Say Queensbridge: Ron Artest Is An NBA Champion, And It All Makes Sense Now

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17: Ron Artest #37 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks during the post game news conference as he celebrates after the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics 83-79 in Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 17, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Now that the Lakers are champions again, you could choose from any number of storylines to focus on in the coming days. But if it's "stories" you want, there's nobody better than Ron Artest, the man who defies all typical athlete labels.

On the heels of the greatest accomplishment of his professional life, we could say this about Ron Artest's career: There's a thin line between a saint and a sociopath, and it all depends on perspective.

Maybe Ron's never been totally on one side of that line, but in the eyes of the mainstream, he's straddled it like no athlete we've seen this generation. It's what prompted someone like ABC announcer, Mike Breen, to qualify his praise during the waning moments of Thursday night's Game 7 broadcast. "Ron Artest, not the perfect player, not the perfect person, but..." 

...But that's why we love him, Breen should have said.

Because we do. Everybody has a favorite Ron Artest story. His first few weeks in the NBA, he applied for a part-time job at Circuit City, just so he could get an employee discount. Last season, his 11th in the NBA, he boarded the Houston Rockets bus in his underwear. He claims he used to drink Hennessey during halftime of Bulls games. He once told a group of kids, "Stay focused, and stay away from unknown females." Just this year, he hit the game-winning shot against Phoenix, went to workout immediately afterward, and then arrived 30 minutes late to practice the next day.

A few years ago, a reporter visited him at home, and found a house full of dogs, carpets covered with dog crap, and friends imported from New York City, all supported by Ron. When asked about the arrangement, one of the friends explained, "We all made a deal when we were young. If one of us made it out, we'd take the rest with us. Ron made it out."

That's Ron. And Thursday night, he was one of the major reasons the Lakers won the 2010 NBA Title. He scored 20 points, nabbed five steals, hit a gigantic three to help seal it. But more than anything, he helped set the tone for this Lakers team. Two years ago, there's no way L.A. wins a war like Thursday's Game 7. With Artest, though, the Lakers could trade blows with anyone. Ron Ron wasn't just a figurehead for this team; really and truly, he tipped the balance of the 2010 NBA Finals.

And since we're telling Artest stories, I had to share mine. I have two, actually. One is a firsthand account of a night that happened two-and-a-half years ago, and the other, a story I heard through a family friend. But both help explain why, even amid a hundred different storylines emerging from Thursday night's Lakers' victory, there's just nothing better than "Ron Artest, NBA Champion." My first story begins in Boston, back in late-2007.

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Artest was on the Kings back then, and I just happened to have a roommate that was good friends with one of the Sacramento rookies. When the Kings visited Boston, we were invited out to a club after Sacramento's game against the Celtics. I had an exam the next day, I'd pulled an all-nighter the previous night, I had about $60 in my bank account, and at 20 years and 10 months, I wasn't even old enough to get into a club. But of course I had to go.

How often do you get to hang out with an NBA team for a night?

We got to the club—bar none, the trendiest place I'd ever seen, even from the outside—and promptly spent a solid 90 minutes waiting outside in the freezing cold, feeling like groupies, and fretting over the fake-ID situation at the door. Then the Kings started showing up, our connection arrived, and BOOM! Next thing you know, I'm buying drinks next to Brad Miller, and awkwardly shifting around the dance floor, surrounded by gigantic men and the tiny women obsessed with sleeping with them.

It sounds like the geekiest fanboy experience ever—"ZOMG! I'm next to Francisco Garcia!"—but for a 20-year-old kid, the whole thing was pretty mind-blowing.

As the night continued and my friends inevitably ran out of money for $14 Heinekens, the players started buying us drinks—we'd brought the college girls, after all—and at least for an hour or two, we were part of the Sacramento Kings. Then we headed back to the Four Seasons with them, and things got even better.

We went to one of the hotel rooms with our friend on the team, the girls we'd brought along, and a few other Kings teammates. I offered to share some chewing tobacco with one of the players, and he said, "I'd love to, but I gotta take care of this (gestures toward groupie)."

...Completely by accident, I'd stumbled into every NBA fantasy I'd ever imagined.

