Insider: Ron Artest praises, thanks Donnie Walsh in perhaps his last visit to Indiana
by Nate Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS — Donnie Walsh was reading NBA news coverage Monday inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse when the man he helped save walked into his office.
“Ronnie!” Walsh shouted.
Without notice, Ron Artest, in a Los Angeles Lakers T-shirt, hugged Walsh. The two men, as they had done for years, began talking. Even before the Indiana Pacers hosted the Lakers on Tuesday, Artest, now known as Metta World Peace, began realizing this could be his final time playing in front of Hoosiers. He made sure that Walsh would be the first person he visited with after the Lakers finished their practice Monday at the arena.
Artest, as he is referred to in Indiana, shared stories of his relationship with Walsh after the Lakers’ shootaround Tuesday morning. He began by describing Walsh, who was the Pacers’ general manager during Artest's five-year stay in Indiana, as a character from the X-Men comic books.
“Donnie Walsh is amazing,” Artest said. “You know, like Magneto? You just give him a little bit of iron and he’s going to figure it out. Donnie’s going to figure it out.”
In 2002, Walsh acquired Artest from the Chicago Bulls to help rebuild the Pacers into championship contenders. Artest joined Reggie Miller, Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson, a collection of teammates who felt the Pacers were ready reach the 2005 NBA Finals. The year before, Artest was an All-Star and the league’s defensive player of the year. He averaged 24.6 points, the highest of his career, during the first seven games of the 2004-05 season.
Then the brawl in Detroit happened. Then Artest was suspended for a record 73 games. Then Artest, a charismatic, eclectic personality, began his downfall that led to his exit in Indiana.
Artest, 36, blames himself for that Pacers’ season, and many thereafter, crumbling from his mistakes. Walsh, though, never left Artest. Instead, he started figuring out the many complex layers to Artest’s personality.
A decade later, Artest is asked a simple question: How did he turn his life and career around after leaving Indiana? His answer was one word: Walsh.
Artest said it was Walsh who helped him by setting up sessions with a psychologist.
“He’s like an uncle for me,” Artest said of Walsh. “He took care of me at a time when I needed it. He helped me with my psychologist and he helped me when I was having a lot my sessions. He was hands on because he knew I needed that help. It was bigger than basketball with Donnie. That’s what I remembered most.”
After being traded by the Pacers in 2006, Artest’s stellar play on the court returned, his mannerism were refined and he became what he never was in Indiana: a respectable teammate.
“It was him, really,” Walsh said of Artest before Tuesday’s game. “Ronnie was always a sweet kid. He had the tick, I called it. If he lost himself for a minute, he could do something wrong. He knew he had to overcome it and he did. He kept with it.”
Artest won a championship in 2010 with the Lakers and thanked many people in the Pacers’ organization for his transformation. Walsh believes the most remarkable part of Artest’s career is what he has done since the championship. He has watched Artest become a savvy veteran, a leader for a young Lakers team after Kobe Bryant’s 20-year era ended.
“I’m really impressed with that,” Walsh said. “That takes time in the league. I’m happy for him. I think he wants to go into coaching and I hope that works out for him.”
But before his career is over, Artest took time Monday and Tuesday to reflect and relish his time in Indiana. He was greeted by several fans Monday when he walked from the arena to Monument Circle. He signed autographs for fans an hour before Tuesday’s game. Artest said none of the people who shouted his name Monday were mean-spirited and that the brawl was never brought up.
“It was a great place to play basketball,” Artest said.
Artest was unsure he would play in Tuesday’s game given what role he now possesses with the Lakers as 16-year wise man.
“I’m able to make a 15-man (roster) and it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to be in the beginning and every year, like, you go from being the No. 1 guy to maybe being the No. 2 guy, then you’re the seventh guy to maybe the 12th guy to now being the 15th guy. It’s pretty cool.”
Artest was thrust into Tuesday’s game late in the third quarter when Timofey Mozgov left the court with a left eye contusion after being fouled. With the Pacers given the option to pick which Laker to take Mozgov’s free throws, Aaron Brooks made a suggestion to coach Nate McMillan from the scorer’s table.
“Doesn’t everybody here want to see Ron play?” Brooks said then. He later added Wednesday: “I just wanted to see Ron play for a minute. It was just good to see him out there. I don't know if (McMillan) actually listened to me. I didn't know if he really had a jersey on.”
Artest did. McMillan picked him because he was the poorest free-throw shooter on the Pacers’ coaching staff chart. Of course, Artest made the two free throws, which produced cheers from both Pacers and Lakers fans in the arena.
“I love basketball!” Artest shouted after his first free throw went through the basket.
Artest played the final 2:36 of the third quarter and finished with two points. The fans roared even louder when he missed his two free throws.
Even now, a decade later, Walsh is not convince Hoosiers have a proper appreciation for Artest.
“I think that they don’t because they didn’t really get to know Ron, the Ronnie that’s there now,” Walsh said. “They judged him by things he did back then when he was younger. You learn, as time goes on, that people get older and they learn and they’re not what they were when they were younger. He was never a bad guy.”
Artest, before Tuesday’s game, was not ready to concede to the notion that it would serve as his final one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But if Tuesday was his last game in Indiana, Artest was glad he was well received from fans.
“Some people still call me Indiana Ron to this day,” he said. “It’s pretty cool, so I’m grateful for that. Even though basketball is a small part of life, I’m grateful for that.”