Thursday , Mar , 04 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

A Mid-Western Miracle

Injuries are an inevitable part of any sport, however, the way which players react to injuries is often a major determinant of success. For example, Allen Iverson led his Philadelphia 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals with a barrage of emotion and scoring despite a myriad of injuries. Michael Jordan gave Chicago fans chills and Utah fans headaches with his 38 point Game 5 performance in the 1997 NBA Finals after a serious flu left him bed-ridden hours prior to the game. Willis Reed only hit two baskets in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but his famous hobbled entrance into Madison Square Garden was enough to motivate his team to victory. With these memorable outcomes in mind, the lightning quick return of Ron Artest is not only one that should be commended, but a turning point that could be the catalyst which propels the Indiana Pacers to this year’s NBA Finals.

Artest had been hampered by what was diagnosed as a sprained left thumb ever since a January 17th game at New Jersey. The injury became more severe during a contest with the New Orleans Hornets on February 19th when Artest injured it after falling to the ground. Tests revealed that he had a torn ligament in his non-shooting hand and needed surgery; the injury was thought to be so severe that the Indianapolis Star declared that he could possibly miss the rest of the regular season. Despite undergoing surgery, the playful Artest remained a fixture at Pacers practices, sporting a bathrobe over his practice clothes as a reminder to take his recovery slow. While Artest is always one for amusing antics, this particular one did not last for long. Artest was in the gym hoisting up one handed jump shots and running wind sprints to stay in shape just days after surgery. Living up to his nickname “True Warrior,” Artest miraculously found himself on the court March 2nd, just twelve days after going under the knife.

Artest’s quick return could not come at a better time for fans of the Indiana Pacers. Artest is the best defender on the Pacers, averaging almost 2 steals per game to go along with his 18 points per game scoring average. The first time All-Star is an irreplaceable player on both offense and defense and is a key reason why Indiana is in first place in the Eastern Conference and competing for the league’s best record. While Indiana clearly needs Artest to maintain their winning form, the All-Star forward’s return is great for the game itself. Fans who bemoan NBA players for playing lackadaisically or nursing minute injuries have to appreciate Artest’s speedy return. In a league where so many players are only concerned with cashing in their paychecks, it is obvious that Artest is dedicated to winning. Although some may criticize his erratic behavior such as his irate camera throwing incident last season or his penchant for flagrant fouls, these incidences are driven by emotion and it is hard to disagree with someone who wants to display this same emotion on the floor every single night.

No one can argue that Artest’s quick return coupled with his toughness on the court places him in the upper echelon of today’s toughest players. And while Artest’s return may not be mentioned with the likes Willis Reed or Michael Jordan, its significance to the remainder of the season is one that could be huge. With Artest in the line-up and momentum gaining towards the playoffs, Indiana looks to be the one of the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. With Detroit and New Jersey much improved, this year’s playoffs will be difficult, but if Indiana does represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, there is no telling what Indiana’s mixture of young talent and veteran leadership could do in a seven game series. Artest’s return is not a new piece to the puzzle like Rasheed Wallace’s addition was to the Pistons, but it does allow the Pacers to maintain their winning ways. Should Indiana go on to upset the mighty Western Conference in the Finals, thus restoring respect and parity to the East, then we can talk about a comeback for the ages.