I've been trying hard to come to grips with the reality that one of my least favorite players in the NBA will soon be the newest member of the Los Angeles Lakers. "Truth hits everybody," a British bassist named Gordon Sumner once noted. True words and I've been feeling it, let me tell ya...
I thought about it and my dream was broken
I clutch at images like dying breath
And I don't want to make a fuss about it
The only certain thing in life is death
Take a look at my new toy
It'll blow your head in two, oh boy
Then an idea shook me — maybe I've got the man all wrong... What quicker, easier way to come to grips with the idea of "Crazy Pills" in purple and gold than to learn that he's actually a swell feller, just tragically misunderstood and libelously caricatured in the mainstream media? Such a situation would be a possibility, one would have to admit...
So I decided to tackle the question head-on: Is Ron-Ron really the jackass that I thought he was? Or have I somehow been led by the nose by crappy pack journalism to an erroneous understanding of the man — a bogus stereotype having little to do with reality?
I poured myself an icy rocks glass full of Glenfiddich 12-year-old and started to dig, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Just who is this Ron Artest fellow, really? Is he truly as baggage-laden and damaged as he appears to be at first glance?
Click on through to learn more about our new pal Ron...
Ron-Ron Growing Up.
Ronald William Artest, Jr., was born November 13, 1979, in Queens, New York. That makes him 29 to you and me. Despite the fact that he's been in the league and in the news for a decade, he is not old and washed up, but rather a young man in his prime. From whence did he spring?
Young Ron grew up in the projects in the Queensbridge Houses, a complex of 96 multi-story buildings located north of the 59th Street Bridge — New York's oldest public housing project. Life was not easy for the Artests and the family, including 6 siblings and 2 nephews, lived crammed into a two bedroom apartment.†§ One sister died soon after birth of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.§
Ron's father, Ron Senior, was a former Golden Gloves boxer and worked as a general laborer for various companies in the city; his mother a bank teller.‡ At some point in their relationship, Ron's father allegedly began hitting his mother and the marriage fell apart, with Ron Senior departing to live in an apartment of his own nearby.†
Ron-Ron had difficulty managing his temper from an early age. One day a boy cut him in line at the school cafeteria. Ron grabbed the boy by the throat. When an older cousin taunted him on the playground, Ron knocked him out. At the age of 8, Ron Junior was sent by his parents to anger-management therapy at the behest of worried teachers.§
Young Ron's world was a violent and drug-laden place but he participated in two of the primary escapes: hip hop music and sports. Ron-Ron exhibited some skill in each, albeit more in the latter than the former. Ron Junior developed his chops on the playground playing one-on-one against his father.
"We were so competitive," Artest later recalled to a reporter. "I wanted to beat my dad so badly. Once I was 15, he couldn't beat me again." Pickup basketball games in the 'hood were physical affairs, marked by hard fouls and fistfights, in which tall and strong Ron Junior more than held his own.‡ The "Blood — No Foul" mentality of inner-city basketball blacktop still marks Ron Artest's game to some extent — a CYO-trained player he is not.
Basketball proved to be the big escape for Young Ron, and he was enlisted at the LaSalle Academy in Manhattan, where he emerged as one of the city's top hoopsters. He was McDonald's All-American and the Co-Player of the Year in New York City and the state of New York as a High School Senior.∆ Artest was also notable as a young man of his word: at one point he turned down a trip to Paris in order to maintain a prior engagement with a wheelchair basketball benefit.‡
Basketball scouts made note of the muscular 6'6" athlete and after the usual recruiting hoopla to which young stars are subjected, Ron-Ron eventually landed at St. John's University in New York, where he majored in mathematics [!!!].∆ Artest played 2 years at St. John's as a swingman, averaging 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in the 1997-98 and '98-99 seasons.¶ During his tenure at St. Johns, the Red Storm posted a 50-19 record.
