Damn it, Metta! You were doing so well.
Ron Artest spent years cultivating the wrong kind of reputation as a person and player in the National Basketball Association, in a variety of ways. It started with flagrant fouls, accrued with stunning quickness over his first few years as a member of the Chicago Bulls. It peaked with the Malice at the Palace, the darkest mark in the league's history. Then started the erratic behavior, asking for time off to promote his rap album. For years, Ron Artest was known as the craziest mofo in the league. It was a reputation well earned.
Over the past few seasons, Artest has tried to turn over a new leaf. He's sought out professional help in dealing with the issues that made him act the way he did so often in his early career. He's publicly acknowledged that help, even becoming a spokesperson of sorts for people in similar situations. He's made many charitable contributions to the field of mental health, most famously raffling off his championship ring. He won the NBA's Humanitarian of the Year award. And he changed his name to Metta World Peace as a symbol of his transformation from crazy mofo to lovable buffoon.
And with one fell swoop of his gigantic bicep towards James Harden's temporal lobe, should all that work be gone? Should we consider him exactly the same as the young punk who went into the stands all those years ago? Of course not. Based on his actions over the past few years, Metta World Peace is indeed a changed man. Based on his actions the last 24 hours, he is still the same man who made so many mistakes early in his career. The two people are not mutually exclusive.
If there is one thing to be taken away from Ron Artest's history, it is that he does not have a normal understanding of the consequences of his actions. This is best illustrated by that fateful night in Detroit; upon being ushered back into the locker room after committing the most heinous sin an athlete can, he proceeded to ask teammate Stephen Jackson "Do you think we'll get in trouble?" The reason Artest asked that question is the same reason why the question needed to be asked in the first place. If Artest understood the consequences of his actions, he probably never would have ended up in the stands in the first place.
We saw this yesterday, as Metta World Peace did something stupid that would never have happened if the right set of circumstances didn't fall into place. Metta threw an elbow directly into the side of James Harden's head. It was clearly intentional, in the sense that he certainly meant to do it, but it was not premeditated. He was amped up after making a tremendous play, he was celebrating in his typical fashion, and there was somebody in his airspace, so he cocked his elbow and fired. I doubt he knew who he was attacking, and I doubt he intended to connect with his target's head or do any significant damage. He simply saw an opportunity and he took it.
This doesn't make him stupid, or immature. It makes him troubled, significantly, mentally, troubled. Much the same way an alcoholic can't stop himself from drinking too much, or an addict can't control his addiction, Metta World Peace, to this day, does not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions in real time. He has worked very hard, for a very long time, to learn how to control these impulses, and has come a very long way in removing their effects on his play and his actions, but he slipped up yesterday. With addiction, it's called a relapse, or more euphemistically, "falling off the wagon". It is a dark truth that people who live with addiction and other mental disorders must confront and triumph over their inadequacies every single day. Metta World Peace has been confronting this every day for a long time now. Yesterday, he failed.
This is not a mitigating circumstance. The league should not take it easy on Metta because he is trying. It is important that the NBA treat this as it would any other case, taking past instances (and possibly even the damage done) into account in deciding how to handle the situation. I would expect a lengthy suspension for Metta, probably longer than the 1-2 game fines usually handed out for elbowing incidents, and if a longer term suspension is handed down, it will be justified. Events must have their consequences, whether a man understands those consequences or not when he decides to act.
But it is important, even as judgment must be passed on the act itself, not to judge the actor too harshly. Metta did not choose to be the way he is; it is a combination of his body chemistry and volatile childhood that neither you nor I should even attempt to understand. In recent years, he has acknowledged that he wants to change, and has worked hard to do so. Until yesterday, it was one of the NBA's feel good stories of the past few seasons: Ron Artest, achieving redemption. Now, we've been shown the truth. A man like Metta cannot be fully redeemed until he reaches the end of his journey. Until then, he must continue to fight an uphill battle, with every day an opportunity for success or failure. What matters now is not what Metta did yesterday, or what the league will do in response. What matters now is that Metta climbs back on to the wagon quickly, and continues to hold on tight.