Ron Artest Q+A
“There was times when I let everything around me kind of raise me…rather than me shaping myself.”
by Chris O’Leary / @olearychris
I’ve wanted to post the leftovers to my Ron Artest story (which appears in SLAM 144) for the last few weeks. I’ve sat down at least six different times to try and write about why I wanted so badly to do a story on his plans for raffling off his championship ring (you’ve got four days and change to enter) and every time I’ve scrapped what I’ve written and ended up with a blank screen. I think breaking it down to the essentials is the easiest way to do this.
There’s the selflessness of what he’s doing. Nothing is guaranteed in sports. The NBA title may be the Lakers’ to lose, but they could well lose it. Between injuries, the Celtics and burgeoning Heat and Thunder teams, there’s the possibility that Ron Artest could never win a championship again. If that’s the case, he’d walk away from basketball without the physical fruits of his labors of last season.
There’s the breadth of the gesture. In donating the funds of his ring raffle to mental health awareness, Ron will impact lives beyond the realm of the traditional pro athlete. Everyone talks about the legacies of the game’s greats, but with something like this, Ron’s legacy extends beyond the hardwood. Yeah, the story of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school team is a great one for coaches everywhere to use at their own tryouts every year (“Work hard, come back next year and who knows what could happen?”), but Ron’s efforts will save and/or permanently alter lives for the better. The people he’s helping may never know anything more about him or the L.A. Lakers than that Kobe Bryant played for them, or that they’re basketball players.
There’s also the redemption factor. Six years ago, Ron Artest was the face of Everything Wrong With Sports, sitting out a 73-game suspension for his role in the Malice at the Palace. I remember watching him on Good Morning America shortly after he was suspended, using the TV time to plug his upcoming album. In the two conversations I had with Ron in the month leading up to this story and in everything I’ve read about him since the now famous Game 7 Finals presser, it’s clear that 2004 Ron is a thing of the past. 2010 Ron is selfless. He’s a father, a husband and a role model. He’s a mental health advocate, concerned more about what he’ll leave behind him after he’s gone than with his rap album sales (though he’ll still remind you he’s a musician).
Grace Napolitano, the California congresswoman who has stood next to Ron in his quest to raise mental health awareness, calls him a hero. Just over two weeks ago Ron received at least one vote for Sports Illustrated’s Man of The Year.
Watching him address the L.A. media at a press conference at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills in October, Ron spoke with poise. There was no clowning around — well, very little of it. Listening to him, watching the conviction he carried in his words, I got the feeling that Ron thinks this is the most important thing he’ll ever do. The fact that he’s talking about donating half of his salary next season to the same cause only reaffirms it.
It was fitting to me that SLAM 144 has an Old School feature on the recently deceased Manute Bol. Manute also donated tremendous chunks of his NBA salary to a cause that he believed was greater than he was, in supporting his people in Sudan. As the League has lost one of its most philanthropic and memorable players, Ron seems to be evolving into a similar role.
Finally, a personal note. I had a job a couple of years ago where I’d send stats, game info and quotes from Edmonton Oilers games into a wire service in Connecticut. In the Oilers’ press box, I sat next to a man who’s been a part of the local media for a long, long time. We used to crack jokes about the team’s terrible luck and their beleaguered defensemen’s inability to keep the puck in the offensive zone on the power-play.
“You know what I like is that you and me both know that 90 percent of this,” the man said, gesturing to the play on the ice, “is bull shit.
“It’s that other 10 percent that’s special.”
What Ron’s doing, safe to say, falls into that other 10 percent.
Today, I’m posting the conversation I had with Ron on Oct. 18th. On Monday, I’ll post the second, shorter conversation I had with him when we sat down after his press conference at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. This runs long, but I think it’s worth reading through to the end. I hope you enjoy it.
Oct. 18, 2010.
“I was like damn. Justin Bieber just scored on us. I was wondering, ‘who is this kid?’”
It’s the day after the Lakers fell to the Utah Jazz in a pre-season game. Ron was giving me his assessment of Jazz rookie Gordon Hayword, who had played well the night before, scoring 26 in the win.
“Hayword’s a good player. I didn’t even know he could play basketball. I thought he was Bieber.
“He’s officially on my list,” Artest says.
SLAM: What was your environment like when you were a kid?
RA: There was a thing where I was from, a lot of people intimidate … we had fun as kids, but there was things that we did that we thought was cool that wasn’t really cool. It was just keeping us down, you know? That wasn’t making us stronger.
SLAM: For as long as we’ve known your name, people have tied the word crazy to it. How do you deal with that?
