by Ben Osborne
“…there, Artest erupted. ‘That’s it!’ he screamed to his teammates, his coaches, and media members. ‘No more losing! No more [expletive], no more playing! Next time I see someone playing around in practice I’m not saying anything—I’m just swinging! We have got to win these games!'”
The above is from a freelance story I wrote about the remarkable Ron Artest—then a sophomore at national title-contending St. John’s—for the Washington Post some nine years ago. Sounds like an outburst everyone’s favorite NBA nutjob would let loose, huh? Thing is, before Ron-Ron became an NBA All-Star (only once, believe it or not), a rapper, a pariah for his role in the Malice at the Palace, and—most ironically for someone who cares about his job as much as he does—a caricature that media folks and fans love to hammer even when lacking justification, Ron Artest was the most intense college basketball player in the country.
I may be a bit biased since, as a New Yorker, I knew Ron’s name since he was 16, but the way I remember it, dude worked out like a madman during a great career at LaSalle Academy and then was the emotional leader—and best player—on the aforementioned ’99 St. John’s team that came within a bad bounce of reaching the Final Four.
Ron’s heroics at SJU encouraged him to enter the NBA Draft that spring, and then his storybook
progression continued when his hometown New York Knicks select—er, the storybook ended when the dumb-ass Knicks took Frederic Weis with the 15th pick, letting Artest drop one more slot to the rebuilding Chicago Bulls. I was at that Draft, and after Ron got picked I went to the press conference every player in attendance is subjected to after they get selected. To put it bluntly, Ron was shook. Oh, he was glad to have that first-round contract, and glad he’d be joining his NY-area homeboy Elton Brand in the Chi, but he was shocked that the Knicks hadn’t taken him. I think it’s fair to say that the Knicks, who went to the EC Finals in 2000 but haven’t won a single Playoff Series since, have not recovered from that blunder. I’m not sure Ron Artest did either.
Certainly a dude with his level of intensity and willingness to do things his way might have run into some trouble no matter where he played, but it’s like the Knicks—perhaps scared of just these factors—passing on him for an unknown Frenchman showed Artest right off the bat how the League is about a lot more than just being the best player you can be. And so it’s gone. Two and half years with the dreadful Bulls. Two and a half increasingly successful seasons in Indiana, ended abruptly seven games into the ’04-05 season when Artest went into the stands in Auburn Hills. Incidentally, did you know/remember that Artest—a career 16-ppg scorer whose best average for a full season is 20.5—was averaging 24.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.7 spg and .9 bpg while shooting 50% from the floor, 92% from the line and 41% on three pointers at the time of the brawl? Those are MVP-type numbers, especially since the Pacers might have won 61 games like they had the season before. Instead, David Stern had to make an example out of dude, and his place in the game was changed forever. After a desultory quarter season with the Pacers the next year, Indy shipped him to the most un-New York place in the L, Sacramento. Over his two and a half seasons in Sac, Ron played okay (he was thought of highly enough in these parts to rank 22 the last time we did a Top 50 and actually averaged an impressive 20/6/4 stat line in 57 games last season), but his impact was muted by playing in a tiny market in a great conference for a mediocre team that didn’t know whether it was coming or going. And, perhaps saddest of all for such an electric player who had grown used to being a lightning rod wherever he went, Artest became irrelevant in the NBA.
Then this summer happened, when Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets pulled Ron-Ron out of purgatory and onto a team that boasts two shoe-selling superstars, an experienced coach and a need to get a lot tougher. The Rockets have got fans (from the Fifth Ward to the Great Wall, at that), TV appearances and pressure to finally get past the first round. Sounds like a perfect scenario for the soon-to-be-29-year-old Artest, who is also in a contract year! And lest we thought Ron-Ron would keep the focus entirely on the court, he hasn’t lost his willingness to do things like this that keep everyone buzzing.
So, can Artest take the Rockets past the opening round and into the deep reaches of the Playoffs by reining in his old homeboy Rafer Alston a bit and giving TMac and Yao some balls? Do that, and Ron will have the contract he desires, the love and respect he’s been searching for since Draft night, and a SLAMonline ranking back in the 20’s. All that might even qualify as storybook.
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