Even as a collegiate athlete, Ron Artest was known for his aggressive defense. One scout noted at the time: "Artest is not a tremendous athlete, but he knows how to play the game, is a great leader, and defense as good as his is hard to come by in a college player these days. His size may be a question mark, as he'll be smaller than most small forwards a t 6'6" and is more bulky than most as well. The other potential problem for Artest is that he does not do any one thing exceptionally well other than defend."ß
Young Player in the NBA.
Ron Artest was the 16th pick of the 1st Round of the 1999 NBA Draft, the selection of the Chicago Bulls. Others in his draft class included Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Rip Hamilton, André Miller, Shawn Marion, Corey Maggette, and Devean George.
Artest played a total of 175 games for the Bulls over 2-1/2 years, the bulk as a starter, averaging about 12.5 points and just over 4 rebounds per game. The Bulls were a terrible team during Artest's years, winning no more than 21 games in any season; and Artest was a controversial figure, breaking cameras and negatively impacting team chemistry.∫
As one biographer has noted of his time with the Bulls, Ron Artest "could often be kind and generous, chatting with homeless people, giving encouraging talks to school groups, and impulsively making large donations of cash. His bad temper, on the other hand, was well known; he shouted at his teammates and got into fights on the court. Yet again, he showed a crazy streak, wearing a court jester hat during team road trips."‡
Finally, the Bulls had enough. Midway through the 2001-02 season, Ron was traded by Chicago to the Indiana Pacers along with Ron Mercer, Brad Miller, and Kevin Ollie, in exchange for Jalen Rose, Travis Best, Norman Richardson, and a 2nd Round draft pick.
Artest's move to Indiana was marked with a serious medical problem. During the summer, Ron underwent an operation to correct a heart murmur and seal a hole between his aorta and pulmonary artery. He rushed back prematurely, against doctor's orders, and was forced to go home when his heart began pounding furiously — only to come back again the next day.† Fortunately, Artest's heart issues have not been a recurring problem, although he has never played more than 76 games of any season since he has entered the NBA.
The mercurial Artest was quickly picking up a reputation for his hot temper and emotional instability. In 2003, at a game at Madison Square Garden an enraged Artest smashed camera gear valued at $100,000. Artest drew a total of 6 suspensions for his actions during the 2002-03 season and another 2 during the 2003-04 campaign.‡ This rap became national news early in 2003 when ESPN: The Magazine ran a cover story on him entitled, "The Scariest Man in Basketball."
Despite all of this bad publicity, Ron's efforts on the court steadily improved in effectiveness. The 2003-04 season was a breakout year for Artest, in which he averaged 18.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game for the Pacers, starting in 71 of 73 games played.∆ The young man seemed to be a budding star in spite of his inner demons and sometimes uncontrollable temper.
The denouement came on November 19, 2004, in a game against the Detroit Pistons. Artest biographer James Manheim recounts the action:
The trouble started when Artest fouled Pistons player Ben Wallace in the final minute of the game. Wallace responded with a two-handed shove that sent Artest stumbling backward toward the scorer's table. That might have been the end of it; Artest leaned backward against the table and playfully donned a headset belonging to a radio broadcaster. But then a fan threw a full drink cup at Artest, hitting him near the neck. He instantly leapt several rows into the stands, trading punches with fans along the way, and he was joined by O'Neal and teammate Stephen Jackson. Pistons fans responded with a shower of debris that included a chair, and many present, including Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, feared for their physical safety. Police and guards finally restored order as Artest was dragged from the court. ‡
NBA Commissioner David Stern responded to the near-riot with the most draconian punishment in league history: Ron Artest was suspended for one year, a penalty which cost the hot-tempered forward some $5 Million in salary. Artest also faced criminal charges for his role in the melee.‡
After Auburn Hills.
The November 2004 incident at Auburn Hills marked the nadir of Ron Artest's career. Artest played just 7 games for Indiana during the 2004-05 season before being suspended. When he came back the subsequent year, the Pacers were eager to cut ties with the troubled young SF and Artest was left in limbo.
