore body.

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