TO FULLY APPRECIATE the evolution of Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal into the NBA's premier forward tandem—a pairing that at week's end had propelled the Indiana Pacers to a league-best 35-13 record—you must understand how different the two are. Take, for example, their favorite foods.� Artest really, really likes beans. Kidney, pinto, black—it doesn't matter. He asks his wife, Kimesha, to put them in almost every dish she serves. "Beans have got lots of protein like meat, and they've got what starch has [carbohydrates]," Artest says with the assurance of an infomercial narrator. "They are the total package."
O'Neal, while lukewarm about beans, adores jerk chicken wings the way most people adore their children. In fact, he likes the ones at an Indianapolis restaurant, the Bahama Breeze, so much that he hired the chef to work for him. Just walked back into the kitchen and made an offer. Now O'Neal gets jerk chicken wings whenever he likes, which is pretty much nightly. "They're unbelievable," says O'Neal, who is a lean 6'11" and 242 pounds. "And they keep my weight up."
Culinary preferences are only the beginning of the contrasts. Growing up, O'Neal was as gangly and wobbly as a new-born deer, a soft-spoken mama's boy from Eau Claire, S.C., who at one point was 6'9" yet so uncoordinated that he couldn't dunk. Respectful and polite, he asked permission from his high school coach before getting his first earring, after his senior season. These days, though fiercely driven, he's logical and meticulous, the type of guy who irons his jeans. He treats the game as a job, one he must work at to succeed.
Artest, on the other hand, plays with a manic glee, as if at any moment the recess bell will ring and someone will take the ball away. The son of a boxer, he was raised in Queensbridge, N.Y., with the understanding that you had to fight for anything worth having. So he fought—on the playground, during high school and now in the NBA, where he has tended to return each elbow thrown his way, damn the consequences. Impulsive and excitable, he's been known to change his mind daily, if not in mid-sentence.
It should come as no surprise, then, that despite being the Pacers' two best players, O'Neal and Arrest didn't exactly click in their first year and a half together in Indy. (Artest arrived from the Chicago Bulls in a February 2002 trade involving Jalen Rose.) It wasn't antipathy so much as apathy, but for that, the team suffered. Last season Indiana ran out to a 34-15 record before the All-Star break, only to falter and finish 48-34, then lose in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year. As team unity frayed, Artest and O'Neal were like a pair of inmates furiously digging separate escape tunnels only a few feet apart. I'll get mine, you get yours.
What they had in common was a competitive fire, a do-whatever-it-takes attitude toward winning, but it manifested itself in different ways. O'Neal's solution was to set his jaw and attempt to put the team on his back. Artest, on the other hand, tried until he couldn't try anymore, then vented his frustration on the nearest object, animate or inanimate. As a result of his outbursts he received 14 technical fouls, paid $155,000 in fines and was suspended for a total of 12 games. (The team went 5-7 in those games.) By season's end it was clear that whatever Artest and O'Neal were doing, it wasn't working.
Fed up and fresh off signing a seven-year, $126 million deal last summer, O'Neal decided to bridge the gap. Having been in Indiana for four years, he already had a support network in forwards Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender, who like O'Neal had made the jump from high school to the pros. Artest, however, had left behind friends in Chicago and had yet to make new ones on the Pacers. He kept to himself on the road, and after games he raced home to see his family. "He was kind of a loner last year," says O'Neal. "Outside of [reserve guard] Jamison Brewer, nobody really talked to him that much."
So at the beginning of this season, O'Neal invited Artest everywhere: to lunch, dinner, movies, nightclubs, even the bowling showdowns that Bender, Harrington and O'Neal stage on a regular basis. ( O'Neal owns his own ball, a custom-made replica of a red-white-and-blue ABA basketball.) To Artest, what mattered was not whether he went, though he often did, but that he was included. "Jermaine reached out to me and made me feel comfortable," he says. "It took a while, but he was always trying to do stuff for me, for the whole team, to make us closer."
The newfound camaraderie is evident on the court. O'Neal no longer feels as though he has to do it all himself—Artest praises him for becoming a better, and a more willing, passer this season—and Artest knows he is appreciated and understood. The effect has been calming: At week's end Artest had received only two technicals, one of which the league later apologized for. To a man, the Pacers point to their stars' connection as the reason for the team's success, mentioning the "improved chemistry between those two" ( point guard Jamaal Tinsley) and the duo's "increased focus and motivation" (center Jeff Foster). Says O'Neal, "Ron isn't afraid to say, J.O., you gotta drop down, you gotta box out. Because he knows I'm going to take that out of respect. And he knows if I say, Ron, you gotta do this, you gotta do that, I'm coming to him in respect. Last year we might have taken it personally. Now it's all about winning."
It certainly has been. Boasting a deep bench and playing smothering defense under new coach Rick Carlisle, who succeeded Isiah Thomas, Indiana has become a contender for the NBA title, with an 11-6 record against the West at week's end. Even more chilling to opponents is that the Pacers' nucleus is so young—O'Neal and Tinsley are 25, Artest is 24 and Harrington is 23. As Miami Heat forward Caron Butler says, "In order to win the East, you're going to have to go through them for a long time."