Ron-Ron quickly became a distraction, telling the Indianapolis Star in December 2005 that he disliked playing for Pacers coach Rick Carlisle and that he felt he could not reach his potential with the team. This public criticism prompted Pacers' President Donnie Walsh (now of the New York Knicks) to respond that Artest would no longer practice with the team. "I do think it is a time to see if he can get a new start somewhere else," Walsh said, adding "I think that it is important for us to put our past behind us and stop these distractions."∂ Artest was effectively suspended with pay while a deal sendng him from Indiana was negotiated.
Artest's next stop was in Sacramento, where he started in 40 games for the Kings to finish the 2005-06 season. He stayed in the Central Valley for 2 more seasons, appearing in 70 games in 2006-07 and 57 games in 2007-08. During his final Sacramento campaign, Artest averaged an impressive 20.5 points per game, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in an average of just over 38 minutes of game action.
Trouble off the court plagued Artest during his Sacramento stay. In Feb. 2007, Placer County sheriff officials seized Artest's pet Great Dane, accusing him of failing to feed and care for his pet — an accusation for which, had he been prosecuted and convicted, Artest would have been subject to a fine of up to $20,000.€ The dog was placed under a veterinarian's care. Artest blamed the problem on the failure of someone he hired to take care of the dog while he was on the road to perform the agreed-upon task. Artest said that the food had not been separated as it was supposed to have been and that a bulldog had eaten the food intended for the Great Dane.€
On March 5, 2007, Artest was arrested on a d omestic violence charge. According to Dana Erwin, a spokeswoman for the Placer County Sheriff's office, police responded to a 911 call to Artest's $1.85 Million home in Loomis, CA. "He and the female were in the house and separated," she continued. "The deputies interviewed them and took Mr. Artest into custody."
According to press reports, Ron's wife Kimsha Artest told a sheriff's dispatcher that her finger was cut and her leg scratched during an altercation with her husband. She said he shoved her to the ground, slapped her and prevented her from making a 911 call. She added that she broke the windshield of the family's Hummer as Artest tried to drive away from the property.∞ Kimsha declined to press charges and her husband was subsequently released on $50,000 bond.∑
Despite his wife's refusal to press charges against him, the state chose to indict Artest under California law, however, and Artest wound up on the receiving end of a sentence of 100 hours of community service and a 10-day work project through the county sheriff's department. Ron-Ron was also fined $600 and ordered to get extensive counseling.∞
Artest was also suspended for 5 days by the Kings, finally being allowed back to the team after an earnest public apology. "I definitely stumbled by what happened with my family, and I step back as being a father and a husband, and I'm looking forward to the day when I can make that right," Artest declared. Asked if the controversy would affect his play, Artest responded in the negative, tellingly observing "That's not a problem. The hardest problem is everything else. Basketball, that's easy."◊
In 2008-09, Ron Artest landed in Houston in a contract year, in which he scored an average of 17.1 points and garnered 5.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists in an average of 35.5 minutes of game action. He helped lead Houston to the 2nd Round of the NBA playoffs, playing a key part in the team's Game 6 home win over the Portland Trailblazers.
Is Ron Artest Insane?
This question is not rhetorical or hyperbolic. Eric Adelson of ESPN: The Magazine wrote this:
Crazy. Ron Artest is crazy. Sometimes it is said with a chuckle: He crazy! Sometimes it is said in admiration: Mmm, mmm, dude is cray-zy. And sometimes it is said in a grave whisper: I think he might be crazy.
His high school coach: "A wild man."
His college coach: "Kind of scary at times."
An NBA teammate: "The court is 94 feet of therapy — for whatever's bothering him."
Look at the man. Watch him play. Watch him rip a phone out of press row, bust a blackboard, charge into a locker room after a loss and scream at his teammates, "Ain't nobody eating! Nobody deserves to eat!" Watch him hurl a TV monitor to the floor after a loss in New York and then smash a $100,000 camera to bits.
