About two hours before the Kings-Lakers tipoff Monday evening, Metta World Peace, known for most of his life as Ron Artest, sat in an empty section of seats along the baseline, a huge grin on his face, examining the Golden 1 Center surroundings.
The subtle color scheme received a nod. The overhead videoboard earned his approval. The inviting openness and simplicity of the facility made him feel welcome. Though the Lakers played their first game here weeks ago, since this was their final visit of the 2016-17 season – and perhaps Artest’s last appearance in Sacramento in an NBA jersey – the former Kings forward wanted to take a moment to “feel” the place.
“It’s just amazing,” said Artest, still sweating profusely from his vigorous early warmup session. “Just look at it. I love it. I will always have special memories of Arco, but this city deserved this. I’m so glad it happened.”
But then, as he so often does, he cuts from the warm and fuzzies and drives straight into reality. When was the last time the Kings made the NBA playoffs? he asked, with a straight face.
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Maybe he knew; maybe he didn’t. But Artest was a math major in college. It is highly unlikely he was stumped by his own very pointed question. The last time the Kings made the playoffs in 2006 – a decade ago now – their muscular 6-foot-7 forward was their best player. The last in-season trade that transformed a Kings season? Artest was acquired the previous January for a physically diminished Peja Stojakovic. The last time the Kings won a postseason game? In Sacramento no less? That would be during the opening-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, on a night when Mike Bibby stole the ball and threw ahead to Kevin Martin, who scored the deciding field goal on an acrobatic driving layup while being contested by Tim Duncan.
The Spurs went on to win the series and capture additional championships, while the Kings lost more than they won and plummeted into hard times. Chronic relocation threats. Poor draft choices. Questionable personnel moves. An annual coaching carousel. Struggle after struggle after struggle.
But there will always be Artest. At 37 years old, the Queensbridge native is a living, breathing, expressive example of how life can change in a New York minute. Stuff happens. Sometimes, you cause what happens. His promising NBA career spiraled out of control in the famous brawl between the Detroit Pistons and his Indiana Pacers during the 2004-05 season, resulting in an 82-game suspension, straining relations with Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh and his mentor Larry Bird and leading to the eventual trade that sent him to the Kings.
Later Monday evening, while the crews were cleaning the rows of seats and other Lakers were leaving the arena and walking toward the team hotel, Artest chose another empty area halfway up the lower bowl and, in street clothes and baseball cap askew, resumed the conversation. His life and career path, he reminded, took another dramatic turn during his tenure in Sacramento.
Immediately upon arriving in Northern California in January 2006, still shocked and hurt by his exit from Indiana, he invigorated a slumping franchise whose disgruntled fans were escaping to the exits. The Maloofs and coach Rick Adelman were on the outs. Vlade Divac, Chris Webber and Doug Christie were gone. Pressured by former owner George Maloof, former general manager Geoff Petrie swapped Stojakovic for the troubled Pacers star, and to the surprise of many except perhaps Artest, the former St. John’s standout promptly introduced Sacramento to climate change.
On the court, Artest used his unique talents – the wide hips, powerful frame, exceptional anticipation and cat-quick hands – to disrupt offenses and turn steals into scores. He refused to tolerate poor work ethic, lack of effort or lack of toughness.
“It’s all about will,” he said, “and everywhere I go, I bring the will to win. We had a pretty good team when I got here with Brad Miller, Mike Bibby, Kevin Martin, Bonzi Wells, and we went 25-14 and grabbed the eighth seed. We almost beat the Spurs.”
A few weeks later, though, Adelman was fired and the carousel commenced. Artest’s troubled past resurfaced. He was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence in Placer County in March 2007, sentenced to 20 days in jail, required to undergo counseling and suspended eight games by the NBA. If there was an epiphany in his life, Artest says, a moment that jarred him into re-examining everything – who he was, what kind of parent he wanted to be, what kind of example he was setting – it occurred during the time spent in jail.
Released after 10 days, he began the court-mandated counseling and continued the sessions with Dr. Santhi Periasamy after being traded to the Houston Rockets. The technicals, crazy comments and occasional on-court dust-ups didn’t immediately cease. But after he relocated yet again, this time signing a five-year deal with the Lakers, Artest notably matured – and credits Periasamy with prodding the change.
In the moments before he stood on the dais with his Lakers teammates, his hands never far from the NBA championship trophy he finally held in 2010, Artest publicly thanked “Dr. Santhi” and, for the first time, addressed his emotional issues and began advocating for mental health funding.
“At some point, I just decided that I wanted to be different,” he continued. “Or maybe not different. Just be who I was when I came into the league. Keep it simple. Be who you want to be. And I always wanted to win.”
Artest, who remains in superb physical condition though he has played only sparingly since re-signing with the Lakers and is perceived as more mentor than contributor, listed Rick Carlisle as his best coach, Adelman as his favorite, and said Phil Jackson “is one of the most influential people in my life and in my career. He taught me meditation, being mindful, which I needed in my life.”
Artest, who is divorced but shares his home with all four of his children, not surprisingly had a few thoughts on the current Kings. He thinks there is considerable talent on the roster, wonders aloud about the collective will to win, says he has no feel for their locker room dynamics and reminds that All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins is still a relatively young player.
“DeMarcus is in what? His seventh year?” Artest laughed. “In my seventh year, I was in Sacramento. I think he needs to keep it simple, have some fun. Work hard and go home. Wins and individual numbers is different. Right now, they’re losing. He has to learn to win.”
As he stood up and walked toward the Plaza Level exit, a few employees and fans called out greetings. Artest waved back and posed for a few photos. He paused briefly, directed one more glance down toward the court.
“Pretty amazing,” he said. “Ten years since we made the playoffs here? Hard to believe it’s been that long.”