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An Enigma In the Hall Of Infamy

Mike Jarvis, his college coach at St. John's, said last week that Artest "needed help." Rafer Alston, a guard with the Toronto Raptors who often played with Artest during the summer, blames the NBA for failing to nurture young players like Artest. "Ron is not a bad person, he just has issues he needs to take care of," Alston said. "But the league wants you to get that help. They don't want to spend their own dollars or help with a support system."

Michael Ruffin, a former teammate of Artest's in Chicago who now plays for the Washington Wizards, called Artest "a genuinely good person."

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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"He's emotional," Ruffin added. "The things that make him a great player sometimes make him go over the edge."

Unlike so many of his physically gifted all-star peers, Artest was not blessed with a great vertical leap or a potent offensive arsenal. His calling card became his combativeness, his tenacity. From Dirk Nowitzki to Allan Houston, he pasted cut-out pictures of prolific scorers he had shut down in his locker cubicle.

"Beast," his teammates called him, because of his defensive ferocity. Or "Pac-Man," for his relentlessness.

He did not defend the league's best players as much as he crawled underneath their skin, and never was that more evident than the day Artest broke one of Michael Jordan's ribs as Jordan prepared for his last comeback in the summer of 2001 at a Chicago health club. The players in the gym that day still wonder why Artest took a scrimmage so seriously.

Some teammates were concerned when he decided to change his number from 23 to 91 this past season. Michael Jordan wore No. 23. Dennis Rodman, the troubled, tattooed soul who ended up nearly broke and needing the NBA much more than it needed him recently, wore No. 91.

Artest reacts to such proclamations nonchalantly. He spent much of the past week promoting Allure, the all-female, rhythm-and-blues group he produced on his record label.

Artest said he envisions himself like Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks' owner and entrepreneur. "Or like President Bush," he said. "He runs the country, but he also owns oil wells, other businesses. I want to be like that. Play basketball and be good at other things, too."

Queensbridge Boyhood

Ron Artest Jr., grew up in Queensbridge Houses. The largest public housing development in the country, it has an assortment of 93 buildings and about 5,000 residents spread over six square blocks not far from the East River, with a view of Manhattan across the 59th Street Bridge.

The social centers of housing life, the basketball courts, are located in the building's courtyards. Scores of college-bound players learned to play there, including WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw, who grew up in the nearby Astoria Houses. Artest and Holdsclaw played on the same Boys and Girls Club team. "Ron Ron," she called him, like everyone else in the neighborhood.

Queensbridge Houses also is where some significant rappers have found their voices, including Nas, Mobb Deep and N.O.R.E. Music and basketball went hand in hand. There was crime, gunplay and empty vials on the streets, but also a very solid working-class ethic. Artest's mother, Sarah, was a bank teller, and his father, Ron Artest Sr., held several jobs over the years. He still works on a truck, delivering Snapple juice products.

"I don't know one person in this building on welfare," says Jamaal Speede, 42, a housing consultant and longtime resident of Queensbridge who is close to the Artest family. "Everyone wakes up and has somewhere to go."

Artest came from a family of seven. His mother and father had four children together, and Sarah had three daughters from a previous marriage.

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