Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ronnie being Ronnie (SI)

First, let me say this is from SI, it's dated April 19, so I'm guessing it's in the upcoming issue. A different side of Ron Artest, but pretty much the guy I expected when he came to Houston, hopefully more fans will realize how much this guy has changed. He's come a long way from the Ron from the brawl.

WHEN WE go out there," said a Houston Rockets security guard to forward Ron Artest, "don't stop for autographs."

"O.K.," said Artest.

"They're going to want to take a picture with you," warned another Rockets employee, a community relations director, as they strode an uncongested hallway inside the Toyota Center, on their way to a meet-and-greet with thousands of Rockets season-ticket holders being staged in the arena's concourse. "But don't stop."

"O.K.," said Artest.

The same cautions had been issued to all of his teammates—keep moving, don't cause an incident—but there appeared to be an urgency in the message to Artest, given his unfortunate history of mixing with crowds in NBA arenas.

"You can sign if they ask you to," said yet another security guard, "but keep walking."

"Don't stop," said the Rockets' community relations director.

"Don't stop," echoed the security guard.

"O.K.," said Artest.

The doors were flung open to the concourse and Artest began to wade through the fans. Some looked exultant in his presence; others intimidated. Then Artest noticed, on the far side of the concourse, a handful of grade-school children playing a virtual-reality game. They were leaping to swat at large images of spelling blocks that had been projected onto the wall.

Artest stopped.

"Hey!" he said. "What's that?" And just like that he was among the children, reaching up to tip the blocks as if they were soft rebounds around the rim. He tapped the final block upward so that it came to rest alongside two others to spell a word.

"C-A-T," Artest told his audience. "Cat."

He had won the game. The kids were jumping around him, celebrating.

"But I don't think I was really touching [the blocks]—was I?" asked Artest. "Yes, you were," said a security guard, who explained the mechanics of the game as they moved along. Then Artest caught sight of rookie teammate Joey Dorsey playing Wii boxing. He stopped again.

"Do you want to play?" asked Dorsey, and suddenly there stood Artest among a cheering crowd, throwing (gulp!) punches. For how many spectators did a certain melee come to mind as Artest delivered virtual lefts and rights that knocked Dorsey's character flat on his back?

"Kobe!" yelled a fan behind Artest. "Hit him like he's Kobe!"

"Someone said Kobe?" yelled Artest, laughing over his shoulder as he threw punches wildly. "Yeah! Kobe!"

Soon the fight was over—Dorsey in a decision, in spite of the knockdown—and the fans laughed and reached up to pat Artest on his thick blacksmith's shoulders. The people's champion.

TO THIS point in the season (and all pronouncements on Artest must be carefully couched) the NBA's most volatile star has surprised in a positive way. At a time when the Rockets could have fallen apart, it was Artest who reinvigorated the team that is now battling the Spurs for the Southwest Division title. Is it fair to now define Artest as, of all things, a stabilizing influence? "Yes," affirms Houston forward Shane Battier. "Ironically."

The Rockets gambled by acquiring Artest last summer from the Sacramento Kings in the hope that he, swingman Tracy McGrady and 7'6" Yao Ming would form a championship Big Three. Before long that vision appeared to be doomed: McGrady was unable to recover from off-season left knee surgery, Artest was limited for the first half of the season by a bone bruise in his right ankle and the Rockets struggled to figure out how to play together. "We won games, but it wasn't pretty and I don't think we were happy," says Battier. "We didn't know who we were. It was frustrating. We needed something to flip."

The flipper was Artest. After McGrady shut himself down in February to undergo season-ending microfracture knee surgery, Artest took up the vacated leadership role. A team that had been built around the half-court offense of T-Mac and Yao suddenly became a defensive outfit that pushed the ball off the stops generated by Artest, Battier and power forward Luis Scola. In the previous four years the Rockets had gone 20--46 without McGrady, but at week's end they were 28--12 in his absence.

Artest, 29, has evolved as a player. After having long seen himself as a go-to superstar, he has accepted his role as a complementary scorer, averaging 17.2 points through Sunday to Yao's 19.6. The 6'7" forward, who once bulked up to an estimated 280 pounds in order to punish opponents inside, has trimmed down to 246 while generating 41% of his scoring from beyond the three-point line. The Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 is even taking his cues at that end of the court from Battier, who often dictates which of them will guard Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. "I let Shane decide because he's always thinking the game," says Artest. "Even though I've become more mature, I still get a little bit emotional."

Reserve center Dikembe Mutombo believes Artest grew up while dealing with the kidney cancer treatments of his five-year-old daughter, Diamond, who Artest says has responded positively to the chemotherapy she underwent last fall. Artest also gained perspective from visiting Africa with the players' union two summers ago, and he is committed to returning to Kenya after the playoffs. "He has seen the suffering of the poor, the disease, and he relates it to what is happening to him with his daughter," says Mutombo. "You don't find that in so many players; that they wake up in the morning and say, 'I am going to Africa and I am going to do more.'"

While those experiences have no doubt reshaped Artest, he credits his steadier play to the Rockets' coach, Rick Adelman, who spent half of the 2005--06 season with Artest in Sacramento. "He's nothing more and nothing less than a coach," says Artest. "He doesn't hold grudges, he doesn't try to teach you to be a man, he doesn't teach you how to become a boy, he's not trying to tell you how to handle your life."

If previous coaches have sought to fill that role with Artest, it would be understandable: This is the player who once asked if he could take off the early part of the season to promote an R&B album, then infamously went into the stands in Detroit to instigate the brawl in November 2004, earning a 73-game suspension. So far in Houston, Artest's behavior has been more endearing than infuriating. "He has some idiosyncrasies that are quite interesting," says Rockets guard Brent Barry. "Sometimes he'll come to practice and never get into the locker room, he'll just change up in the weight room. Usually during halftimes we'll find him in just his hightops and his boxers, which is an interesting sight to see. Sometimes he has some choice words in a timeout, or before a game in the huddle, that have absolutely nothing to do with what we're about to try to accomplish, and Shane and I enjoy a brief moment glancing at each other. Much like Manny being Manny, Ronnie is Ronnie."

