December 06, 2004 12:00 PM

It was one of the ugliest scenes in NBA history: Moments after Detroit’s Ben Wallace and Indiana’s Ron Artest traded shoves in the waning seconds of a Pistons-Pacers game on Nov. 19, a bench-clearing braw broke out. It seemed to be dying down, but as Artest lay on the scorer’s table, a fan hurled a cup of beer from the stands and hit the 6’7″, 246-lb. Pacers superstar. Up he jumped, charging several rows into the crowd, throwing punches, trampling fans—and followed by teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal, who also traded punches with spectators. The crowd responded by throwing debris, beer and even a chair down on the court. “I was worried about my daughters’ safety, not necessarily because of the players but because of the fans,” says John Panzo, 42, of Howell, Mich., who had taken his whole family to an NBA game for the first time. “Someone behind us was yelling, ‘Break his back. Kill him!’ My 10-year-old Alexandra was crying. Someone owes my daughters an apology.”

In the aftermath former NBA great Bill Walton—who called the game for ESPN—voiced the sentiments of many basketball fans. “I am devastated,” he said. “This is the lowest point for me in 30 years with the NBA.”

The man at the center of the storm tells PEOPLE, “I just wish the situation hadn’t turned out the way it turned out.” Artest, 25, himself the father of four young children, was suspended without pay for the remainder of the season by Commissioner David Stern, a move that could cost the player $5 million. (Jackson, O’Neal, Wallace and five other players were slapped with lesser penalties; prosecutor David Gorcyca is weighing possible charges against both players and fans.) “You know, you’ve got fans and 99.9 percent of them are great…and .1 percent are jerks,” Artest says. “There’s a lot of negativity in the world. I’m trying to be positive.”

Impulsive bursts of rage followed by heartfelt-sounding apologies have become all too familiar to those who have rooted for Artest during his six seasons in the NBA. Nicknamed the “Beast” by teammates—and the “scariest man in the NBA” last year by ESPN: The Magazine—because of his single-minded intensity, Artest has long been regarded as a loose cannon, both on and off the court. Before the Michigan melee the former St. John’s star had been suspended at least 10 times and ordered by a court to undergo anger-management therapy in 2002 for threatening a former girlfriend. Said his then-coach Isaiah Thomas to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 2002, the year after Artest accidentally broke two of Michael Jordan’s ribs with a hard foul during a workout: “Ron plays with a passion that’s uncontrollable.”

That’s the way Artest learned the game in the tough Queensbridge housing project in Queens, N.Y., where he grew up in a family of eight children whose parents separated when he was in grade school. “Sure he was upset,” says father Ron Artest Sr. “But he found basketball and it made him focused.” He also remembers his roots. Says Queensbridge neighbor Billy “Moose” Robinson, who has known the younger Artest for most of his life: “Ron’s the only guy I know in the NBA that comes back to his community, with no security, and sponsors a basketball tournament every summer. If we want to throw our annual picnic, he sponsors it. He’s got a lot of love here.” Artest also continues to visit patients with disabilities at a Roosevelt Island, N.Y., hospital, as he has since high school. “He’s a very giving person,” says Henry Carter, founder of Wheelchair Charities, Inc., who has known him since his early teens. “He cares about people.”

In recent years Artest has begun to devote more time to other interests, particularly music. About two years ago, he started his own record label—called Truwarier—which on Nov. 23 issued its first release, from the female R&B trio Allure. In fact, two weeks before the Michigan brawl, he was benched by Pacers coach Rick Carlisle for saying that he would like to take off a month to promote the album.

Should Artest’s season-long suspension stand after the appeal expected from the players’ association, he could have all the time in the world. “He’s obscuring his own talents with these incidents that he can’t stay out of,” says ESPN commentator Jay Mariotti, a sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times. “Deep down there’s a heart and somebody who cares, but he can’t control himself on the court, and that’s tragic. If he had his head together, he could be a Hall of Fame player.”

Pam Lambert. Kate Klise in Indianapolis, Barbara Sandler in Chicago and Mary Green and Courtney Hazlett in New York City

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