I love Ron Artest.
I like the way he plays basketball, a hard-nosed defensive stopper who can also score off the dribble. But I like the way a lot of guys play. What I love about Ron Artest, the newest Sacramento King following a long-delayed trade Wednesday from the Indiana Pacers, is that he's plug-crazy and a giant pain in the pants -- but he can play.
And that means he turns the tables on sports franchises. He makes them the pathetic-looking weaker party in a bad relationship. I love that. Usually, the person holding down that role is the fan.
It often strikes me how often sports fandom looks like a one-sided love affair that, if it really were a love affair, the fan's friends would be saying, "Get out!"
"Gee, Bill, I really love the Sacramento Kings, but it's like they don't know I exist."
"Tell me about it, Sam. That's how it is with me and the Houston Rockets. They're everything to me, and not just to me but to my kids, Clyde, Moses and Hakeem. We spend so much money on the Rockets, think about them all the time, worry about them, defend them to our friends. But if we all just disappeared tomorrow, the Rockets wouldn't bat an eye. They wouldn't even know!"
"I know! Same with the Kings. I threaten to give up my season ticket every time they raise prices or make a dumb trade, and they say, 'There's more where you came from, honey.' I get so angry. But then Mike Bibby hits a game-winning 3-pointer and I can't help it. I'm in love."
The Pacers did that thing that people do in bad, one-sided relationships. They kept forgiving. Ron-Ron would do something terrible, commit an unnecessary hard foul, bust up a TV camera, scream at an opposing coach, say he needed a vacation a few weeks into the season so he could work on his album, wade into a crowd throwing haymakers, and the Pacers would give him one more chance.
And then he'd disappoint them and the whole thing would start again.
Until this last time. Last month Artest reacted to rumors that said the Pacers were trying to trade him to the Kings for Peja Stojakovic by demanding a trade, saying he'd never get a fair shake in Indiana -- where the Pacers had moved heaven and earth to accommodate him -- because his past haunted him.
The Pacers screamed, "How can you not trust us? We can't stand your jealous ways anymore! Every time we so much as look at another team, you accuse us of something! We're not trying to trade you to the Kings, OK? Did we not have Larry Bird pose with you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, saying you're his guy? Wasn't that enough? That's it, we've had it! We're going home to mother!"
Or words to that effect.
And then the Pacers deactivated Artest and spent a month and a half shopping him around the league, which said, "Damn! He's so fine! Reasonable contract too. But no thanks, we don't need a high-maintenance headache like that."
Eventually the Pacers settled on the trade that had been rumored in the first place, sending Artest to Sacramento for sharpshooter Stojakovic, who has been slowed badly by injuries the past two years.
The Pacers are well rid of Artest, who wasn't even playing, and at best will get some much-needed offense from Stojakovic, whom they're renting for the rest of the year unless he exercises his contract option, which he just might do. Worst case is that Stojakovic will be a bust in Indy and then stay on the books for one more year.
So why did the Kings want Artest?
Because they're on the playoff bubble, they were probably going to lose Stojakovic at the end of the year and they weren't getting much from him anyway, they need the defense, toughness and ability to score off the dribble that Artest brings to the floor between suspensions, and it's a decent gamble because Artest is signed for two and a half more years at a salary below the market rate for his talent.
But you realize what the gamble is, don't you? You know what the Kings are hoping?
They're hoping they can change him.
I love that.
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Reebok escapes charity [PERMALINK]
I'm sorry to report that Reebok won't be giving $1 million to Boys and Girls Clubs of America, because the virtually impossible condition the shoe company put on the donation wasn't met.
You'll remember that in the "RBK Touchdown Challenge," Reebok promised the donation if its handpicked squad of six Reebok-endorsing quarterbacks threw more touchdown passes this year than any six quarterbacks had ever thrown in a season. They needed to throw 207.
