Ron Artest: Always a Character, Finally A Champion


June 21, 2010

Ron Artest: Always a Character, Finally A Champion How far has Ron Artest come over the course of his 11 years in the NBA?

Let's put it this way: He's gone from a completely crazy 19-year-old kid to a completely crazy 30-year-old veteran.

Maybe he's mellowed out a little bit along the way, but it was clear from watching Artest celebrate his first NBA championship on Thursday night that he's still the same jovial, outspoken, unpredictable lunatic that broke into the league as a wide-eyed youngster back in 1999.

He may be old, but he's still crazy.

Artest barged into the interview room at the Staples Center on Thursday night, waving his newly minted Wheaties box and yelling to no one in particular. He brought his whole family with him and offered up rambling, incoherent non-answers to every question that came his way. And of course, he never passed up an opportunity to shout out to his old neighborhood: "Queensbridge!"

Really, you've got to watch it for yourself. Set aside 10 minutes. You won't regret it.

But beneath all the crazy antics, you saw a guy who's genuinely proud to be an NBA champion. Of all the feel-good stories in the world, we're being treated to one that features the star of the Malice at the Palace.

The nutcase is proud of everything it took to get to this point.

"I want to thank God for this blessing to be here," he said Thursday night. "The one thing I said earlier was when I was younger, I bailed out on my Indiana team. I was so young, so egotistical, and I bailed out on Donnie [Walsh], Larry [Bird], Jermaine [O'Neal], [Jamaal] Tinsley, [Jeff] Foster, Stephen Jackson. I feel sometimes like a coward when I see those guys. Because it's like, man, I'm on the Lakers and I had a chance to win with you guys, and I feel almost like a coward. I never thought God would put me in this situation again because of that."

Somehow, NBA karma spared Artest's career and the basketball gods allowed him to thrive. Instead of Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley by his side, he had Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. They gave him a second chance, and he was able to capitalize.

He used to be an immature kid who was full of himself, but empty in championship mettle. Now he's an immature adult, and a champion.

The basketball gods put him in the toughest defensive assignments throughout the postseason, from Kevin Durant in the first round to Paul Pierce in the last. They gave him a chance to be a hero.

Then on Sunday night, he was the goat. He missed two free throws with 43 seconds left in Game 5, with his team down five and desperate to pick away at the Celtics' lead. It was the biggest moment of his career to date, you could argue, and the moment was too big for him.

"I want to be good at those moments," Artest said. "You want to make the NBA. You want to be good. There's certain things I'm not good at, but I want to be good because I want to win. I didn't trust myself in those games, and I wouldn't tell you guys that, not at that time, because then people will feed off that. I didn't trust in myself at that time at the free?throw line. I was disappointed. But I was still alive, we had two more games, and I trusted myself today."

Redemption for Artest came in Game 7. Twenty points, five rebounds, five steals, and another tremendous defensive performance against Pierce. He played almost the entire game, and he never let up.

A year ago, the Lakers won a championship with Trevor Ariza as their starting small forward. Ariza was lauded as a defensive stopper, a clutch shooter and a key role player in Phil Jackson's rotation. When the Lakers first acquired Artest last summer, thereby letting Ariza walk, some questioned the fit. Was Artest the right guy in L.A.?

Plenty of people doubted it then. They know they're wrong now.

"I've just got to thank Coach Jackson for having me and Kobe and the Lakers for giving me this opportunity," said Artest. "I'm really, really just enjoying this."

"And," he added, "I just can't wait to go to the club."

That's Ron Artest. As always, a character. But now he's a champion too.

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