RA: I just moved on. But I understand that people didn’t understand how I grew up. I understand now that you know to have a certain … if someone doesn’t know where you’re from and you’re acting out, why it’s not normal. I wasn’t normal to a lot of people. I was normal to a lot of people who grew up how I grew up. That’s why I never really got down or frustrated too much.
SLAM: It’s like if you’re around kids and you’re telling them they’re bad as they’re growing up, they’ll grow up to be bad. Do you feel the same way with the handle of crazy for you? That it was easier to fall into things because people said you were crazy?
RA: I’m the kind of person who’s going to do what I want to do anyway. If I want to be a good person and you’re constantly saying I’m bad, I don’t mind continuing to be a good person. There was a point in time when I was young and my mind wasn’t that strong and I would get frustrated easily … but now I’m at a point in my life where it’s not just about me, it’s not just about how I grew up.
SLAM: That age, like 14, 15, 16, it’s really important to your mental health. It’s where you’re developing into the adult that you’ll be.
RA: Umm … I think it’s an important age. I think it’s about families. The main thing I think is if your family ties are strong, you know, if those family ties aren’t strong, it leads to a weak child. That’s my experience.
I think that age is important because that’s a kid that’s growing into themselves, into an adult from a teenager and setting goals for what you want to do in your life so it’s important. They don’t need setbacks. Not all children are that strong. I think that … age, some of the issues at that age need to be addressed because kids have anxieties. Where we’re going, we don’t want to leave the world in the hands of kids that aren’t prepared. You’ve got to be tough. And I got kids, so you know, it’s in my interest to help other kids.
SLAM: When you were in Sacramento and you had the court ordered counseling, it sounds like it was a turning point for you.
RA: I didn’t want to do it at first because it was so time consuming.
After, I realized how much it helped me. Originally, it was an anger management thing. Then I went from anger management to parent counseling. That changed my whole way of thinking. I always wanted to be a better parent and I felt like a better parent and it kind of worked out for me because it taught me things about parenting that I hadn’t ever thought about. Then I also took marriage counseling. I was seeing two different psychologists (for the three classes) and I was like wow, this was great, and I stayed with it.
SLAM: Is it a matter of finding the right counselors or were you at a point in your life where you just wanted to change?
RA: I think you definitely want to find the right one, you know? You don’t want to have somebody that you don’t really click with, but you definitely don’t want to have someone that’s just going to yes-yes you all the time. You want to tell someone who’s going to tell you the truth.
SLAM: Someone who’s going to challenge you.
RA: Someone who’s going to tell you the truth about yourself and I think that helped a lot.
SLAM: It’s such a broad topic to tackle. You could look at how much it’s needed just in sports.
RA: A lot of people in sports grew up in my environment, you know? They need someone to talk to. There’s a lot of people in jail that will never get the opportunity to speak to someone because they already made their decision to do whatever they did.
Every time I talked about being ghetto, they just say, ‘Hey Ron Artest is ghetto,’ but they don’t understand what I’m saying. I’m just staying in contact with people so they can know I’m just like (them). And it’s not like a black thing, or a hood thing. It’s an issue where Ron Artest is normal. I’m not perfect, but I am normal. That’s what I was saying when I was saying all that stuff and a lot of people don’t understand.
SLAM: Were you surprised you could put yourself out there with this, talking about mental health?
RA: I’m not surprised that I could put myself out there. I really never … I wasn’t worried about what people thought. People was calling me crazy when I first started this. I’m not crazy. I’m just trying to help. I was surprised with all of the attention. I was just trying to reach out to kids who were in trouble. I was surprised by all of the support. It gives you a sense of how many people care out there.
SLAM: Did you worry about your image when it was bad, like back in 04?
RA: Never. It never concerned me because it was out of my control. It was not something that I wanted. I’m actually friends now with the guy that started it (John Green, the fan who threw the drink at Artest in Detroit). He said, ‘I was an asshole for doing that.’
He apologized to all of the guys. But somehow, people switched that around and blamed me for the whole thing. I was involved, but you can’t blame me for that whole situation.
But with that being said and that being water under the bridge, I was never concerned because (my image) was something I couldn’t control. I don’t read minds. All I could see was when I was coming to the Lakers and I said we was going to win a championship. I knew that, but I didn’t know any of that other stuff was going to happen.
SLAM: If the present day version of yourself could go back to talk to Ron in 2004, what would that conversation be like?
RA: I think the present day conversation would probably be do what you’re doing now, rather than always just being kind of hard headed or saying that you’re hardcore or this and that.
Try to make an impact rather than just trying to … just be who you are and if you can’t find out who you are, find out why you can’t be who you are. There’s a thing where people say I am who I am, but that’s not always true all the time. You are who you are if you reach down deep and figure out who you are. If you can’t figure out who you are you need to find out who you are and now you are officially who you are.
