“This is a public park named after Ron Artest.”
When Liz Lemon said that to the Beeper King, I laughed. I think every basketball fan did. After all, this was Ron Artest, the man responsible for instigating one of the most embarrassing on-court incidents in the history of the NBA. Artest wasn’t really a polarizing figure; everyone acknowledged that he was insane. Now he’s a champion. In ten years, what will be remembered? Has Artest put the past behind him? In short, is a public park named after Ron Artest so crazy anymore?
Ron Artest’s career was defined on November 19, 2004 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. The star player of the Indiana Pacers, a team with a legitimate chance at the title, Artest was coming off his best season. Named Defensive Player of the Year, he also made the All-Star team for the first and only time of his career. On November 19, the Pacers were set to play the Detroit Pistons, the team that had knocked Indiana out of the playoffs the previous year. The game was something of a rematch, and the Pistons were getting the worst of it. As Detroit got more frustrated, Rip Hamilton threw an elbow at Jamaal Tinsley and Ben Wallace nailed Artest on a block. Artest retaliated with a foul of his own, and you know the rest.
That incident became known as the Malice at the Palace and nothing about it was surprising. Detroit fans are famous as the most out of control in the league and Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were the two most insane teammates since the new Fantastic Four.
Everyone knew Ron Artest had anger management issues. There’s a famous story about his temper. Supposedly, while still on his rookie contract, Artest applied for a job at Circuit City to get the employee discount. That’s not the punchline. While playing himself into shape for his eventual comeback on the Wizards, Michael Jordan found himself squaring off against Ron Artest in a summer game. Because Jordan wins at everything (including being a douche), he decided to taunt Ron-Ron about the Circuit City incident. Artest responded by breaking a couple of Jordan’s ribs. The surprising thing about the Malice was that a) Artest had been in the league for 5 years without that kind of incident and b) that he attacked fans. Ignoring for a moment that not attacking Pistons fans takes the willpower of a Buddhist monk, it was just a matter of time before Artest attacked somebody.
Artest bounced around the league after the Malice. As one of the best on-ball defenders in the game, he never lacked for a contract. His defensive skill was a combination of two things. First, he was extremely strong for his size. He could bully whoever he was guarding and was harder to burn on defensive switches, because he wasn’t giving up much if any strength to power forwards and centers. Second, his focus was psychopathic. He seemed to let the game fall away around him and reduce it to a one-on-one contest that he could not lose. He also had the most important and yet ephemeral of skills: everyone knew he was fucking crazy. There’s just no substitute for insanity for winning fights before the first punch is thrown.
As Artest continued his exile amongst non-contenders, two deals determined the 2008 Finals. In one, Chris Wallace, GM of the Grizzlies and proud owner of 47 chromosomes, sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers for former number one pick Kwame Brown. In the other, Kevin McHale gift-wrapped perennial All-Star Kevin Garnett over to his former teammate Danny Ainge to play on his former team, the Boston Celtics. If that sounds suspicious, it wasn’t. It was far too obvious to be suspicious. Armed with Garnett, the Celtics howled and chest pounded their way through the finals against the injury-ravaged Lakers. In one of the more painful six games of my fandom, the Celtics abused the boys in gold, shooting crazy eyes and roughing them up. All we had as fans was the hollow assurance that if we were healthy, we could have taken them.
It wasn’t something that we could put to the test. The next year had Garnett go down to a karma-related knee injury, causing the Celtics to lose a seven game series to Orlando. Over in the west, the Lakers were showing a distressing softness, getting pushed around first by Utah, then by Artest’s Rockets. Artest was all over the court, face-guarding Kobe and looking about five seconds from starting another riot. The 2009 Rockets were a gritty, tough team playing without their two best players and yet they nearly defeated the Lakers. Still, the Lakers crushed Orlando in the Finals to win the championship.
With the Lakers looking to repeat, they needed to address that lack of toughness. Fortunately, they had the Candyman, Lamar Odom. Taking time off from romancing the largest Kardashian sister, Lamar called up his old pal: Ron Artest, whose contract was up. Odom said: “Play for the Lakers and you will win a title.” Ron-Ron signed up, and everyone waited for something horrible to happen. This was the biggest stage, the biggest team, the biggest story. Something big had to happen. At the time, my cousin (the most astute basketball fan I know) and I agreed: Ron Artest would help the Lakers. We agreed that there were three things that made this situation different from Artest’s other stops. 1) Phil Jackson had a proven track record in controlling head cases. 2) Kobe Bryant could play Michael Jordan to Artest’s Dennis Rodman. 3) Lamar Odom, the calmest man in the league, was Artest’s childhood friend. If there was a recipe to bring out the best in Ron-Ron, this was it.
He immediately worried me when he wanted to wear number 37 in honor of Michael Jackson (because Thriller spent 37 weeks at number 1). Artest was famous for changing his numbers, each time for a more insane reason, topping out when he asked to wear number 96 for the Rockets. According to him, it represented infinite intensity. No, I don’t know what that means, but supposedly you will after staring at it for three hours. Anyway, Artest would wear 37 in honor of a talented recently dead alleged pedophile. It was an auspicious start.
But then Ron-Ron fit in. He volunteered to sacrifice his offense on the altar of Bryant-Gasol-Odom. He recaptured his intensity, ironically after giving up on it being infinite. He guarded the best scorer on the other team so Kobe could save his energy for the offensive end. He was the perfect fit in an already good Laker team. Kobe somehow managed to take the Jordan/Rodman thing a step further, controlling Ron-Ron like the Lord Humungous controlled Wez. I imagined that before games Artest would be chained up in the locker room, slavering for the blood of the other team. Kobe would apply the chokehold and growl: “Be still my dog of war, and you shall have your revenge.” On the court, Artest worked for Kobe’s approval like a puppy. After big shots, it was Kobe that Artest ran to.
Despite a team brimming with talent, the Lakers looked distinctly vulnerable when the playoffs began. Ron Artest stepped up in the first series against OKC, hounding offensive juggernaut Kevin Durant into 35% shooting – over 12% lower than what Durant shot in the regular season. Artest also put his stamp on Game 5 against Phoenix with a last-second shot that broke the collective back of the Suns.
Because this is Los Angeles and this is basketball, it didn’t matter until the Finals against the hated Celtics. This was the team that bullied the Lakers two years before, a collection of glaring frontrunners that played a hardnosed physical style. Ron Artest had been brought to LA for this very reason. A good series meant LA avenged the loss in ’08. A bad series meant the Lakers would have to put up with Massholes adding an asterisk to the ’09 title. The question was: could Artest handle it, or would he flip out and do something insane? Would he get ejected for punching a ref? Would he shoot at the wrong basket? Would he pretend to be a unicorn? There was no telling.
Artest showed up with his game face, a curiously blank expression that looks something like late-period Christopher Walken. It was go time. He immediately started in on Pierce, muscling him on every play. Paul Pierce, so damaging in ’08, never really got going. Artest contributed solid offensive efforts in Games 3 and 7, even when Kobe threatened to shoot LA out of the series. In what turned out to be a defensive and bizarre series, the Lakers won simply because they had the best defensive and most bizarre player on the floor.
In ten years, we’re only going to remember the championship. The Malice is six years ago and counting. Did it matter? Of course, but sports only exist to distract its fans from depressing truths. That’s why sports scandals tend to go away unless they happen to be hilarious or horrifying. When all is said and done, Ron Artest is an NBA champion and he earned it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading off to the Wilt Chamberlain Learning Annex.