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Ron Artest sees validation in winning 2010-11 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award

April 27, 2011 |  6:30 pm

In a wave of nostalgia, Lakers forward Ron Artest poured out his emotions, unmasked his vulnerabilities and inspired a group of policymakers and fans alike.

All it took was a few sentences thanking his psychologist after his Game 7 heroics in the 2010 NBA Finals to set the hook: "She really helped me relax so much. Thank you so much. It was so difficult to play when there's so much emotion going on in the playoffs. She helped me so much."

It turns out Artest's plug helped others.

It wasn't too long after that memorable postgame interview that the office of Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) contacted Artest's publicist, Heidi Buech, to see if Artest was interested in speaking out on mental health issues. Before Artest knew it, he was visiting schools, testifying before Congress on behalf of the Mental Health in Schools Act, appearing in a public service announcement with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and raffling off his own championship ring for $651,006 for various mental health charities. Artest plans to distribute the money after the playoffs end.

Artest had always hoped this could provide a trickle-down effect, but he admitted being pleasantly surprised in winning him the 2010-11 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.

Just as the honor provided closure to the emotional statement Artest made after the 2010 NBA Finals, the reward provided extra satisfaction for Artest, who's worked a long time to shed the toxic image that stemmed from his involvement in the 2004 "Malice at the Palace" brawl, followed by an 86-game suspension.

"I don't think it would've happened a couple years ago, but it was something I always wanted," Artest said of the honor. "I know I always deserved the award, but it has to be good timing. You have to be in the right place at the right time. It worked out perfectly with where I'm at in my career right now."

That right time points to his Game 7 heroics, where his giddy excitement over a Wheaties box, Kobe Bryant passing him the ball for a significant late-game three-pointer and his overcoming his inconsistent shooting from the field would have sufficed for a memorable postgame press conference.

But that wasn't just a moment of celebration for Artest. It was an opportunity for him to shed past misgivings. He immediately thanked God for winning the championship. He then apologized to Indiana for "betraying them" when he asked 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, Santhi Periasamy, in helping him remain calm through the season.

Artest's stature and openness about his own mental health issues made him the perfect model, in Napolitano's view, to bolster her argument to get her legislation passed. The Mental Health in Schools Act would provide $200 million in grant funding to 200 schools but it has had trouble getting approved as an earmark.

"In a few words, he has opened the door not only for individuals to know it's OK to have that, but you can't quantify that," Napolitano said. "The results are not in yet. It's people and word of mouth and the publicity he got with the ring and people being able to kick off the bill and being upfront with who he is. Other people are saying if he can do it, I can do it."

One of those people was Dunga Costa, an eighth-grader at Los Alisos Middle school in Norwalk. He was one of the roughly dozen or so parents and children at the Lakers-Hornets game Tuesday with Napolitano on behalf of Pacific Clinics, which received a $50,000 donation from Artest after he raffled  off his championship ring. It was only a month ago that Artest visited Los Alisos Middle School and heard stories such as Costa's, who said he's struggled with anger management.

"I would get in fights every single day," Costa said. "I beat people up more than necessary," he said, but explained that "Pacific Clinics helped me with anger management to going months on end without fighting. He said that's the type of association he wants to be involved in.

But Artest feels far from satisfied. He remains reluctant to speak at length about the details surrounding mental health issues, believing he should leave that for doctors to address. So instead, Artest is simply sharing his life story, hoping it will catch on to the general public. So far it has.

"It means a lot and I still have a lot more to do to become the role model I want to become," said Artest, who plans to hang the award that was presented to him prior to Game 5 at his restaurant, Saladish. "I'm not there yet and I have a long way to go. I just think right now I'm an example and solution. Hopefully, one day I'll be able to become an official role model."

-- Mark Medina

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