MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Ron Artest’s exile is over. His long road back to the brink of NBA stardom is only beginning.

That road began at the Minnesota summer league, where Artest played with rookies, undrafted free agents and desperate journeymen, trying to get comfortable in an Indiana Pacers uniform again.

It didn’t take long.

Less than a minute into his first game, Artest took a pass at the left elbow of the 3-point line, elevated and drilled the shot. It was as though he had never left.

“Stopping on a dime and throwing it up and making it swish, that was cool,” he said, his eyes bright and his smile beaming.

The pure love of the game always has been there. Unfortunately for Artest, that love has been accompanied by a volatile temper that can snap in the blink of an eye.

Despite being one of the best all-around players in the game – able to shut down an opponent’s top scorer on defense and drop 30 points with a near limitless repertoire on offense – Artest is known more in the mainstream for his unpredictable and often boorish behavior.

He once grabbed a high-definition television camera from its operator and smashed it to the floor in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms at Madison Square Garden. He led the league in flagrant fouls, he applied for a job at an electronics store when he was playing for the Chicago Bulls, and he even asked the Pacers for time off to rest because he was exhausted from promoting an album for his record label.

But it all came to a head on Nov. 19, when Artest charged into the stands in Auburn Hills, Mich., after a fan threw a beer on him moments after Artest was involved in an altercation with Pistons center Ben Wallace. Artest exchanged punches with fans, who relentlessly pelted Artest and his Pacers teammates with debris in one of the worst brawls in NBA history.

He was suspended for 73 regular-season games, lost nearly $5 million in salary and was barred from a chance at revenge against the Pistons in the playoffs.

Instead of sulking and pouting about his suspension, Artest went to work.

He retained his linebacker’s physique and soft jumper despite not playing in a pro game for eight months, much to the amazement of Indiana center David Harrison.

“Every day he was in there working out like he was playing,” Harrison said. “That taught me a lot, just seeing him out there still working after everything. If they told me, You’re out for the year,’ I don’t think you’d see me for a long time.”

Now he’s back. Speaking to dozens of media members who waited outside the locker room after a meaningless summer league game in the middle of July, Artest said he might never change the negative perceptions surrounding him.

“I’m not trying to redo my image and I’m not trying to please anybody,” Artest said. “I’m going to continue to do what I have to do and be myself.”

“I’m not looking to do any Cheerios commercials or Coca-Cola commercials,” Artest said. “I want to do a commercial in the hood.”

What he wants to do more than anything is move ahead.

“When you have to sit out 73 games and not get paid, you’re going to look forward to being back,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

“And you’re probably going to have a little different perspective on things than you did before. I just know Ronnie’s ready to come back, and really looking forward to being part of the team.”

Carlisle’s not the only one to notice a change.

“I admire the kid,” team president Larry Bird said. “Not for what he did, but how he’s come back and he’s worked and he’s done things to improve himself. I look for a great year out of him.”

So, has Artest induced his last headache? When talking about a player so unpredictable on and off the court, Bird knows not to make any promises.

“You never know,” Bird said. “I just know Ronnie missed the game so much. It’s the one thing in his life that he truly loves other than his family. Any time you have something taken away from you, you’re going to miss it. We’ll see how he reacts.”

And how opposing fans react to him.

“Even before everything happened, fans were always trying to get on me,” Artest said. “They know my history, they know my personality and they know my character, so they try to find ways to get under my skin, but we just have to go out there and play.”

He was greeted warmly last week. In a near-empty arena where even casual conversation was clearly audible, nary a smart-aleck remark was uttered.

“Fortunately, there was a bunch of people in the stands that respect the game,” he said in a not-so-subtle shot at the unruly Detroit fans. “That was the only thing. There was nothing I did different, just the people that were in the stands had respect for the game. That’s good.”

He expects that to be the case in most cities.

“I think you’ll only see problems in Detroit, Boston and Philly,” Artest said of the notoriously hostile cities. “Even when I went to L.A. for a Sparks game, half the crowd was like, AR-TEST! AR-TEST!’ Everywhere I go, it’s cool. It’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is. It’s cool.”

For now, Artest isn’t worried about the fans. He’s not worried about commissioner David Stern watching his every move, or endless questions about his behavior.

The only thing he’s worried about is fine-tuning his game.

“I still need to get better,” Artest said. “I still have to get to the point where I want to be when the opener comes, so I’m not too eager for the season to start right now.

“I want to get to where everything’s automatic. That’s a long ways away.”

He’s certainly off to a good start. In five summer league games he averaged 19.8 points and 5.3 rebounds, albeit against vastly inferior competition.

“I’m proud of him,” said Pacers assistant Dan Burke, who coached Indiana’s entry. “I think he was chomping at the bit to get out there, but he kept his patience. Overall, he looked tremendous.”

Artest also exhibited some maturity and intellectual growth while being bombarded by questions from reporters, a gigantic leap from the confused youngster who was prone to incoherent rants in the past.

He bordered on the philosophical at times, particularly when asked how hard it was to have the game taken away from him last year.

“It wasn’t taken away. I just wasn’t able to play in the NBA,” he said. “The game is too big and too strong to be taken away from you. The game loves me and I love the game. No matter what happens, the game will always be with me.”

AP-ES-07-23-05 1210EDT


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