Artest fits comfortably with Houston's blend of up-and-comers, internationals and erudites. "I think Ron's a fan of James Joyce: He talks in streams of consciousness," says Battier. "I don't think Ron's concerned about being a diplomat. He's concerned about winning, and the quickest route for him to win is to be blunt."

As he sits on a tilted bench in the Rockets' weight room, Artest acknowledges he is trying to self-edit. "Sometimes I don't even speak nowadays," he says, "because I'm not sure I'm going to say it the right way." Staring at himself in the mirrored walls, he says of his early career, "I took it for granted. I was young, I was athletic, I was shutting down Kobe, I was shutting down LeBron. I was just cocky: I'm the best defender in the league. Can't nobody score on me. I was not humble at all and I just continued to get in trouble. I knew my talent was needed on a lot of teams, and I took all that for granted. I should have cherished those moments a couple of years ago. Some of that was out of my control, some of that was in my control. But now I have another shot at it."

TWO QUESTIONS remain in Artest's immediate future. The first: Can he and Yao lead the Rockets deep into the playoffs? The Rockets will struggle to score enough points to knock off the Spurs or the Los Angeles Lakers, but their defense—which yielded a miserly 44.6% shooting at week's end, fourth in the league—should give Houston hope of advancing to the second round for the first time in a dozen years, dating to the reign of Hakeem Olajuwon.

The more difficult question is whether Artest, who will be a free agent after the season, has been on good behavior simply to earn a new contract. "I understand that argument," says Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who then dismisses it. Morey believes that Artest has grown through his hard experiences, and that with Adelman's oversight and his comfort in the Rockets' system, Artest can continue to flourish.

Battier, for one, would like to keep him around. "After this year, my lasting memory of Ron Artest is, he loves the KissCam," says Battier, referring to the timeout entertainment in which couples in the stands are shown on the arena jumbotron and prompted to smooch. "We'll be in the middle of a game and we're all focused, and I'll look over at Ron, and Ron will be on the floor cracking up laughing at the KissCam. We've all seen it a million times, but every time he finds it the funniest thing ever."

"KissCam is funny," says Artest, "but I hate it when they put it on me and one of my teammates, and then I have to put the towel over my head." It's all part of growing up, to realize there is no beating the KissCam.


Collin said...

nice peice. Rockets probably won't go far into the playoffs again, I kinda want them to finnaly get past the first round, but if they end up playin my blazers in the Playoffs, I definitely won't be rooting for them. Ron Artest is a solid player, but he sometimes tries to do to much on offense, and wastes the team's possesion. they will lose in either the first or second round, they won't get further than that though.

Moose said...

Careful what you say about them Rockets, Collin. RV and his band of Hustonian Rockets fans (Hursty included) are known for their violent attacks upon Rockets doubters.

BET said...

i still stand by my debate against Rocket fans when i said the Magic were better. It was last summer. It appears, by records, i was correct

RV said...

Moose, we're just as violent towards posters who misspell our city!

RV said...

BET, what debate was that, howard vs Yao?? That's the only one i can remember, and if that's it, the team records don't say much about it.

BET said...

RV, you were not involved in it, neither was hursty. I forgot where i had it, but it was with a bunch of no-link Rocket fans and i think Teddy was involved, cant remember, just recall you and hursty were not.

Moose said...

But what about benevolent posters who misspell the name?

Hursty said...

Collin- if the Rockets draw Portland as the 4 vs 5th seed this year, Houston is going through. They just are.
Hayes has had Aldridge's number all year long, and Roy can't play both Artest and Battier, regardless of how great he is, for 7 games.
Steve Blake will get burned by Lowry, and Yao is going to destroy Oden- just like this past week.

Good story RV, thanks for posting it :)

I also think that whoever draws Denver in the 2nd round - they're going to beat Dallas or the Jazz (because they haven't won on the road all season)- has a great shot at moving on. Whether thats Houston, or the Spurs.

BET- Yao pwned Dwight the other day, and has so since Howard entered the league, and regardless of whoever you believe is better individually, Yao forces more adjustments offensively, and equally so defensively.
Whether the Magic are a better TEAM than Houston is not debateable- look at the head to heads since DH entered the league, more specifically the last 2 years when Orlando has been a playoff team.

RV said...

Moose, i guess since you like to write we'll let you keep your fingers

Hursty said...

Andre Iguodala, with 4:51 remaining in the 2nd quarter.
8pts 3/6 shooting (2/3 from beyond the arc).
8 assists, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block.
Sixers lead by um, 6.

RV said...

collin, looks like houston probably won't be playing your Blazers afterall, they just cant seem to stop climbing the standings....

jameyburke said...

It doesn't matter..we all know the O'Brien trophy will be hoisted by one of 3 men this June: Pierce, Bryant or James. Houston will just be a stepping-stone. Sorry, but as Darth Vader said: "search your know it to be true." BTW, check out the unreal MJ stuff up for auction at


I got a Rockets question: Does TMAC sit on the bench and watch the Rockets play or does he stay at home? Has anyone spotted him at the arena rooting for H-Town, or are relations between TMAC and the Rockets really that bad?

RV said...

BET, tmac wasn't able to move around after the surgery for awhile, so he couldn't attend games, i know i read something about him looking forward to attending the games once he was able to, but i dont know if he's een cleared yet and haven't seen him, not that i'be been looking for him anyway.

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