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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Maloofs Betting Artest Will Prove Critics Wrong

January 29, 2006|Jim Litke | The Associated Press

Guys who own Las Vegas casinos had better know a thing or two about bluffing. And obviously, they relish a gamble.

But those aren't the only reasons Sacramento King co-owners Joe and Gavin Maloof were all smiles when the deal that brought them Ron Artest from Indianapolis was finally sealed.

Artest has that effect on everybody.

At first.

He's funny and sincere, he arrives full of energy, and more to the point, Artest is conscientious about showing up for work.

Until he loses interest.

And then?

Well, the Maloof brothers probably know something about that, too. Plenty of people walk out of their Palms Hotel and Casino every night with fewer dollars and less sense than they walked in with.

Who knew they had so much in common with the paying customers?

"We're gamblers," Gavin Maloof said. "So we're going to take a chance on him."

As he spoke, Joe was standing nearby. This was Wednesday in Madison Square Garden, where the Kings arrived to play the Knicks. Separated by a few feet during a whirlwind round of interviews, it seemed as though the two were sharing a script.

"We're gamblers," echoed Joe.

Neither was much more forthcoming about their plans to keep Artest happy and focused, and how it will differ from what the Bulls and Pacers tried.

"The Kings are a family," Joe said.

A family with a depleted roster and a lousy record, it should be noted. And a coach, Rick Adelman, who was overmatched trying to keep semiprofessional troublemaker Chris Webber in line.

Who do you think will be favored in the inevitable Adelman-Artest standoff? And will the Palms take bets?

"All that's in the past," Gavin said at another point. "We want to look forward, otherwise we wouldn't have made this happen."

The problem with Artest is not just his past, but his pattern. With each new beginning, he says all the right things, works his tail off and earns the respect of his new teammates and old adversaries on the court. And then he does something to screw it up.

He throws an elbow at a meaningless juncture in a game, or a fit after a tough loss. He gets fined or suspended, or both. He comes back saying all the right things, working his tail off ... and then decides he needs more time off to produce a rap record.

Artest was that way for 2 1/2 seasons in Chicago, and for 4 1/2 seasons in Indianapolis after that. He never lied or play-acted to get out of work, the way Dennis Rodman did (whose number "91" Artest wore for a while in tribute). He never manipulated team executives, coaches or teammates to get his way, the way Michael Jordan did.

Maybe that's why people who've spent time with Artest say he's so open and honest -- almost childlike -- that it's difficult to stay mad at him for long.

And why, even as he nudged Artest out the door, Pacers boss Donnie Walsh wished him well.

"Maybe this was not the right team for a guy like Ronnie," Walsh said. "Really, Ronnie couldn't get out from under it and I hope he does in Sacramento because everyone needs a fresh start."

Artest conceded as much Thursday in a rambling interview with ESPN from his home.

He wished the Pacers and their new hire, Peja Stojakovic, well. He said he would miss Indianapolis and that his wife and four kids wanted to stay there. He left out the part about jettisoning most of last season and the first half of this one, but he's apologized enough for that.

Even though he's scheduled to join the Kings for Friday night's game in Boston, Artest said he still felt like a "Hoosier." He was, as always, completely sincere.

"The Pacers, you know, they're going to feel like it's a load off their shoulders. So everybody can get back, you know, focus in on basketball and other sports: college basketball, football, we've got the Super Bowl coming up. Being a little more mature, it's helping me make decisions, smart decisions."

Go back and find as many stories as you can about Artest's return to the Pacers after his central role in the "Malice at the Palace" episode.

He talked about being content and ready to go. About spending time at home with family and maturing. About learning his lesson, loving Indianapolis and the way everybody treated him before and after the brawl.

Pacer President Larry Bird, who's nearly impossible to con, talked back then about how much he admired Artest.

"Not for what he did," Bird said, "but how he's come back and worked and he's done things to improve himself."

Then he posed with a smiling Artest for the cover of Sports Illustrated's NBA preview. Only Bird's expression doesn't give away anything -- perfect for a man about to call somebody's bluff.

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