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Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Updated: January 26, 10:24 AM ET
A tearless end to the Artest Era in Indy

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

Maybe the Sacramento Kings knew all along that Ron Artest would be theirs someday. The Kings, remember, made a not-so-secret run at Ron-Ron's ideal coach in the offseason: Phil Jackson.

Maybe it was Artest's destiny that he eventually became a King. Sacramento, after all, is the same team that tried to put Terrell Owens on its summer-league roster.

Maybe the Maloofs will prove me wrong and, with the help of all their Vegas and Hollywood pals, make Artest feel so cozy on the hip-hop streets of Sactown that he does something really wild and morphs into a team player.

Ron Artest
For all of his on-court talent, Artest made most of his noise outside the lines.

All we know for sure is that Artest leaves Indiana as the NBA's ultimate maybe.

Which should tell you why you didn't see a solitary tear shed on Artest's way out of town.

"There's no question that what we get from Ron on the basketball court … he's one of the best two-way players in the league, if not the best," Jermaine O'Neal told me a few weeks back.

"But there's just a lot of other things that come with that. After a while, you just get tired of the non-basketball stuff."

Indeed. As they brought an end to 46 days of torturous trolling for an Artest trade, Pacer faces looked weary, not sad. Team prez Larry Bird didn't try to deny it, either, noting in his typically head-on manner that Ronnie, as his ex-bosses still affectionately call him, put "a lot of strain on this franchise."

The strain reached the point that, for all their claims that they would wait until the summer if necessary to find the right deal, Indy threatened legal action against Artest on Wednesday morning -- a suspension without pay that would lead to arbitration -- if he didn't call the Kings and convince them he would report and compete without hesitation. With the Pacers backsliding and O'Neal suffering a potentially serious groin-and-shoulder double whammy Tuesday night, Indy simply could not stomach another collapsed deal after that swap with the Clippers for Corey Maggette was aborted over concerns about Maggette's injured left foot.

Not that the Pacers are expecting anyone's sympathy. Team CEO Donnie Walsh was the first to concede that they failed No. 23/91/15 and themselves with their unwavering support. They knew (or at least had an inkling of) what they were getting when they assembled a seven-player trade with Chicago (headlined by Jalen Rose) to get Artest and Brad Miller … and certainly no one forced them to pardon Artest every time he sabotaged a season.

Small Forward
Indiana Pacers

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
16 19.4 4.9 2.2 45.992 61.157

"I probably went too far to support Ronnie," Walsh conceded at Wednesday night's post-trade news conference.

Artest racked up six league and team suspensions in 2002-03. His flagrant foul on Rip Hamilton in Game 6 of the 2004 playoffs against the Pistons is what you remember most about Indy's 61-win season and Artest's Defensive Player of the Year breakthrough. All that, of course, was followed by the infamous Malice of Auburn Hills that merely stained the whole league and then -- after numerous back-channel attempts to get Artest reinstated and less than two months after Bird boldly stood by Artest on the cover of Sports Illustrated -- Ronnie unleashed a string of public trade demands in response to erroneous rumblings that the Pacers were preparing to ship him to Sacramento.

On Dec. 10, they weren't even thinking about a Kings deal. On Jan. 25, they were grateful to have finally found a willing taker, even though plenty of work remains to move past the Artest Era.

Yes: Stojakovic is a world-class marksman and the Pacers desperately need one after Reggie Miller's retirement. Yes: Stojakovic gives Indy undeniable length at small forward and will allow Stephen Jackson to return to his natural position of shooting guard. But remember: O'Neal might be too banged up for even a rejuvenated Peja to make a major impact in the second half. Plus: Indy has no guarantee it can keep Stojakovic beyond this season, which is why a few rival executives are already speculating that the Pacers see the free agent-to-be as a potential sign-and-trade spark for a roster overhaul.

All that said…

Just getting out of this marriage made it a triumphant Wednesday. This was one of those failed unions where the spurned spouse tries everything imaginable to save the mess, no matter how flammable and unreliable their partner is. But it happens, especially in the NBA. Even the best basketball men, guys like Walsh and Bird, are seduced by what an All-World enigma can do on his good days.

You'll see. Lots of folks will be writing the same about Sacramento's Geoff Petrie when Ron-Ron's run with the Kings ends in rubble … although it won't be me supplying his alibi after I urged the Kings to ignore Indy's attempts to resuscitate the deal.

I know, I know. The Kings' unshakably loyal subjects in the California capital believe that, because Chris Webber ultimately embraced Sactown and thrived there, Artest eventually will as well. What they fail to grasp is that Webber was positively saintly compared to the guy they're getting today. The Maloofs are wonderful and lovable, but they can't create a more welcoming (and forgiving) environment than the Pacers and citizens of Indianapolis did.

Artest was forgiven so many times in Indy -- 500, at least -- that he began this season talking about how he owed everyone in the city a championship.

I remember visiting Pacers camp around that time, sitting down with one of my all-time favorite interview subjects and hearing O'Neal convincingly urge media cynics like myself to give Artest a chance "to finish his own story."

Artest sure did, didn't he?

With an ending no one in Pacerland had the strength to call sad.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.