Ron Artest validates his arrival to the Lakers with an NBA championship
In raw elation, Lakers forward Ron Artest stood in the locker room eager to share any story that popped into his head.
A random anecdote usually emerged based on whomever he saw. When Artest's wife showed up and stood by his side, he revealed how his workouts often came at the expense of family time and dinners. When Lakers special assistant Chuck Person offered congratulations, Artest fondly recalled the special shooting sessions three hours he had before games in hopes to improve his form and shot selection so that he could pull out of his funk. And when his brother, Daniel Artest, shook his hands, Ron burst out in laughter, recalling an episode that happened this postseason where Daniel argued with Houston forward Trevor Ariza via Twitter over whether the Lakers ultimately benefited from signing Artest this off-season to a five-year, $33-million deal.
"I just called it how I see it," Daniel said, laughing.
I had long resisted supporting or refuting that claim, believing the debate between Ariza vs. Artest had to be measured within the context of a whole season. Though it was inevitable that the comparisons would turn up throughout the season, much of the conversation appeared to operate on a pendulum. Artest served as a good addition when he locked down an opponent's top scorer, had a hot shooting night or showed improvement running the triangle offense. He served as a bad addition whenever he had an off defensive night or made head-scratching decisions on offense. It was frankly far too early to have a definitive conclusion because all those performances represented scattered snapshots of a conflicting picture. It revealed a well-intentioned player intermittently channeling that passion into either a bad or good performance.
But as Artest frequently clutched the championship trophy following the Lakers' 83-79 Game 7 victory over Boston on Thursday, a few things remained clear. The Lakers finished on the winning end of the essential Ariza-Artest swap. Ariza in last year's postseason averaged 11.3 points, shot 47.6% from three-point range, and had two memorable steals off inbounds passes late in Games 1 and 3 of the Western Conference finals against Denver. In this year's postseason, Artest averaged 11.2 points a game on 39.8%, but his presence went beyond the box score, providing the defensive toughness the Lakers sorely needed.
Another thing also became clear. The random anecdotes Artest shared in the locker room and in his postgame news conference occurred whenever a family member, friend or teammate appeared nearby, revealing Artest leaned on a wide supporting cast to help him bring his 11-year career full circle after his persona was mostly defined by his infamous Malice at the Palace.
"Everything I've been through?" Artest pondered for a second. "Wow."
In 2004 as an Indiana Pacer, Artest went into the Pistons crowd after beer was thrown at him and punched a fan. The incident sparked an 86-game suspension, the longest penalty for a physical altercation in NBA history, and he received a year's probation for pleading no contest to assault charges. Fast forward to 2010, and you have Lakers reserve center DJ Mbenga pouring beer in the locker room over Artest's head. But the circumstances were much different. Artest was soaked in alcohol this time because he proved largely instrumental in bringing the Lakers the 2010 title. On a night the team collectively shot 32.5% and Kobe Bryant went six of 24 from the field, Artest had 20 points on seven-of-18 shooting and held Boston forward Paul Pierce to 18 points on a five-of-15 clip.
"For the most part, I didn't see Ron tire out there," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "I thought he played with good energy in a game in which he had to play a lot of minutes, and he's played consistent minutes throughout."
"I'm just happy that he was able to win his first championship, and you could see it in his face," Lakers power forward Pau Gasol said. "He's like a little kid right now that got his dream come true, like we all did."
Artest wore a similar look on his face after Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix when he made the game-winning shot. But his happiness after that game became as fleeting as his rise from goat to hero. He launched an ill-advised three-pointer in the final minute of that game as the Lakers nursed a three-point lead with 22 seconds on the shot clock. He then responded with a put-back off Bryant's missed three-pointer with 0.8 of a second remaining.
Artest's happiness this time appeared permanent. He kissed the championship trophy as he sat by his locker. He brought out a bottle of champagne soon after, eager to drink from it moments before instructing one of his sons never to drink alcohol. And he arrived at his postgame news conference with his large family, showing giddiness as he stared at a Wheaties box featuring every member of the Lakers.
But this wasn't just a moment of celebration for Artest. It was an opportunity for him to shed his past misgivings. He immediately thanked God for winning the championship. He then apologized to Indiana for "betraying them" when he requested to be traded after the 2005 season. Moments earlier in the locker room, he credited NBA Commissioner David Stern for allowing him to stay in the league. And he credited the help of a sports psychologist in helping him remain calm this season.
"Today is one of those days where I trusted in myself and I didn't settle for some shots," Artest said. "I kind of at the right time did exactly what Coach wanted me to do."
As a result, Artest earned his first NBA championship and definitively validated the Lakers' 2009 off-season decisions. But Artest won't talk about the latter part, so much as the people who helped him get to this point. But sooner or later, Artests runs out of time in telling his story. The Lakers spokesperson wants to wrap up the news conference. Artest's family wants to get something to eat. And Artest finally has nothing left to say.
"I wish I had a more powerful voice," he said. "Then I could scream more."
But it wasn't needed. The performance he showed and the stories he shared told it all.
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Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest goes after a loose ball along with Celtics guard Ray Allen during Game 7 on Thursday night at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times