Ron Artest: "I'm definitely going to play for the Jets"
Even though he doesn't have a contract finalized, Lakers forward Ron Artest declared his intention to play for the British Basketball League's Cheshire Jets.
"I'm definitely going to play for the Jets," Artest said in a 13-minute phone interview with The Times on Thursday night. "I'm definitely going to play for the Jets."
That could bring near closure to a series of negotiations that Artest said lasted for two months and expects to finalize soon. At first, he said he remained wary about that possibility because the uncertainty on how long the NBA lockout lasts. His agent, David Bauman, has said in recent interviews he wanted to seek insurance for Artest in case he was injured. But with the league and players union appearing to make little progress on a collective bargaining agreement, Artest said he asked himself one question: "I thought, 'Where can I go to play ball and enjoy myself?'"
That answer apparently includes more than playing basketball in the U.K.
The Jets' website indicates their season begins Sept. 30 and runs through April 22, 2012, but Artest said he won't join the team until late November because he plans to appear in an unspecified number of exhibition games with the Loimaa Bisons, a professional basketball team in Finland, during one week in September. Naturally, Artest also said he'll spend that week hosting an undetermined number of comedy shows and making appearances promoting various mental health charities. Per FIBA rules, Artest would have to return from any overseas venture to rejoin the Lakers as soon as the NBA lockout ends.
As reported by The Times on Tuesday, Artest still plans to be in Britain from Aug. 18-23, where he will talk with Jets officials, hold a news conference, mingle with fans and, in his words, "make sure it's a good fit." Artest said he will make between $1,500 to $2,500 a month playing for the Jets, although that's not definitive since the deal isn't finalized. Still, Artest's apparent salary with the Jets drastically contrasts his three-year, $21.8 million contract with the Lakers. As first reported by ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the team will try to land Artest various music gigs and television roles because of its tight finances, including a possible appearance on a British soap opera.
Artest immediately latched onto that idea.
"I went on Jimmy Kimmel in my underwear, so, of course I would do a soap opera," said Artest, who also appeared Thursday in George Lopez's series finale. "Hands down. When they told me I had the opportunity and asked if I wanted to do a soap opera, I said, 'Of course, man.' I'm not going to run away. When I was a kid, I wanted to be on TV. Why would I run away from being on TV?"
Well, perhaps because it could be a distraction. That mind-set only raises concerns about Artest's intentions of going overseas. He finished last season with a career-low 8.5 points on 39.7% shooting in 29.4 minutes a game. He faced ongoing scrutiny on whether his mental health advocacy and Hollywood ventures affected his on-court preparation. Artest's usual lockdown defense only came in spurts.
Consider his commentary on what's exciting him about playing in Finland: "One reason I want to go to Finland is it's the cleanest country in the world. It's the cleanest country in the world. I want to experience that. I'm amazed by that. ... That's the future. I think I want to come back to America with that experience. I want to tell everyone my experience about how they're treating the Earth. It's very important to me."
Also consider how Artest's plan to play overseas originated: "It all came from Twitter. I looked to see where I can play at. I had Glasgow Rocks [of the British Basketball League], they were Twittering me. Then I had the Jets. I just thought it was cool that this professional team is trying to get me. I thought it was fun and cool to experience. The opportunity for me seemed fun in getting the chance to play in the U.K. and entertain the fans."
Artest said he isn't concerned that this could be a distraction, arguing, "I'm going first and foremost to the U.K. to play for the Jets."
"It's a lockout," Artest said. "I can't do anything. I play for the Lakers. I can't play for the Lakers because there's a lockout. There's no obligation to play anywhere, but you can play professional ball. You can play professional ball overseas so I'm going to play in the U.K."
But why not play for a team that has bigger name recognition and better talent?
"If people want to play the best defensive player of the game, come to the U.K. I'm going to be right there," Artest answered. "I'm not chasing anybody. If teams want to play one of the best defenders in the history of the NBA on the wing, come to the U.K. I'll be right there. I'm going to be right there. I'm not going to other countries. I'm from New York City. I play in L.A. U.K is a big country. I'm going to fit right in. I'm going to play hard. If people want to play against Ron Artest, play basketball and not chase the money and play passionate basketball against Ron Artest, come to the U.K. I'm going to be there and we're going to be going hard."
Even so, Artest sounded mindful of his own conditioning level. He slimmed down to 250 pounds in the offseason last year and constantly worked out after games so he could stay mobile to keep up with younger and faster players. That strategy backfired, however,as he appeared and felt fatigued from overtraining. Artest then decreased his workload consisting of off-court conditioning and shooting exercises since the All-Star break. That approach and Matt Barnes' limited play after a prolonged rehab on his surgically repaired right knee partly contributed to his uptick in points (11.8), shooting percentage (50%) and minutes (32.8) in the Lakers' first-round series against New Orleans. But then it came crashing down against Dallas. Artest served a one-game suspension in Game 3 after clotheslining guard J.J. Barea in the waning seconds of Game 2. He also posted only eight points on 32% shooting.
Artest didn't specifically mention his changed regimen following the All-Star break, but he seemed aware of the need for a 31-year-old NBA veteran to conserve energy.
"Once the season starts, you know it's going to be hustle, bustle and grind," Artest said. "So I want to pace myself and enjoy the fans."
And in a sort of logic that only makes sense for Artest, he compared his venture to the Jets to two years ago when he joined the Lakers. Then, he took a paycut by signing a five-year, $33-million deal at the mid-level exception.
"It wasn't about I want to make this amount of money or I want to go to another team because the Lakers are paying me only [this]," Artest said. "If I go play somewhere, I have to enjoy it. If I'm not going to enjoy the game, I'm not going ... Right now I'm really happy with the passion of the team. I'm really happy with the passion of the league. It's not the best league in Europe. But it's a league that has potential. I'm looking forward to being a part of it."
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Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest makes his comedy debut while hosting the Ultimate Comedy Tour at the Improv on July 8. Credit: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times
Photo: If Ron Artest legally changes his name, columnist Chris Erskine is confident the change won't hurt his jersey sales. Credit: Julie Jacobson / Associated Press / October 13, 2010
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest says he will play with the British Basketball League's Cheshire Jets. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times