When the Lakers signed Ron Artest in the summer of 2009, there were many reasons not to like him.
The altercation with Kobe Bryant, just a few months earlier.
“Don’t you know you’re hitting Ron Artest?” Ron laughed, after tussling with Kobe during the 2009 playoffs.
Before Ron joined the Lakers, every time LA played Ron’s teams in Sacramento, and Houston, I was terrified. Afraid he could injure a Laker player and end our season. Or start a fight that drew a suspension for one of our boys. Ron was unpredictable, and a physical force of nature.
To make matters more confusing, when the Lakers signed Ron Artest, he was replacing a fan favorite, Trevor Ariza, an emerging young talent who just shot 48% from 3 point range in the playoffs en route to an NBA Championship.
Ariza not only played well, but he had two game saving steals in the conference finals, a series in which he stymied Carmelo Anthony.
Trevor was young. Athletic. Exciting. Unproven.
Then Trevor asked for too much money, and the Lakers turned and gave that money to big bad Ron Artest.
I was excited about what Ron might bring to the defensive end of the floor, and relieved that he was no longer an injury risk to our players during games, but worried about his combustible nature, and how LA might amplify his vices.
Ron had singlehandedly demolished a contender in a moment of weakness when he charged the stands in the Palace of Auburn Hills. His Pacer teams never recovered from the aftermath of that night.
I was worried about the effect he would have on our defending champion Lakers.
I wasn’t the only one.
Ron was worried too. Yet he responded positively. He embraced the challenge. From day one, he said, if the Lakers don’t win a championship in his first year, to blame it on him. Blame it on the new guy. The replacement for Ariza. The unstable one. Right away he accepted that he needed to fit in with the champs, not the other way around.
Then Ron delivered. With his brawn and instincts, he helped the Lakers vanquish their demons, the Boston Celtics.
Unlike 2008, when the Celtics pushed the Laker team into the dirt, and the Lakers stayed down, this time, the Lakers hit first. Ron showed the Celtics that HE was the bully, and they had to worry about him.
The first time Laker Ron Artest visited Boston, he tussled with Pierce BEFORE the opening tip, sending a message that the Lakers weren’t pushovers anymore.
When they met in the finals, Ron harassed the 2008 finals MVP, wrestling Pierce to the floor, bodying him up, and letting Pierce know that he could no longer run amok at Staples Center.
Then game 7 came along. By this point, these two teams knew each other so well, and were so evenly matched, that it became a war more than a game. Schemes and systems went out the window, and instincts took over. In that moment of chaos and brutality, Ron Artest was the best player on the floor.
Game 7 was tailor made for Ron Artest. He is at his best when finesse goes out the window, and toughness rules the day. He kept the Lakers in the game when noone else was playing well, and put the finishing touches on the battle in crunch time. After he hit a game clinching 3 and blew a kiss to the rafters, he was immortalized in Laker lore.
Ron won me over in that series, and ever since then, I’ve loved him. But Ron’s next move was even more heroic.
In his post-championship interview, Ron Artest thanked his psychiatrist. His elated reaction to winning his first (and until now, only) championship ring began his journey to become a mental health advocate. The unstable Ron Artest was on his way to becoming the eccentric Metta World Peace.
He didn’t stop with a simple thank you after the celebration. Ron auctioned off his championship ring to raise money – and awareness for mental health, and has done great work helping troubled youths have access to mental health care. He has used his influence to help others, and shine a light on an issue very often swept under the rug, and dismissed.
Many people feel ashamed for seeking help for mental troubles. They worry that others may think they are weak, or not tough enough to deal with life’s challenges. Try calling Ron Artest weak. Ron showed people that its ok to ask for help, and that doing so doesn’t diminish your toughness.
Ron became a spokesperson for mental health, without sacrificing his unpredictable, humorous personality – or his ferocity on the court. He always entertained, always played hard and was a model citizen for the Lakers, winning the NBA’s citizenship award.
Metta was a warrior. He played months with a slipped disc injury in his back, never complaining even as critics jumped on him for diminished play. He played his heart out every night for his teammates, and for the city of L.A., and enjoyed the perks of being a champion Laker off the court.
Ron really understood the opportunity and privilege he had as a Laker.
He partied hard and played even harder.
He was a great champion.
Most of all, he was a great Laker.