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Suitors of explosive Artest may be playing with fire

The Indiana Pacers are comin' to town tonight, but the gifted, self-destructive, enigmatic Ron Artest won't be with them. Artest, who drew the largest suspension in NBA history for his prominent role in the infamous fan/player melee last Nov. 19 in Detroit, asked for a trade over the weekend, telling the Indianapolis Star that his past ''haunts him" and while he likes coach Rick Carlisle as a person, he doesn't like playing for him. Artest's Mannyesque request included a short list of desired destinations: New York or Cleveland.

Good luck with that. At least Ramírez has 10/5 veto rights; no such arrangement exists in the NBA, which means Artest has no control over his potential landing spot. The Pacers can, if it behooves them, ship him off to the futile West Coast outpost known as Clipperland (oh wait, I mean Lakerland) or that frozen basketball tundra in Toronto.

In the meantime, Artest has left his team holding the bag -- again. He remains on the roster but is inactive, with pay, for the rest of the week.

''I'm disappointed," Carlisle said by phone. ''I felt as though I was one of Ronnie's biggest supporters."

''Hey, I love the kid, but it's not working out," sighed Pacers president Donnie Walsh.

Walsh emphasized that under normal circumstances, it's not his way to oblige a disgruntled player's trade demand, particularly when the decree is made through the media. But there is nothing ordinary about what Artest has done to this organization, which stood by him after he delivered one of the ugliest black eyes in history to the game.

His 73-game suspension last season reduced a championship-caliber team to rubble. Artest appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated shoulder to shoulder with general manager Larry Bird this fall and vowed to make amends. Instead, for the second season in a row, he has ransacked his team's chemistry and its chance to establish itself as a viable threat to Detroit and Miami in the East.

Before he embarked on a scouting trip in Spain, and before Artest's trade demands became public, Bird acknowledged that his forward was struggling to define his role. He also expressed concern about his players questioning themselves -- and each other.

''They aren't playing as hard as I'd like," Bird said. ''That's hard for me to say about these guys, but right now it's true."

And yet, Bird said, lack of effort is not one of Artest's shortcomings.

''Ronnie puts in his time," Bird said. ''I don't worry about him being in shape. I don't worry about his effort. The only time I worry is when he loses his focus. When he has his focus, everything is perfect."

Bird had barely punched in his frequent flier number and eased his creaky back into his first-class seat for Madrid when his best defender, who leads the league in steals, demonstrated how quickly his focus can go haywire. In addition to stating that he wanted a trade, Artest suggested that he draws obvious mismatches almost every time he has the ball, yet rarely is allowed to exploit them.

''It's not my fault," he told the Star. ''Every time somebody is on me, it's a mismatch. It messes up the offense. I like Coach as a person, but I don't like playing for him."

Carlisle undoubtedly would find those comments amusing if they weren't so damning. Not only did Artest lead the team in minutes (37.7) before he went into exile, he also was averaging 19.4 points and 15 shots -- second only to All-Star center Jermaine O'Neal.

Bird was aware of Artest's frustration with his offensive touches.

''I know exactly what's going on in his mind," Bird said. ''He's thinking to himself, 'I work my ass off on defense on every single play, every single day. I should be allowed to take two bad shots a game.' And you know what? I agree with him.

''It was the same thing with Robert Parish. He ran the court in transition all the time. Most other centers didn't, but he did -- every time. So, once in a while, when I was running the break, I'd wait and give him the ball, because he deserved it."

While Artest's offensive game is underrated because of the impact his defense has, he is delusional if he thinks he's Kobe Bryant and can break anyone down on demand. The need to be the main man on both ends of the floor should give all potential suitors pause.

Oh, and there will be suitors. In spite of his obvious instability, Artest remains an intriguing weapon, and since the Pacers are not dealing from a position of strength, they will have to scrape to get 60 cents on the dollar.

The Celtics, like almost every other team, undoubtedly will explore the Artest landscape. Picture this hypothetical bantering: Boston will offer Mark Blount (his salary is a match). The Pacers will laugh, then counter with a multi-player offer that includes Artest and Paul Pierce as the principals. Now it's Boston's turn to laugh. Once the clubs get down to brass tacks, the Celtics could (and should) take a long, hard look at Ricky Davis for Artest.

Sure, Davis has been a valuable No. 2 scorer and has taken some of the pressure off Pierce, but when you are talking pure ability, the discussion isn't even close. Davis is a ''nice" player; Artest is a special player. And isn't it obvious the Celtics are in dire need of some defensive intensity?

Of course, as we have documented, Artest is unstable, immature, and represents a huge gamble from a chemistry standpoint. Davis is well-liked by his teammates, although he, too, has maturity issues and persists in counting his shots. The major difference is that his meltdowns generally occur on the team bus, not on the basketball court.

If Boston considers Artest too radioactive, that would be understandable. Yet the curious thing about Artest is that even after all the damage he has done in Indiana, no one has supported him more than Bird.

''Look," Bird said, ''what Ron Artest did last season was wrong. No one should ever confront a fan like that. You just can't.

''But I know Ronnie. I've talked to him a lot. I saw him here all summer, in the gym all the time, working out. I know deep down he feels so bad about what he did to this organization and his teammates.

''He's paid the price for it. He missed almost an entire year. He's had to face all of us, his teammates, the coaches, and the front office, every day, knowing he cost us a lot of money.

''I keep telling him, 'Just play the game.' Just put it behind you and play the game."

Remember, these words were spoken before Artest's latest blow-up. Larry couldn't be reached for an update on his assessment of his SI cover mate, but the rest of the team has won two straight without Artest and is prepared to move on.

''Obviously we'll miss a lot of the things he does," Carlisle said, ''but the last two games, we've played together."

''He's got too much baggage," Walsh said. ''Before this, he was actually very stable.

''But whenever he did something or said something during practice, everyone was on edge. The coach, his teammates, me, and Larry. We'd all sit there and say, 'Oh no, what's he doing?' Even if he wasn't doing anything, you could feel the tension."

Walsh acknowledged that Artest could wake up this morning, change his mind, and run back toward Carlisle & Co. with his arms wide open.

This time, he'd better not be counting on a warm embrace in return.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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