Ron Artest, like so many poor souls in sports, is misunderstood.
His coach doesn't understand him. His teammates don't understand him. Fans don't understand him. Half the time he doesn't understand himself.
There's an epidemic of misunderstanding going on these days. Maurice Clarett, Latrell Sprewell, Carmelo Anthony, Ricky Williams, for starters.
St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz tried to cut through any misunderstanding his players might have had after his stinging comments about their play.
''Nobody's going to voice anything to me,'' he said. ''We don't hold hands and get in a seance and (sing) 'Kumbaya, my Lord.' I'm not into that. We've got a direction we're going, and you're on the train or you're not. Get out. Period.''
No confusion there, except that he probably meant 'circle' instead of 'seance' and 'bus' instead of train. Whatever.
Try to decipher one of Artest's raps in the locker room, never mind the lyrics he's committing to a CD, and it's tough for anyone to understand him.
He wants to be a musician, wants his own label. He wants to be MVP, win a championship. He wants to play, wants to take time off, maybe a few days, a month, a year. He's a serious man, a man of responsibilities. He puts his family first. But he's got to have some fun.
He loves the NBA, loves playing, wants to coach someday, work with the NBA the rest of his life. But if he wants to leave the game, he can leave. Why? Because he wants to leave. That doesn't make him crazy. He'd be a fool, he says, to give up the money he gets from the Indiana Pacers, but that doesn't make him crazy, either.
No, it just makes him a little more of a flake in the Dennis Rodman tradition, a quirkiness the NBA has sorely missed since Rodman hung up his jersey and wedding dress. Artest changed his number to 91 before the season in tribute to Rodman. Pacers president Larry Bird and coach Rick Carlisle no doubt thought that was a swell idea.
Oh, to have bugged Bird's office when he heard that Artest, the artiste, wanted time off because he was pooped after he and his girls, the R&B trio Allure, finished their CD for his label, TruWarier. (He took the name from his nickname, True Warrior, in the Rucker basketball tournament in New York, where he grew up. Spelling doesn't count.)
Bird was one of the truest warriors ever on the court, a guy who suited up even when he couldn't straighten his back and whose idea of fun was playing ''H-O-R-S-E'' in the dark. We can only imagine him and Carlisle, his no-nonsense disciple, chortling over Artest's request once they stopped cursing his name, throwing paperweights around the room and punching holes in the walls.
There was that time last season when Artest told reporters in the locker room before a game that he wasn't playing because his back was a little sore and he just wasn't feeling up to it and needed a day off. A few minutes later, Bird strolled into the locker room, Carlisle went in, and they had a quiet little chat with Artest, something on the order of, ''Are you bleeping kidding us?'' Lo and behold, Artest's back got better in a hurry and he was in the starting lineup.
Artest's timing in trying to bail out on the Pacers this past week, just a few games into the season, was beautiful. Guards Reggie Miller and Anthony Johnson have broken hands, and center Jeff Foster is out after hip surgery. Forward Jonathan Bender, who missed the preseason because of a knee injury, has a viral infection, and guard Fred Jones has a quad strain.
Carlisle acted with relative restraint in benching Artest, as opposed to suspending him without pay, and forcing him to watch his teammates struggle without him for a couple of games. If corporal punishment were allowed, Carlisle might have tied Artest to a post while all the players took turns throwing basketballs at him.
Carlisle spoke of safeguarding the ''sanctity'' of the team by denying Artest's request for a music leave. If Carlisle had given in, he probably could have kissed control of this team goodbye for the rest of the year.
Ah, but none of the players dared criticize Artest publicly. They need him now and they're going to need him in the future. The 6-foot-7 forward was the NBA defensive player of the year last season and he can score.
When he played again Friday night in Philadelphia, he came up big with 29 points, six rebounds and five assists. He also was called for a flagrant foul late in the fourth quarter, but that looked more like the referee's misjudgment than Artest's fault. Or was it just the kind of thing that happens to a misunderstood guy like Artest?
Whatever. The Pacers lost 106-104 in overtime.
Artest stood by Carlisle's side after the shootaround before the game and did not answer any questions.
''Brotherly love, brotherly love,'' a smiling Carlisle said as they left the arena.
Someone's singing, Lord, kumbaya. Someone's laughing, Lord, kumbaya. Someone's crying, Lord, kumbaya.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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