“Opposite extremes.” A phrase that has defined Ron Artest’s pro basketball career and, at times, also describes how he lives his life away from the court. Before the 2009-2010 NBA season started, Artest was most remembered for participating in the notorious Pacers/Pistons brawl six years ago, where NBA players and fans got into a physical altercation during the closing seconds of a hotly contested regular season game. Yet today, he is now perhaps best known for arguably the most exuberant outpouring of joy a pro athlete has ever displayed after winning the 2010 NBA Finals as a member of the storied Los Angeles Lakers.
We caught up with Artest at two important junctures this basketball season: right before the season started, when many wondered whether he’d be a “loose cannon” or “distraction” during the Lakers’ quest to win back-to-back titles, and again right after it ended, as he basked in the afterglow of the World Championship-clinching Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics in which he was the definitive hero of the game.
True to form, on and off the court, Artest was moving at a frenetic pace on both of these days. When we dropped in on him one overcast morning last September, Ron was in full Hollywood-mode, rushing to finish a Beverly Hills photo shoot, so that he could be on time for the paparazzi feeding frenzy at his good friend, and fellow New Yorker, Lamar Odom’s wedding to Khloe Kardashian. Months later, during the warm June afternoon of the recent interview, he went from having a small BBQ at his home with family and friends, to performing his aptly-titled single, “Champions,” in front of a throng of rabid fans at the Culver City mall then ending out the night partying at a Downtown L.A. club to share the stage with T-Pain.
When asked last Fall about how he would balance the more glamorous aspects of living in the entertainment capital of the world with the responsibility of being the newest piece of the puzzle to help the Lakers attain a historic 16th franchise world title, Artest replied point-blank. “There is no balance. Basketball is up here [as the 6-foot-7-inch player gestured above his head] and everything else is off-balance: the music, the entertainment, the photo shoots.” On that day, it remained to be seen whether his actions would reflect these sentiments, but by the time legendary Lakers head coach Phil Jackson declared Artest the MVP of the decisive Game 7, there was no doubt where the often-unpredictable superstar’s priorities lay.
However, it wouldn’t be vintage Ron Artest if the road to becoming a champion was easy and uneventful. From the crucial missed free throws near the end of the Lakers’ Game 5 loss in the Finals to the mid-season concussion he sustained at home (which cost him five games) to even way back to his own assertion before the season even began that if the Lakers didn’t repeat, it would be his fault. With a multitude of obstacles to overcome this past season, he not only overcame them all, but he did it in Hollywood-movie dramatic fashion, and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
When the final seconds of the clock ran out and the Lakers were officially crowned NBA World Champions once again, no one was more excited than Ron Artest. The man that some critics asserted never used his head when he played made a point of thanking his psychologist for getting his mental game to the level he needed to become a champion. “[My psychologist] told me that I was limiting myself because I wasn’t playing to my potential,” he shared with us in between bites during his summer BBQ. “I was more amazed that I was playing with these two great basketball minds [Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant] that I wasn’t playing my game. But in Game 7, I was able to play with a bunch of pressure on me. I was calm like the eye of a storm. And it was all because of her. She’s dope!”
But that’s not to say everything goes the way Artest visualizes it in his head. Leading into his now-famous post-game news conference, he had a very different idea about how he wanted to celebrate. “I wanted to be the first person to win a championship and go right out of the arena and not say a thing to nobody. But the emotion was crazy.” Instead, he proceeded to captivate a room full of reporters as if he were Dave Chappelle bringing down the house at the Improv. The former poster boy for what’s wrong with the NBA was now on a box of Wheaties. His elation was infectious, as was his desire to share this joy with family, friends and fans.
To Ron, sometimes these groups are all one and the same. “I don’t consider them fans. I consider them my friends,” he shared. This may sound like the typical lip service any celebrity gives, but all one needs to do is look around at the guests at his backyard BBQ. Mixed in amongst his own family and close confidants are the Raquids, a Filipino family from Harbor City, CA who were surprised to have Artest knock on their door after jokingly inviting him on Twitter to eat a home-cooked meal at their house. Sitting next to Artest by the pool was Barak Golan, who won a Twitter contest to be his “Sidekick for the Year” and was later seen shooting baskets with one of Ron’s sons in the front yard. As motley a group of guests as it was, the one common denominator is that they all say that Artest, known in the media for being “crazy,” is one of the most normal, down to earth people they know.
So normal and down to Earth that Artest does not talk about his own burgeoning music career as an avenue to become a multi-media force, a common trend among celebs, athletes and artists nowadays. Making music is Artest’s second passion in life after basketball, and he talks in terms of hoping to make it big as if he wasn’t even already incredibly famous. “I’m looking forward to the World Wide Wariers’ album. I’m really hoping that we [including band mates Foul Monday, Ruc and Challace] get a break! We’ve been trying to do this for a long time, and we’ve been hearing the same story for 10 years.” For those who doubt whether Artest can ever pull of a second career as a musician, don’t be too quick to dismiss something he has his mind set on.
After all, who other than Artest can go from scapegoat to hero in literally under 60 seconds like he did during this year’s hard fought playoff run? It was back in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns. Clinging desperately to a three-point lead during the closing minute of the game, and with nearly the entire L.A. home crowd at the Staples Center crying “Nooooooo!” in unison the second he touched the ball, Artest, who was already having a horrid shooting night launched a three-point brick, which gave the Suns the momentum to possibly take over the game and the entire series. “You ever seen a kid talk back to his Mom?” Artest recounted as he remembered that exact moment. “The mom says, ‘Hey, don’t do that!’ And the little, bad kid says, ‘No!’ That’s what I was doing to those fans [who were booing].”
But this same stubborn, headstrong attitude would, far sooner than any of those fans thought, lead to one of the quickest reversal of fortunes in all of sports. Artest refused to give up on a play in the last few seconds of the game, as he caught a Kobe Bryant air ball with 1.3-seconds left and ended up hitting the game-winning shot. Those exact same fans who mere seconds ago were pleading with him not to shoot, not to even touch the ball on offense, were now exulting him at the top of their sore lungs with a deafening, roaring cheer. Opposite extremes.
Photos: Michael Vincent