Preseason question of the day: Will an improved Ron Artest show up?
Once the horn sounded, Lakers forward Ron Artest ran cross court to hug Kobe Bryant. Artest had spent all season trying to keep his emotions in check, even forcing himself not to savor the experience, fearing that it would distract him from helping the Lakers win a championship. But now that it was official and Artest had won his first title in his 11-year career, he could let everything seep right out.
In the locker room, Bryant poured a bottle of champagne over Artest's head just as he began to pour out his emotions. When reporters arrived moments later, Artest recapped the circuitous route he took to finally arrive at this point, a destination that proved as lengthy as his recollection. For too long, Artest's involvement with the Malice at the Palace fueled his on- and off-court persona as someone wild and unpredictable. Though he certainly displayed the two latter characteristics in the champagne-soaked locker room and deadline-anxious postgame interview room, this time the antics were met with laughs instead of scorn.
It seemed that once Artest tasted what it truly felt like to be a champion, nothing could quench his infectious happiness, excitement and hunger. Once he helped the Lakers win the 2010 title, a new chapter had begun. Artest released a rap single titled "Champion," performed at numerous Hollywood nightspots; appeared at a random dodgeball competition; drove around L.A. in a race car; and on a serious note, spoke out on mental health issues at a local high school.
It's been one hell of a ride for Artest this summer, and it's easy to think that when it stops, it'll be hard for him to catch his breath and work again toward accomplishing what made him so happy in the first place.
I disagree. And that's a good thing for the Lakers, who should enter the 2010-2011 regular season comfortable that Artest will build off of last year's success.
Players who taste glory early in their careers and think winning titles is the norm may have a letdown. Players who accomplished feats on talent alone with very little work ethic may have a letdown. Players on teams that lack mature leadership may have a letdown.
But Artest fits none of those categories.
It took Artest 11 years to win a title, and very few thought it was conceivable six years ago that he'd be in this position. All accounts suggest he remained the team's hardest worker, just behind Kobe Bryant. And Artest has the proper checks and balances with Bryant, Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson that would make it impossible for him to go astray.
Artest certainly experienced some rough patches last season while fitting into a secondary role, understanding the triangle and managing the constant scrutiny over whether he would be a worthy replacement for Trevor Ariza. He even had a few head-scratching episodes, such as his Christmas night concussion, appearing on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in his boxers and lamenting via Twitter his frustrations over Jackson questioning his shot selection.
No one once, however, questioned his effort.
Artest went out of his way to compliment teammates, worked hard to lose weight and repair his plantar fasciitis and in most cases fulfilled his role as a lockdown defender. It's an interesting turn of events because very early in the NBA Finals, it appeared his legacy with the Lakers would entail a disappointment. Then something happened.
"It's funny -- right at the end I think he found his rhythm," Lakers forward Lamar Odom remarked during his exit interview. "You saw that the last couple games, especially the last games. It'll be interesting to see him play to that rhythm from the start of the year."
It'll be a much easier start than last year. Although he's not in the position to write a sequel to Jackson's "Sacred Hoops," he understands the offense, how his production points more to off-ball movement than jacking up open shots, and embraces Jackson's teaching. Although everyone can struggle during a long campaign, Artest will no longer be seen as an outsider trying to fit in. And though the public and team will be in store for more laughs and goofy antics, they'll fit within the context of an oddball teammate lightening the mood instead of disrupting it.
Artest already tasted defeat, agony and scorn. Once he tasted Champagne in the Lakers locker room, he tasted victory, and it has made him want more. So as the 2010-2011 season gets underway, Artest will be happy to do whatever it takes to come back for seconds.
Photos, from top: Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest soak in the Lakers' 2010 NBA Finals victory in the locker room; Lakers forward Artest and Celtics forward Paul Pierce go face to face after getting tangled while battling for rebounding position in the first half of Game 7 of the Finals. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times