And then I met Ron Artest. The Four Seasons has free apples outside every bank of elevators, and somewhere around 2 a.m., I decided I wanted an apple. Lo and behold, so did Ron-Ron. We were walking from opposite ends of the hallway, and made eye contact from about 30-feet away. I froze.

But as we met in front of this giant bowl of Granny Smith apples, he broke the ice, "What's goin' on man?" From there, we wound up talking for about five minutes, about basketball, New York City, Washington D.C., and whatever else two semi-drunk strangers talk about at 2 a.m. in the hallway of the Four Seasons. I convinced him to come back to the hotel room where the rest of us were still partying.

Upon entering, Ron surveyed the scene for a second, and immediately jumped on the bed, grabbed the remote, and announced, "We gon' charge a porno on the rookie's room!" And just like that, Latex Soccer Moms accompanied the rest of our evening, while Ron and a few others mercilessly hit on our college girlfriends. It lasted like that for another half hour or so, just hanging out, talking jibberish back-and-forth, while these gigantic millionaires hit on our friends.

A little later, after a Kings assistant coach had to come tell us to quiet down, the party dissipated and my friends and I decided it was time to go back to campus, study for exams, and leave this surreal nexus of my dreams and these players' reality.

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Did Ron unsuccessfully attempt to woo two of my friends by playing them his new album? Yes, yes he did. Of course he did. That's why we love him. That, and Latex Soccer Moms. That's Ron Artest.

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And see, anecdotes like the one above help paint Artest in this sort of maniacal light. The sociopath, again. Maybe he's not full-on crazy, but over the years, he's taken on this image of the slightly unhinged, NBA step-child. Nobody denies that he's part of the family, but just about everyone agrees he's working with a different set of DNA.

He operates in his own world on his own terms, and yet, he's still completely dependent on a strong support network for stability. He's a little crazy, basically. And after meeting him in person, as gracious as he was talking to me, and as much fun as we had, I couldn't really disagree.

Then, about two weeks ago, a family friend told me a story. One of her good friends in Los Angeles had recently lost her husband. He died suddenly and at a young age, leaving behind two adolescent children. Out of nowhere, these daughters had no father, and their mother had no husband. You couldn't blame a drunk driver or cancer or... Anything, really. He just passed away. The sort of earth-shattering family tragedy that's so profound and inexplicable, people with no connection to the situation can feel the aftershock.

Obviously, for the daughters themselves, that aftershock must have felt like their whole world collapsing. The youngest one was having a really hard time, my friend told me. And as father-daughter day approached at her elementary school, the mother couldn't convince her daughter to attend. With anyone. Not with family friends, not by herself, not with her mother... Nobody. So, as a last ditch attempt at making this event work, and preserving some semblance of normalcy for her daughter, the mom text-messaged an old client of her husband's.

...Within minutes of hearing about the situation, Ron Artest accepted the invitation, and, of course, the daughter instantly softened her stance. "With a Lakers superstar? Okay, maybe I'll go."

According to my friend, Artest took this little girl to father-daughter night, danced and mixed with all the kids, and the daughter had an amazing time at the event she'd been dreading for weeks.

The craziest part? Apparently, this all went down in the days leading up to the 2010 NBA Finals.

Before the biggest playoff series of his professional life, Ron Artest was arranging to accompany a little girl to father-daughter night, transforming her grief into a memory that'll last a lifetime, and asking for nothing in return. No publicity, no appearance fees... Nothing. That's Ron Artest, too.

And Thursday night, for the first time in his career, it all made sense. Above, talking to Doris Burke, he thanked his neighborhood, his record label, his wife, his kids, his doctor, his psychiatrist, and then promoted his new single, "Champion."

We love Ron Artest because he's real. Not just as a hip-hop cliche—unapologetic, unflinching loyalty to his roots—but as an authentic, honest-to-God example of human complexity. Against a backdrop of cardboard cutouts in jerseys and shorts, Artest gives us three dimensions.

Most celebrities aren't like that, let alone the monosyllabic stars that dominate our sports universe. Most of these guys enter into our consciousness prepackaged, partly by their own design, and in part thanks to a media hell bent on crafting a coherent narrative. With Artest, there's zero coherence, and boatloads of contradiction.