This required that the six men -- Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Bulger, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, plus "subs" Alex Smith and Eli Manning if up to two got hurt, which they did -- improve on their career highs by 25 percent per man. Peyton Manning's career high was the NFL record, by the way, so it was a pretty safe bet he wasn't going to improve on it by 25 percent.
I was so inspired by Reebok's generosity that I doubled its offer, pledging to give $2 million to charity if the Reebok quarterbacks met the challenge, and also to start being nice to people.
Fortunately for me, incapable of either end of the bargain -- and, unlike Reebok, lacking insurance on the bet -- the quarterbacks fell a wee bit short. Needing to combine for 207 touchdowns, they tossed 113.
Ooh, just missed. By almost half.
Gee, sorry, Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Hope you didn't have that money spent already. A Reebok spokeswoman told me that Reebok would give some money to charity if the quarterbacks failed to reach their goal, but that it wouldn't be anything like $1 million. I, too, will do the honorable thing and bring a bag of clothing down to the Goodwill today.
Now comes another company with another football bet, though this time there's no cloying faux-charity component. It's just a pizza company's gimmick to get you to notice its pizza. Nothing wrong with that. The gimmick I mean. I haven't tried the pizza.
Papa John's says that if you register on its Web site, it'll give you a free pizza -- it decides what kind -- provided one of the Super Bowl quarterbacks throws a touchdown pass of 86 yards or more, which would be a Super Bowl record.
Papa John's press release makes disdainful reference to the Taco Bell promotion a few years ago in which the chain promised every American a taco if the Mir space station crashed into a 40-foot-square target in the Pacific Ocean.
The chances of that happening were pretty much statistically zero, but the target did feature the charmingly absurdist touch of the words "Free Taco Here!"
The press release, by way of distancing itself from such impossible challenges, points out that there were four touchdown passes of 85 yards or more this season, conveniently forgetting that the challenge is to throw a touchdown pass of 86 yards or more. There were only three of those, according to Aaron Schatz of the Football Outsiders Web site.
Sounds like a small difference, one yard, but based on the 266 games played so far this season that yard changes the probability from once every 66.5 games to once every 88.7 games.
And you might say those 88.7 games include all those ones against defenses that are not exactly Super Bowl defenses, but the thing about long, long touchdown passes, I think, is that they're flukey. The three teams that gave up scoring tosses of 86 yards or more were the Denver Broncos, the Dallas Cowboys and the Carolina Panthers, three pretty good pass defenses.
And look who threw them. Against Denver it was Donovan McNabb to Terrell Owens -- remember them? Philadelphia Eagles? Nothing? -- for 91 yards. OK, fine. Against Dallas it was Tim Rattay of the San Francisco 49ers to Brandon Lloyd for 89. Against Carolina it was Joey (!) Harrington (!) of the Detroit Lions (!) to Marcus Pollard for 86.
The point is, 86-yard touchdowns do happen, and they happen against good defenses, though exceedingly rarely, so the Papa John's challenge is legit. It's up to you to decide if you want to trade your e-mail address for roughly a 1-in-89 chance at a free pizza. You do get some soda with your next pizza just for signing up, the chain says.
Given the Pittsburgh Steelers' penchant for gadget plays, with two former quarterbacks who play wide receiver and sometimes throw passes, I asked Papa John's P.R. rep Brian Gaffney if the pizza company would give up the free pizzas if an 86-yard touchdown pass were thrown by someone other than a quarterback, and also if an 86-yard play that didn't score would count.
The answer to both: No. "The pass does have to be thrown by a QB," Gaffney wrote in an e-mail. "It can be the backup, though. But if it's Antwaan Randle-El or Hines Ward, for instance, it doesn't count. Also, it does have to be a TD pass."
The record-setting quarterback and receiver would get free pizza for life, something any millionaire would be happy about.
If someone other than a quarterback throws an 86-yarder, or if an 86-yarder doesn't go for a touchdown, I hope you'll join me in a national campaign to shame Papa John's and its insurance company into ponying up the free pizzas. The odds are long enough already.
Previous column: Mario Lemieux
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