June 22, 2010

The RonDemption

"Everybody in LA expects a second ring. And if we don’t then yeah, they should point it right at me, throwing tomatoes and everything." Ron Artest, September 2009.

11 months ago, still hoarse smoking the victory cigar, the Los Angeles Lakers made the boldest of bold moves. Staring forward Trevor Ariza refused to agree and extend his contract with the Lakers, instead signing with the Houston Rockets. The Lakers immediately made a move, signing the then 29-year-old Ronald William "Ron" Artest from the Rockets. It was a move that raised a considerable amount of controversy for the defending champions, as if life for the Lakers wasn't already crazy enough.

The pros said that Artest would bring the neccessary toughness and defensive tenacity that the Lakers had been lacking - if Kobe was Jordan and Pau was Pippen, Artest was supposed to be the Dennis Rodman - unpredictable, efficient, tough.

But there were many cons, many questions about his character and his decision-making. Could Kobe and Phil Jackson tame the Ron Monster? Artest made the quote above in September last year, a couple of months before the season began, taking full blame if the Lakers weren't to repeat as champions. And he was right, too - on paper, his virtual trade-off for Ariza was the only difference that Lakers 2009-10 were going to have from Lakers 2008-09.

Fast forward to June 17, 2010. Less than a week ago. It is Game Seven of the NBA Finals, the biggest stage in the NBA, Artest's Lakers going against historic rivals Celtics, just one game to decide the fate of both teams. Blame me if we don't repeat, Artest had said. He had one shot at redemption, one game to turn around all the other crazy shit that he has gone through in his life.

This is my re-imagination of what went off in the head of Ron Artest, aka Ron Ron, aka Tru Warier, minutes before the biggest basketball game in his life.

- Childhood, in the ghettoes of Queensbridge, New York, where he was born on November 13, 1979.

- The murder of Lloyd Newton: Playing basketball in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the world. During a YMCA Sanctioned Basketball tournament in 1991, Artest witnessed the on-court murder of 19-year-old Newton, who was stabbed in the back with a broken-off table leg during an altercation. "It was so competitive, they broke a leg from a table and they threw it, it went right through his heart and he died right on the court. So I'm accustomed to playing basketball really rough," Artest had said.

- Early success in basketball, in New York's Summer Tournaments, high-school basketball at La Salle Academy and college basketball at St. John's University.

- And with the 16th pick of the 1999 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls select... Ron Artest!

- During his early years with the Bulls in the NBA, drinking Hennessey cognac during halftime of the games. "I [kept it] in my locker. I'd just walk to the liquor store [near the stadium] and get it."

- With the Indiana Pacers, getting suspended twice in 2003 - the first time for destroying a television camera during a Knicks game at the Madiscon Square Garden, and the second time for a confrontation with then-Heat coach Pat Riley.

- Having the best season of his professional career that same year, averaging over 18 points and nearly six rebounds for the Pacers, making the 2004 All Star Game, and named Defensive Player of the Year. The Pacers ended up with the best record in the NBA, but lost to the eventual champions Detroit Pistons in the Conference Finals.

- Once showing up to practice with the Pacers in his bath robe.

- Being suspended again, for requesting his coach for a month off because he was tired from promoting an R&B album for the group 'Allure' on his production label.

And at this point, halfway through the flashback, there is a glitch in Ron Artest's memory. There is something he can't remember, something big, something important. He looks up from the court and sees a fan holding on to a cup of beer. That's when he remembers.

- November 19, 2004, the Malice at the Palace, probably the worst brawl in NBA history: Still with the Pacers, with less than a minute left in their game against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Artest got into a little confrontation with the other great defensive stalwart, Ben Wallace. During the argument, Artest laid down on the scorer's table. A spectator, John Green, then threw a cup of Diet Coke/beer/unidentifiable liquid at Artest while he was lying on the table. Artest responded by running into the stands and punching a man whom he mistakenly believed was responsible. Artest's teammate Stephen Jackson also ran into the stands shortly after and threw punches at fans, and eventually players from both teams entered the stands while many fans spilled out on to the court to escape the altercation. Another melee started when Artest was confronted on the court by two fans, both of whom Artest punched/knocked out. Jermaine O'Neal intervened by punching one of the fans in the jaw after a running start. The scene became chaotic and outnumbered arena security struggled to keep order. As the aftermath of this melee, Jackson, O'Neal, and Artest, and five others from both teams were suspended by the NBA. Artest's suspension was the longest, for the remainder of the season (73 regular season games and 13 playoff games). Artest lost approximately $7 million in salary due to the suspension.

- "Betraying" the Pacers in 2005, when he demanded a trade, and received it, to the Sacramento Kings for Peja Stojakovic.

- Succeeding with the struggling Kings team, and bringing them back to the playoffs.

- Releasing his first album 'My World' in October 2006, which was a mix of rap, R&B, and crazy.

- Spending 10 days in jail in 2007 after being arrested for domestic abuse, and subsequently, being suspended by the Kings.

- June 17, 2008 - AFter the Lakers had lost Game 6 of the NBA Finals (and the Championship) by an embarrasing 39 points to the Boston Celtics, he approached Kobe Bryant in the locker room after the game, while Kobe was taking a shower. "I want to come help you," Artest told Kobe. "If I can, I'm going to find a way to come to LA and give you the help you need to win a title."

- Being traded to the Houston Rockets in 2008, and helping them reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. Also, making life hell for Kobe Bryant, who was on his way to the 2009 Championship.

- Becoming a Laker in July 2009.

- Changing his jersey number from 15 (in honour of his father) to 23 (in honour of Michael Jordan) to 91 (in honour of Dennis Rodman) to 93 (because it apparently looks like qB- Queensbridge) to 96 (same reason) to 37 (because that's how long Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' was on the top of the pop charts).

- Going crazy in LA, from releasing random work-out videos to showing up at a talk show in his boxers.

- Still defending harder than a mutha. Still taking stupid three-pointers.

- May 27, 2010: Game 5, Conference Finals, Phoenix Suns. The buzzer-beater that made him famous, again, that made him a hero, banking a shot in at the final second to give Lakers the win and a 3-2 lead against the Suns.

- Shutting down 2008 Finals MVP Paul Pierce for most of the NBA Finals.

- Running what is now being called The Worst Offensive Position in Finals History in Game 2 - Artest did a Benny Hill impression, where his foolishness helped give the game away to the Celtics.

- Still defending harder than a mutha. Still taking stupid three-pointers.

And then he blinks. And then he's back. Game 7. This was his chance at redemption. At burying the horrors of that YMCA tournament in New York, of that Chicago Bulls locker room, of the brawl at Detroit, of all those suspensions, and fines, and criticisms, of Trevor Ariza's shadow, of Game 2.

Here was his chance to show the 'good' Artest - that which won defensive player of the year, that which made every team he was ever a part of better, that which hit the game winner against the Suns.

And at the biggest stage of his life, here he was. Artest has a game-leading 12 points in the first half, and he finishes the game with 20, second highest for the Lakers. He also holds Paul Pierce to a 5-15 night, and has clutch play after clutch play, including a dagger three, and becoming the hero of the Game, as Lakers win the title.

After the game, Artest gave perhaps the second-greatest post-game interview ever (my favourite is still Garnett's in 2008). He thanked his hood, his family, and his psychiatrist, who helped him "relax a lot." He even manned-up for betraying the Pacers, saying that he felt like a coward after bailing on his teammates.

And then he stops, and he has a flashback again, and adds one more memory to his life.

- Ron Artest, NBA Champion.

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