He'll give the requisite credit to God in one breath, and the next, he'll interrupt his Finals press conference with, "I can't wait to get to the club." And watching him Thursday night, it was impossible not to take some vicarious joy in his triumph after all these years.

The stories after Game 7 will likely revolve around Artest to begin with, and rightfully so. But after a nod to his contributions Thursday night, the narrative will almost certainly shift back to that other Laker, and what this title means for his legacy, and whether there'll be more in the future. And that's fine. People can only squeeze so much out of a story like Artest, because for most media, he's still something of a novelty act.

You can't blame them. We like to compartmentalize characters in our sports stories—winners and losers, heroes and villains, leaders and followers—and Artest defies those constraints. His mistakes in the past make it impossible to paint him as a hero, but more and more, it's just as impossible to make him out to be some sort of villain. There's nuance there that you won't see with anyone else.

To that end, this exchange from his postgame press conference was just perfect:

Reporter: 20 points, five rebounds, five steals. It seems like you had your hand in everything for the Lakers tonight. Is that why you came here?

Ron Artest: Oh, man. First I want to say... Before I go real crazy on y'all, which I'm going to do here shortly. God put me in this situation and, you know, good or bad, I was going to thank him for the blessing. A Game 7, home-court advantage, we give away Game 2. Or, I give away Game 2... Game 7, you want to win. Good or bad I was going to thank God for this blessing to be here. And one thing I said earlier was, you know, when I was younger I bailed out on my Indiana team.

I was so young, so egotistical. And I bailed out. On Donnie [Walsh], Larry [Bird], Jermaine [O'Neal], [Jamaal] Tinsley, [Jeff] Foster—who never bails out, he just fights for you, for his team. Steve Jackson who already had a ring, but continued to fight for us, etc. And I sometimes feel like a coward when I see those guys, because it's like, man... I'm on the Lakers, we got a chance to win, [but] I had a chance to win with you guys. You know, and I felt almost like a coward. I never thought God would put me in this situation again, because of that. So, I'm blessed, and, um... I totally forgot the question you asked.

People may point to his interview with Doris Burke as the defining moment of Ron's personal triumph, but that's not quite where it peaked. That exchange above, though—could there be any greater example of why we should love Ron Artest?

Faced with the opportunity to take credit for the win tonight, answering all the critics that said the Lakers should have kept Trevor Ariza instead of rolling the dice with Ron-Ron, he goes in a completely different direction. He talks about feeling like a coward, even now, after what happened in Detroit. He mentions his Pacers teammates by name, proving that he hasn't forgotten. Not even a little bit. He remembered Jeff Foster, for God's sake.

How is a sportswriter supposed to work that answer into a column about the NBA Finals?

And yet, if you really want to get at the heart of what made him successful this season, that quote is the story. Thoughtful, insecure, goofy, vaguely profound, and completely without pretense. That's Ron Artest. The brief digression on cowardice and the Indiana Pacers may have had nothing to do with the series, but it had everything to do with why Ron could thrive in Game 7.

As misunderstood as Artest has been for his entire career, he's matured since those days in Indiana. His reliance on a therapist signifies as much; he recognizes he's got some issues, and he's dealt with them head-on. He's acknowledged past mistakes, and set himself on a course to change his ways. It's been fascinating to watch, and the crescendo in Game 7 was even better than expected.

Seeking help is one thing. That he would freely credit his therapist on national TV is even better. Clearly, he's not in danger of losing what made him so awesome in the first place.

So now we have to consider Ron Artest in full. How does this affect his legacy? And truth is, now that we've got more perspective than ever, he's neither a saint or sociopath. Elements of both are there. The same guy that ordered Latex Soccer Moms also played Dad for a little girl that'd just lost her father. You can question him, but you can't hate him anymore.

He's made it all the way back. From an NBA pariah, to an integral piece on an NBA Championship team. Still not quite a prince, and he'll always be something of a punchline. But mostly, Ron Artest is just a real person, and someone that seems to really care about people.

When someone like Ron Artest succeeds at anything, you can't help but smile.

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