There was times when I let everything around me kind of raise me, kind of shape me, rather than me shaping myself.
SLAM: You’ve managed to stay true to yourself. You still have fun and do the fun Ron Artest things that everyone knows you for. How do you manage to do that? A lot of people might try to leave those things behind. Why didn’t you?
RA: I’m 30 years old. I’m in no rush to become that person that I want to become or that person I always wanted to be. I’m letting it happen naturally. So that’s why you see me on Jimmy Kimmel doing crazy stuff. I’m making this transition, I was never rushing to be that suit and tie guy. I’ll let that happen naturally. I want to totally become, you know, an official, mature adult. I’m going to let that happen naturally without having any setbacks.
SLAM: Do you feel like you’ve evolved as a person?
RA: I think I’m becoming a better person. A lot more patient and able to understand life in general. I understand life more. I understand what kind of person I am and the potential I have and if I do the wrong things, you know, what to do.
I understand people more, I understand myself more. I’m not thinking about myself all the time, I’m thinking about other people. I’m lucky to play sports, you know, because I get the chance to see how it is to be a good teammate. I was a part of teams where I was selfish and when I was with coach Adelman I became a much better teammate. In a sense, Rick Adelman has a lot to do with the transformation that I’m making.
SLAM: I read earlier this week that you didn’t want to go through with talking to the kids at the school in September. Can you tell me about that?
RA: I didn’t want to do it because I knew the message I wanted to get across but I also knew that I’m still a goofball and I still do crazy stuff. I felt that if I wasn’t going to talk to the kids that would be irresponsible, because it’s a touchy subject, talking about mental health.
It’s a touchy thing. There are a lot of people out there who are really going through mental health issues and you don’t want them to do harm to themselves by mentioning something you said and you said the wrong things, right? I was scared because people said I was crazy and I was the wrong one to be talking to kids about this.
I didn’t even want to go and I talked to Heidi (Buech, Ron’s publicist) and I said, ‘You know what I can’t do it because I feel like I can’t let the kids down and I’m letting the parents down,’ things like that and I didn’t want to do that.
Finally I got the guts and my PR told me you should do it because there’s nobody else speaking about it and it’s an important issue. And when I found out that it’s not really about me it’s about the kids, I said, ‘OK let’s do it.’
SLAM: How’d you feel after you did it?
RA: I still felt like I want to become a better person. I’m letting everything happen naturally but it’s important that the kids know I’m not perfect and I’d like to become better. But I feel like the kids got something from it.
It’s not all of the kids needed that talk, but some of the kids needed to hear that. I think what happens is these kids, they want to become great people. When they’re young, young girls want to become a princess and they love Barbie and they want to become veterinarians and stuff like that. You’d be amazed how many kids want to become a doctor or a veterinarian in order to help somebody.
And when they get older you’d be amazed at how many kids actually changed. So without helping these kids, you get a kid who wanted to be a veterinarian turns into a kid in jail.
SLAM: You’ve said a few times now that it’s not about you. Do enough people realize that? A lot of people, whether it’s athletes or regular people, that’s a big realization for someone to make.
RA: Yeah, I think it is. I don’t think it’s about you, it’s about the kids. Because you know what, no matter what you’re trying to do with your career, if you’re putting kids in that situation, you know … in America, we’re in a situation where it’s an issue in our society.
It’s crime, it’s weak households, there’s no mother/father at the table in most of the households. You know, divorces and things like that. It’s a way of life that we’re living that’s nothing to be proud of.
When we’re gone, think of all the successful people in the world. When we’re gone we’re happy we have money cars, all that stuff. We can’t leave this country, these kids, with nothing. You can’t leave them with no education. I’m not talking just school education. I’m talking about education of life. You can’t leave them with nothing. We’ve got to leave them with something.
Not knowing how to … especially with American kids, not knowing how to keep America good. You can’t keep these kids not knowing how to care about someone else, not just about us … someone’s going to be weak. I got kids, I want my children to be totally into charity, totally into going to different countries and helping, totally into being a role model.
Anything, more than being an athlete or a singer, I want my kids to want to do that first. You know, and my kids are very understanding of that. It just kills me when kids aren’t … when I go to all these places around the world and I see how America’s losing. Even technology, why when the kids are young why are they not taught to become smart in technology? You know? Instead of six days a week we’re only going to school five days a week. I just think it’s important. I like to win. It’s about time we start with our kids, getting that winning attitude at home.
On Tuesday, I’ll post my second interview with Ron. We talk about Bill Walton, Gilbert Arenas, Ron’s post-basketball football plans and about his relationship with the media.