Friday, March 25, 2011

From the Archives: Ron Artest


This is one one my favorite stories from slam and you'll see why it was so memorable as soon as you read the first paragraph or two. This was in 2002, pre-brawl when Ron Ron was just considered sort of an odd dude who could really ball. The rest speaks for itself.

“What issue is this going to be in?”

At least I’m pretty sure that’s what Ron Artest is asking. It’s hard to be sure given our current circumstances. We’re barreling up I-65, racing from Conseco Fieldhouse to Artest’s home in Carmel, Indiana in his Lexus SC430. The top is down, wind is blowing at an incredible speed and volume and Ron Ron has pulled the hood of his Pacers sweatshirt up to protect his face from the gusts, in the process placing a big sound baffle between us.

Even if I could hear, it would be hard to concentrate given the pain surging through my lower body. I’m insanely contorted in the back seat of what is really a two-seat car, with Artest’s brother Daniel in front of me doing his level best to hold his big-boned 6-4 body up and save my legs – or what’s left of them. I’m sitting on my knees with each of my 190 pounds pushing down on my feet, which are so deeply asleep you could probably amputate them pain free.

Ignoring this, I yell back, “Not the next one but the one after that and it’s going to be a big story.” Apparently I’ve guessed right – both Artests nod in satisfied agreement and smile at each other for a second.

Slam’s my magazine” Daniel yells back at me. “I been reading it forever and waiting and waiting for Ron to get a big story, instead of just one column.”
Fact is, Ron Ron has been a Slam favorite for years, beloved for his hard-assed play and diverse skills as well as his sometimes erratic behavior and his willingness to depart from jock speak to say what’s on his mind, even when it makes him sound a little kooky. Best of all, he plays basketball with intense, overriding passion, the way everyone should do everything they care about but so rarely do. And Artest is far from peaked; at 24 he has just three months on Al Harrington and is actually younger than Jamaal Tinsley and rookie Fred Jones. Now the time has come for Slam to do Ron Ron right, which has brought me to Indy looking for some good face time – but not this good.

“Put your feet up here.” Artest is patting the console to his right. He’s also looking back at me while cutting across three lanes of traffic at 80 mph. Not wanting to provide any further distraction, I mutter that I’m okay. Mercifully, we’re soon pulling into Artest’s house, a nice, modern number in a new development about 15 miles from downtown Indianapolis. It’s the type of neighborhood that was a cornfield five years ago. Inside, the place looks more or less just moved in. There’s not much hanging on the walls, but the counters are covered with pictures of Ron’s three kids, the youngest of whom is very much present.

Sporting braids and some snazzy Spider Man pjs, three-year-old Ron Artest III is in his dad’s arms the minute we walk in the house. “I’m coming with you, daddy,” he says with authority. It’s a cute moment, but daddy has to squash the thought because he’s rushing to the airport to catch a flight that leaves in under an hour. A month ago, Artest had surgery to repair ligaments in his right pinkie and he threw out a few stitches practicing. His hand surgeon in New York wants to see him and she wants to see him now. Never mind that I just flew from New York to Indianapolis to interview him. Which is why Artest yelled out, “Ride with us” when he saw me pathetically hanging around the practice gym.

Ron grabs a bag and we’re back in the car, minus Daniel, with me stretching out my legs in the front seat. We talk as he glides to the airport, shaking his head in disbelief that he’s going to miss tonight’s exhibition opener against the Hornets. I point out that it’s a meaningless game but he’s adamant. “It’s a new season, dawg.” Ron Ron lives for the game not the lifestyle. You can’t say the same about everyone in the NBA.

“I wasn’t playing anyhow but I was still pumped. I wanted to watch B.D. [Baron Davis]. He’s bad.  And I really wanted to see Al [Harrington] in his first game back after the injury and see J.B. [Jonathan Bender] go for real ‘cause he’s so much better than last year in practice.”

He says this without a hint of irony or jealousy despite the fact that he, Harrington and Bender are locked in a ferocious struggle for minutes. He’s also in the final year of his rookie contract, and big numbers would almost surely get him a big money, multiyear deal, but he’s not sweating it. Anyhow, compiling stats isn’t Artest’s thing, though he’s put up some pretty good ones in his first three seasons, averaging 12.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.7 apg and 2 spg. He’s such a hard-nosed, hustle player that it comes as a shock to watch him and realize how skilled he is, good with both hands, able to drive, shoot, handle and lock down just about anyone. Twice in his career he’s had eight steals and no one in the league enjoys running against him. Also, while primarily a swingman, the 6-7, 247-pound Artest can really play any position except center.

“Ronnie is a basketball player, not a number to be fitted into a slot and that’s something we’re really missing today,” says St. John’s coach Mike Jarvis.

