Pacers 105, Heat 102
-- Even with NBA Commissioner David Stern on hand, Indiana forward Ron Artest could not contain himself. In the second quarter of his second regular season game since serving a 73-game suspension, Artest made contact with a fan.
On this night, however, Artest didn't trigger a melee as he did last season, when he was pelted by a cup of beer at The Palace of Auburn Hills and set off the Nov. 19 brawl with Detroit Pistons fans that Stern recently called "the low point, as far as perception of our league."
Instead, Artest knocked down a three-pointer at the end of the first quarter of the Pacers' 105-102 win against the Miami Heat and skipped to the courtside seats at American Airlines Arena. He slapped five with a stunned Jorge Perez, a local real estate developer who had spent a good portion of the first period heckling the talented but troubled Artest. "I figured I either give him a high-five or he'd beat the [crap] out of me," Perez said. "I figured the high-five was better."
Artest, the temper-tantrum throwing, video-monitor tossing instigator, realizes that he will be cast as the villain in most every NBA arena this season, but it's a role that he relishes. "If Ron Artest is in your arena, you've got to take advantage of that -- you got to boo," Artest said after scoring a season-high 22 points.
Artest received deafening boos when he was introduced in the same building where he clashed with Heat President Pat Riley three years ago, when Riley was coach of the team. Fans in Miami repeatedly screamed for officials to slap Artest with a technical foul, especially after Artest angrily slapped down the ball in frustration in the first quarter.
Artest also was booed each time he touched the ball the night before in Orlando. "Those were good boos. They weren't bad. Detroit -- that's going to be a serious boo," Artest said. "I know the trick of Miami; they got the stadium speakers to make it seem like it's louder. They're just faking the funk."
Artest was in the middle of the two most critical plays of the game. With 6 minutes 35 seconds left, the Heat was rallying back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit when center Shaquille O'Neal elevated for a rebound and his size-23 shoe landed directly on Artest's foot. O'Neal (18 points) crashed on the court and had to be assisted off the court by teammates. O'Neal is listed as day-to-day with a sprained ankle. When asked if the contact was accidental, Artest said, "I'm not answering the question. Unfortunately, the Big Fella got hurt."
Later, with 3.5 seconds left in the game, the Heat had an opportunity to tie the game when guard Dwyane Wade (31 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds) spun around Pacers guard Fred Jones and right into the chest of Artest. Artest held his hands high but didn't budge. Wade's shot banked off the backboard and rimmed out. "I was about to foul him, but I couldn't," he said. "I didn't want him to get [a three-point play] and hit the free throw. I just said, if anything, we're going to overtime and we win the game in overtime."
In the locker room before the game, Artest was informed that Stern was in the building. Artest's eyes grew big and he said, "He's here?" He then motioned that someone should notify him of Stern's arrival in the locker room. "Let me know -- and get me out of here," Artest said.
After losing $4.9 million in salary last season because of his suspension -- the longest non-drug related suspension in league history -- Artest later told the assembled media that he no longer dwells on the past. "I'm kind of over it," he said, while positioning his signature shoe toward a camera. "I'm trying to move forward."
Stern visited the Pacers' locker room, a place where he may not be a popular figure after imposing severe punishments for Artest, Jermaine O'Neal (27 points) and Stephen Jackson following the brawl. Then, last month, Jackson called the league's ban on chains and medallions a "racist statement," a charge Stern tried to shoot down. "Have you been around South Beach? Most of the people I see with chains are elderly Jewish men," Stern said. "I don't know what he's talking about."
Stern shook hands with every player and said he had a brief conversation with Artest. "I think he is a great player and I hope he has an all-star season," Stern said.
Artest added that he had no problems with Stern. "I know him. He's cool. He's a cool cat. I think he's from the hood."
Artest has shown little contrition since his historic suspension. He's also busy promoting a rap album -- "Ron Artest (New York)" -- that will be released Jan. 31. Asked if he was looking to change his negative image this season, Artest said, "Nah. I'm not looking to do that. I'm keeping the same perception."
Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said he didn't have any concerns about another Artest angry outburst. "No, I don't. I've just got a real strong belief in all of our guys," Carlisle said. "So, I don't think that way. I don't go around worrying about what might happen."
Artest explained his antics at the end of the first quarter. The fan "was hating, but when I went over there, he saw my hand, he couldn't pass on the opportunity," Artest said with a smile. "My fans, they love me. . . . I feel like I'm at home, every arena."