Artest Then and Now

by Paul Knepper

Tuesday afternoon Lakers forward Ron Artest was named this year’s recipient of the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. I know that sounds like a headline from The Onion, but it’s no joke.

The citizenship award is presented annually by the Professional Basketball Writers Association and is named for the second commissioner of the league. It honors an NBA player or coach for outstanding service and dedication to the community. Artest received the award in recognition of his support for mental health awareness.

He began his public crusade by thanking his psychiatrist in a post-game interview after the Lakers won the championship last year. A few months ago he auctioned off his championship ring for $650,000, with the proceeds going to mental health awareness. He’s appeared before Congress to support the Mental Health in School Act, made Public Service Announcements and regularly speaks at schools about the importance of counseling.

Artest wasn’t always a model citizen. He was known as a loose cannon during the early part of his career with the Bulls and Pacers, most notably for igniting the notorious melee known as “the Malice at the Palace,” when he attacked a fan in the crowd during a game between the Pistons and Pacers in 2004. He was also suspended on multiple occasions for other altercations on the court and was arrested in March of 2007 for domestic abuse.

Somewhere along the way Artest decided to get help. He underwent marital counseling and anger management, and while he still picks up his share of technical fouls and says some zany things, he’s refrained from violence and appears to have his life in order. After playing for the Bulls, Pacers, Kings and Rockets, he’s finally found a home in Los Angeles, where he won a championship last season.

It’s a wonderful story of redemption, second chances and the potential impact of celebrity. Yet, I can’t help think that Ron Artest was a better ballplayer when he was “crazy.”

The small forward was entering the prime of his career and was one of the top 10-15 all-around players in the league when the Malice in the Palace occurred. He took the ball to the basket with reckless abandon, overpowered smaller players in the post and used his unusual combination of quick feet, quick hands and strength to blanket scorers at various positions. He was selected to the All-Star team and named the Defensive Player of the Year the season before the brawl.

Artest played just seven games during the 2004-2005 season before being suspended for the rest of the season after the melee and half way through the following season the Pacers dealt him to Sacramento. He continued to put up impressive numbers in relative obscurity for a poor Kings team over the next two and a half seasons before signing a one year deal with the Rockets.

It was around that time that Artest began to turn his life. During that same period his game began to slip. He accepted being the third option and was a solid team player in Houston, but he lost his aggressiveness offensively, settling for outside jumpers, and was no longer an elite defender. Sure, he was getting older, but at 29-years-old and relatively injury free, he should have still been in his prime.

After one season in Houston, Ron signed a five-year deal with the Lakers where his play has continued to deteriorate. He averaged just 8.5 points per game this season and shot under 40% from the field. He’s been forced to defer to more talented players and the triangle offense is at least partially responsible for turning him into a spot-up shooter, but he doesn’t play with the same abandon he once did and no longer imposes his will on his opponents. He’s not angry anymore.

I don’t question the merit of his progress. Artest has made great strides as a person. I admire the way he has transformed his life. I also recognize that his transformation enabled him to serve as a role player and contribute on a championship team.

I mention his decline in performance to raise the complicated issue of emotion, particularly anger, in sports. To an extent we want our athletes to play “with a chip on their shoulder,” to impose their will on their opponents and intimidate them. Management and fans want players who are “warriors” even “assassins” (A word often used to decsribe Michael Jordan) and consider the word “crazy” to be a positive attribute.

Watch Kobe Byrant’s face throughout the next Lakers playoff game. It’s not a coincidence that the best player in the league is also the angriest. That type of emotion can serve as fuel for ballplayers. Unfortunately, it can also cause them to self-implode. Athletes try to tip-toe a fine line of emotion, which extends beyond the court into their personal and social lives.

Many athletes fueled by anger are able to flip the switch when they step off the court. Michael Jordan is perhaps the best example. For Artest and many others that emotion isn’t confined to the arena and may be a symptom of a larger problem.

Lawrence Taylor was one of the fiercest players to ever step on the gridiron. He used to say that his cocaine use and womanizing was part of the L.T. persona that was so feared on the field and he believed L.T. the quarterback killer couldn’t have existed without those reckless off-the-field activities. Clearly, it would have been in the best interest of Taylor the man to seek professional counseling, but the Giants and their fans may not have been pleased with the results. What’s in the best interest of the person isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the athlete.

Artest was forced to sit out an entire season, his reputation and career in shambles after the incident in Detroit. For him it was no longer a matter of weighing personal improvement against athletic success. He had to work on Ron Artest the man, in order to salvage his career. For most athletes consumed by emotion the right path isn’t always so clear.

Artest still had to take the courageous step to seek help. His advocacy for mental health awareness is laudable and will have a positive impact on many people’s lives. His transformation may have taken the edge off his game, but it’s made him a better and happier person. It’s a path more athletes should choose.

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