Artest hesitates when I ask what he considers his greatest strength on the court, which is surprising because he does not lack confidence. Just a few minutes prior he said, “No small forward or two guard in the league can guard me, especially if I post them up.” But he momentarily seems stumped about what makes him great.

Finally he answers. “I’d have to say my greatest strength and weakness are the same thing—my intensity.”

Interestingly, Jarvis said almost the exact same thing the day before, but he widened the scope to make a broader point.

“Ronnie’s the same as most people,” he said. “If we’re not in total control of our strengths, they become our weaknesses.”

In other words, Artest cares so much about winning and is so demanding of himself that it sometimes takes him over the edge. He has been known to kick the ball, slam the scorer’s table and pound the basket supports. He says he’s trying to overcome this behavior, but he also points out that all this hostility is only aimed at himself.

“I just get mad at myself when I make mistakes,” he says. “I expect more from me.”

In frightening news for opponents, Artest also says that he should have better stamina and more energy this year following elective surgery to correct a heart murmur, which he says was no problem now but could become one in the future. “I did it for my kids and so I could quit thinking about it.”

Artest says the two favorite teams he ever played on were in AAU, when he teamed with Elton Brand and Lamar Odom to go 67-1, and in his second season at St. John’s, when he, Lavar Postell, Erick Barkley and Bootsy Thornton spread the wealth and came within a whisker of the Final Four. “On both those teams, guys didn’t care about egos or points. We moved the ball and it was the best,” Artest says. “That’s what I’m always looking for.”

That team-first thrust and his love of hard work and defense make him a coach’s favorite, even if his outbursts can be distracting. “He’s as serious and committed as any player I’ve ever seen in this league,” Thomas told the Indianapolis Star the day before my visit. “His work ethic is off the charts, We want toughness, we want passion, we want intensity. That’s what you win with and he’s going to win big in this league.”

Artest picked up most of these traits from his father Ron Sr. His parents were separated, but his dad was very much present, often dropping by the family’s project apartment in Queensbridge, New York after finishing the night shift at a nearby hospital to visit and play some one on one – full court games which would go on for hours, sometimes until three in the morning. By his junior year at Manhattan’s La Salle Academy, Artest was widely recruited. He was also playing on that great AAU team, but wanting even more hoops he sought out coach Ron Naclerio, whom he had seen working with Queens legend Rafer Alston.

“He would work out for hours,” recalls Naclerio. “He pushes himself as hard as anyone I’ve ever worked out and he has no set hours. He keeps going. If anything, he needs to get away from the game sometimes. He’s consumed by it.”

Indeed, all Artest wants to do is play ball. He neither hides from nor embraces the spotlight that comes with being a professional athlete. Over the summer, he had domestic incidents with the two mothers of his children (neither involved hitting), which received a fair amount of press in both New York and Indianapolis. This can’t have been fun, but Artest brushes it off.

“To me, it’s just about saying that I have as much right to see my kids as the mothers do, but the courts don’t always agree. I don’t know why anyone cares about that, but it comes with the job, so…”

Artest shrugs his shoulders. By now, we’re pulling into the airport’s underground parking garage. His flight leaves in 28 minutes and he doesn’t have a ticket yet, just a reservation, but he doesn’t give any sign of being in a hurry, so I keep asking questions as we stroll through the lot.

“Did you really work at Circuit City your rookie year?” This was a story circulated before his first season with the Bulls, one often used to prove his oddness. He just laughs.

“Nah, but I wanted to. I get bored sitting around. I was practicing, working out five, six, seven hours a day. That still left a lot of time. I was living with a friend from home who was working at Circuit City so I told him to bring me an application. I was going to work for three dollars an hour or whatever to have something to do, but the team and my agent was like, ‘Don’t do it.’”

Clearly, he still doesn’t see what the fuss was all about. “That’s a job and basketball‘s a job, basically. My dad has worked more than one job all my life so I didn’t see it as no big thing.”

We’re inside now, strolling up to the Continental counter. His flight leaves in 24 minutes. The agent says it’s too late, the computer won’t issue a ticket less than a half hour before a flight, but she’ll try anyhow. Meanwhile, a baggage handler has spotted Ron.

“My man!” Baggage Guy exclaims. “How’s it going, Ron? You guys gonna have a good season?”

“Yeah, Yeah, for sure. We ready.” Ron gives Baggage Guy a pound.

“It worked!” the ticket girl exclaims with surprise, handing over a boarding pass.
“Go right to the gate, Mr. Artest.”

We slap hands and give each other the kind of half hug you give someone you’ve only known for an hour. I wish him good luck and he saunters off to the security check.

When I turn back around, Baggage Guy is waiting with a question. “Hey, is Ron cool?”

“Yeah,” I say. “For sure. He’s a pretty cool dude.”