LOS ANGELES – Ron Artest(notes) cradled the championship trophy in his hands and gave it a long kiss. He was boxed into a corner of the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room, a crush of delirious humanity dancing around him. A bottle of champagne rested at his feet, and all of Queensbridge seemed to be spilling onto him. His mother. His father. His wife. Their two sons and daughter. His brother. A nephew. A few friends. Everyone pressing closer to share in the moment.
Ron-Ron was rolling now. He called himself a wuss for crying on the court. He talked about his dad toughening him up, about all those one-on-one battles they waged on the blacktop at 4 in the morning. He thanked his psychiatrist for giving him the strength to believe in himself. He called out his brother for starting a Twitter war with Trevor Ariza(notes), the Laker he had replaced. He joked that his parents had raised a dumb child and he hugged his own kids close.
Finally the champagne cork popped, and someone in the back shouted, “You drunk Ron?”
“Not yet,” he yelled back. “But give me time.”
Give him time. Give him all the time he wants. This was Ron Artest unplugged, the last honest man in sports. Has the NBA ever produced a less likely champion – and a more deserving one? From Queensbridge to the Malice at the Palace, from Chicago to Indiana to Sacramento to Houston to Hollywood, and somehow, Ron Artest had delivered a title to one of the most storied franchises of all.
“Whenever he got knocked down, he always came back,” Artest’s father, Ron Sr., would later say in a private moment away from the din of the celebration.
“He just stayed with it, stayed with it. … He worked hard and he’s extremely blessed, and this was the night to prove it.”
Two years to the day earlier, Artest had walked past all the celebrating Celtics and straight into that old visitors’ locker room at the Garden in Boston. The Lakers were beaten, embarrassed after failing to put up a fight for the title, and, suddenly, here was Artest standing among them. You need me, he said.
So there stood Artest on Thursday night, sharing the floor with Kobe in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, trying to beat back one last push by the Celtics. Rasheed Wallace(notes) had thrown in a 3-pointer to bring Boston within three, and 20 seconds later, Artest was spotting up, shot clock ticking down. In the biggest moment, in the biggest game, Kobe gave the ball to Artest, and Artest delivered the shot of his career, answering Wallace’s three with one of his own. Kobe punched both his fists into the air, the crowd roared and Artest touched his fingers to his lips to blow everyone a kiss. This was the shot that gave the Lakers their 16th championship, and crazy old Ron Artest had made it.
“What a shot,” Artest said later in front of his locker. “What a shot, what a shot …” His voice trailed off. Not even he could believe it, and who could blame him?
Artest hadn’t just helped Bryant beat these hated Celtics. He carried Kobe through much of the game. For all but two of the 48 minutes, Artest stayed on the floor. He wore down Paul Pierce(notes), harassing him into missing 10 of his 15 shots. He produced five steals and scored 12 of his 20 points in the second quarter to keep the Lakers close at halftime. Phil Jackson called him the game’s MVP.
“He brought life to the team,” Jackson said. “He brought life to the crowd.”
For Artest, this was the performance of a lifetime, and no one saw it coming. Not even him. “I didn’t even realize I was really in Game 7,” he said. “I was so caught up in the game itself.”
Only when the confetti fell from the Staples Center's rafters did Artest realize he had won. He hugged Bryant and began to cry. Nowhere in the building was there a happier man. ABC pulled him aside for a quick interview, and Artest rambled through one thank you after another, blurting, “I want to thank my psychiatrist. She got me to relax.”
It was the line of these Finals – maybe the line of the year. Artest thanked his psychiatrist, and maybe that was the only obvious moment of the night. Of course Ron Artest has a psychiatrist.
Artest’s career has played out like one never-ending session on a shrink’s couch. From sipping Hennessy in his locker stall in Chicago to throwing haymakers at fans in suburban Detroit, Artest has fought his troubled soul. He’s gentle and caring and generous, but he’s also had a lot of growing up to do.
“His sanctuary,” Ron Sr. said, “was on the court playing.”
Even so, Artest nearly threw his career away. The NBA suspended him for the rest of that lost season in Indiana, and then he begged his way out of town. Pacers president Donnie Walsh stood by Artest only to watch him walk out.
“I bailed out on my Indiana team,” Artest said. “I was so young, so egotistical. … I feel sometimes like a coward when I see those guys.”
Artest bounced from Indiana to Sacramento to Houston, and then finally, last summer, the Lakers called. They had just won a championship with Ariza, but Ariza’s agent overplayed his hand in contract negotiations. Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak thought Artest would bring a renewed hunger to the Lakers and signed him quickly.
The entire season has been a referendum on the decision. Every ragged game by Artest – and there have been plenty – brought criticism that the Lakers should have kept Ariza.
“There were some doubts,” Lakers assistant Chuck Person said, “if he was the right guy to help this team win.”
The Finals were no different. Artest locked up Pierce in Game 1, then wandered off in Game 2, dribbling away one of the final possessions before hoisting a ridiculously bad shot that quickly became a YouTube hit for its absurdity. In Game 5, Artest again disrupted the offense and missed some critical free throws as the Lakers fell within a single game of elimination. By then, it was fair to question whether even Jackson could tame Artest enough to turn him into a champion.
Instead of scaling back Artest’s role, Jackson did the opposite: He ran a play for him at the start of Game 6.
“One thing I learned about Ron over the years is Phil is probably the one coach that didn’t try to control him,” Person said. “He unleashed him.”
Unleashed and unplugged – yes, this was Ron Artest in all his glory. He made good on his promise. He beat these Celtics. He gave Kobe back-to-back championships.
Thursday night was bleeding into Friday morning, and Artest was still rolling. He was on the court now, calling over his family and Queensbridge crew to take a picture with him. Kobe walked up from behind and wrapped his savior in a long hug.
“You’re a champion,” Kobe barked. “A champion.”
Artest smiled and let the words hang there. For once, even the last honest man in sports was speechless.