How will fans treat the Tru Warier

Steve Hammer

Ron Artest, in his Sacramento Kings uniform

This Friday is St. Patrick's Day, a day of green beer, inedible Irish food and foolish drunken behavior. But this St. Paddy's Day is even more special than that.

It's when the Sacramento Kings make their sole visit to Conseco Fieldhouse to face the Indiana Pacers, and it'll be the first time Ron Artest has played a game in this state since December.

If you haven't been paying attention, the Tru Warier has been flourishing in the laid-back atmosphere of Sacramento. The Kings are 14-7 since acquiring him in the Jan. 25 trade that brought Peja Stojakovic here. Artest is averaging 19 points a game and has a bounce in his step.

The Sacramento fans love him, buying his jersey in such vast numbers that their online store can't keep up with demand. His every statement to the local press is analyzed and praised for its wit. He could run for mayor of the city now and probably win.

The Pacers? Well, things aren't so good for them right now. Despite Stojakovic's sweet shooting, and the monster defense being played by Jeff Foster, the Pacers are struggling to stay above .500 and in the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

It's been almost two months since Artest was run out of town and 16 months since the Nov. 19, 2004, rebellion at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but Ron Artest still casts a powerful shadow over Indiana basketball. Even in his absence, he holds more starpower than the rest of the Pacers team combined.

It'll be interesting to see how the Indiana fans, who stuck by Artest when no one else would, will treat him. Will they boo the second most popular player in franchise history? Or will they treat him with the respect due any troubled warrior?

If Indiana Pacers fans have any class - and they do - Artest will be regarded as a returning hero, a maestro of defense with such a frenzy and passion for the game that it literally frightens his opponents.

As Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James and a host of others can tell you, Indiana fans have very little loyalty to their departed players. Their hostility against those who leave is legendary. Even lovable Dale Davis, one of the all-time Pacers greats, was booed recently when he entered a game as a Detroit Piston.

Things should be different with Artest, though, whose appeal was visceral and transcended conventional notions of loyalty. The working-class people of the state could identify with a man who labored hard and tried to fight his inner demons, ultimately failing to do so.

A few days after Artest was traded to Sacramento, the Home Court gift shop at Conseco Fieldhouse held a blowout sale on all Artest items. Every jersey, every T-shirt, every piece of merchandise with Artest's name on it was $10.

When I arrived there at lunchtime, the store was in a feeding frenzy. Customers were grabbing jerseys in every conceivable size. One man bought Artest jerseys in five different sizes, from toddler to 5XL.

"I love Ron Artest," he said when I asked him why he was buying so much. "I want everyone in my family to wear his jersey. They didn't treat him right in this town. They were out to get him from the start."

Word had gotten out through the Internet about the sale, and the clerks at the store were fielding calls from around the country about the sale. I snagged a couple of jerseys and then realized I had no cash on me. In the time it took to find an ATM and return, half or more of the merchandise was gone.

While his fellow Indiana Pacers were unanimous that Artest not return, many fans still held out hope until the last moment that some agreement could be reached, that some compromise would keep their beloved warrior on the team.

The departure of Artest, combined with Reggie Miller's retirement and the likely offseason departure of Jermaine O'Neal, leaves the Pacers in an identity crisis. Are they a fast-breaking team? Well, no. Stojakovic and Sarunas Jasikevicius are among the slowest players in the league.

Are they a defensive powerhouse? Um, with no Artest and no O'Neal, only Foster does any work on the defensive end. And as Sunday's game against Toronto proved, even Foster scoring a career high 19 points and pulling down 16 rebounds doesn't assure victory.

Are they a sharpshooting team? Maybe. Stojakovic is one of the all-time great spot-up shooters. Stephen Jackson has been landing perimeter shots with consistency. Jasikevicius is an amazing shooter from behind the arc.

Everyone seems to know that this is just a caretaker team, that the Pacers will be blown up and rebuilt from scratch in the offseason, so perhaps the expectations are lowered. A first-round playoff exit seems to be the most anyone is dreaming about.

Meanwhile, one of the all-time greatest Indiana players is coming home on Friday. There's even a special "Guys' Night Out" ticket offer which includes free soft drinks and food as an incentive. (See Pacers.com for details.)

And there's no better place to see a game than Conseco Fieldhouse, especially when our troubled brother makes his homecoming. It should be a night to remember.

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