Listen to the man. Listen to him call himself unstoppable — and mean it; then call himself a loser — and mean it. Listen to him wonder aloud how he shut down Kobe and T-Mac and then wonder aloud why NBA players are so far beneath his expectations. Listen to him insist that if he were commissioner, he'd enforce a mandatory ejection for cussing "because kids are watching" but remove any punishment for punting a ball into the stands "because it's fun." Listen to him say this: "They better not put me in the All-Star Game. I won't shoot, but I'll dominate that easy game. I'll be playing hard defense. I'll be foulin'. I'll be flagrant fouling. Everyone will be like, 'What are you doing?' " * * *What will Artest do next? Here's a guy whose unmatched defense and drive ratchet up as his first-place team improves. Here's a guy whose own father says, "I always thought Ron's temper would be his downfall in life." * * * §
Is Ron-Ron actually nuts?
Well, is he?
We really don't know.
Sanity is probably a continuum rather than a dichotomy and this cat is way more "there" than "here" than most of us. Does that sound like a fair way to say it?
What is clear from the track record is that Ron Artest has a violent temper and problems with acting out when he loses it. All questions of hoop skill or basketball IQ aside — Artest is a man who walks the tightrope, capable of going apeshit and blowing up everything in a few inopportune seconds.
The Lakers will need to pay close attention to Ron Artest, even if things appear to be going swimmingly, because in Chicago, Indiana, and Sacramento alike, things ended poorly.
As for me, while I'm still trying to wrap my head around this guy being a Laker, I'm finally starting to warm up to the idea a little. He's damaged but not a complete asshole, I find myself thinking. Now that I know more about him I find myself wishing both him and the team the best — they're all gonna need it.
That and a little luck.
* * * A D D E N D A * * *
Lest we forget...
† — "Ron Artest Biography," JockBio.com. < http://www.jockbio.com/Bios/Artest/Artest_bio.html >
§ — Eric Adelson, "Scary Good," ESPN Mag.com. < http://espn.go.com/magazine/vol6no02artest.html >
‡ — James M. Manheim, "Ron Artest Biography — Took Up Basketball at Counselor's Suggestion, Applied for Appliance-Store Job." < http://biography.jrank.org/pages/2730/Artest-Ron.html >
∆ — Ron Artest Bio Page, NBA.com. < http://www.nba.com/playerfile/ron_artest/bio.html >
¶ — Jazzy J, NBA Mock Draft Scouting Reports. < http://www.ibiblio.org/craig/draft/1999_draft/Players/artest.html >
ß — Phil Nation, cited in < http://www.ibiblio.org/craig/draft/1999_draft/Players/artest.html >
∫ — Pete Treperinas, "Ron Artest, Team Killer," BleacherReport.com. < http://bleacherreport.com/articles/61749-ron-artest-team-killer >
∂ — "Indiana Pacers Allow Ron Artest to Leave," Girls Talk Sports.com. < http://www.girlstalksports.com/Basketball/NBA/Indiana-Pacers-allow-Ron-Artest-to-leave-20051216516/ >
∑ — Eric Fleming, "Ron Artest Arrested on Suspicion of Domestic Abuse," Associated Content.com. < http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/168947/ron_artest_arrested_on_suspicion_of.html?cat=17 >
€ — "Artest Blames Pet-Sitter For Animal Abuse Allegations," KCRA.com. < http://www.kcra.com/news/10956780/detail.html >
∞ — Associated Press, "Artest Sentenced to Community Service, Work Project," ESPN.com. < http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/print?id=2859498&type=story >
◊ — Eric Fleming, "Ron Artest Apologizes on Saturday, Could Rejoin the Kings on Sunday," Associated Content.com. < http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/174469/ron_artest_apologizes_on_saturday_could_pg2.html?cat=14 >