Sam Amick of AOL FanHouse has a great interview up with Los Angeles Lakers' forward Ron Artest (pictured at right going for a layup against the Clippers' Ryan Gomes Jan. 16). Why are we talking about this on a CFL blog? Because, amongst thoughts on the perception of him, media coverage, L.A. and much more, Artest let slip this tidbit in comments about the other sports he wants to try, highlighted by the good people over at the National Post sports desk;
I'm not getting in the ring for like three years. I don't plan on really fighting professional until I'm probably 37 (years old). I have more time to do the boxing. And in boxing, I can fight my own level of fighters. I don't have to fight (Vitali) Klitschko. ... So the boxing is going to be there. Football is the one I worry about, because I don't know if I'll be as athletic (three years from now). But if I can get a (presumably NFL) tryout, I really want that tryout. And if I don't make the team, I might try the CFL, but it depends what other opportunities are coming up.
On first glance, one might be tempted to write this off as another example of Artest's reputed zaniness. After all, this is the man who was heavily involved in the infamous "Malice At The Palace" brawl, reportedly used to drink Hennessy (cognac) at halftime during games while he was with the Bulls, convinced Craig Sager to give Queensbridge a shout-out and thanked his psychiatrist after winning the NBA title last year.
Still, there's more to the guy than just those widely-reported stories. As Andrew Sharp wrote at SB Nation last year, Artest is "neither a saint or a sociopath". The same man who charged into the crowd and attacked a fan in Detroit took time during the Lakers' playoff run last season to take a little girl who just lost her father to a father-daughter night at her school. He's also the guy who went back to his old neighbourhood for a day last summer to sign autographs and talk to people for four hours, and the guy who just spent a Saturday playing football on the beach with his fans and Twitter followers:
It's clear that Artest isn't just the mayhem-driven thug some used to paint him as, and I doubt he'd cause many off-the-field problems in Canada. His record of community engagement speaks for itself and would allow him to fit right in with many of the CFL's players. The more important questions, though, are would he actually come to the CFL, and would teams actually give him a shot?
On that first point, Artest giving the CFL a look isn't as ludicrous as it might seem. This is far from the first time he's talked about wanting to play professional football. Obviously, his first choice would be the NFL, as would most players, but the success of Pro Bowl linebacker Cam Wake and the growing number of CFL players heading south seem to suggest that the CFL is being seen as a more legitimate path to the NFL than it used to. If Artest is serious about wanting to play football and can't immediately catch on in the NFL, the CFL might make the most sense for him.
But would it make sense for CFL teams? At first glance, maybe not. Artest is already 31, and teams don't tend to look too closely at guys who haven't played serious football since high school. However, the basketball-to-football conversion is not without precedent; Antonio Gates played basketball in college at Kent State, then caught on in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Since then, he's turned into one of the league's best receiving tight ends. It didn't take him too long to figure out the gridiron game, either; despite not drawing a lot of hype in his rookie year in 2003, Gates caught 24 passes for 389 yards and two touchdowns that season.
Artest may be older than Gates, but his physical attributes are even more impressive. At 6'4'' and 260 pounds, Gates poses huge matchup issues for NFL defensive backs, few of whom can match both his size and speed. Artest has three inches on him at a listed height of 6'7'', but is also listed at 260 pounds; his basketball career and rebounding prowess also demonstrates that he has a tremendous vertical leap and a good ability to judge where the ball's going. Especially in the CFL, where defensive backs generally tend to be smaller, it would be pretty tough for anyone to stop a fade route to Artest.
None of that means that this is definitely going to happen. Artest is still finding a lot of success in the NBA, and there's no indication he's ready to give that up just yet. Even if he does, the NFL would certainly have first crack at him, and the success Gates has had will resonate more in a league where tight ends are routinely used. Moreover, CFL personnel staffs have generally been pretty conservative, so there's no guarantee a team would see Artest's potential and give him a shot if he wanted to come north of the border.
However, it's an interesting possibility to speculate on (particularly with lockouts potentially looming in both the NBA and NFL) and one that could possibly work out well for all involved. Playing in the CFL could give Artest a launching pad towards a potential NFL career. He could also prove a valuable, difficult-to-stop receiving weapon for whichever team elected to give him a chance and lead them to substantial success. Moreover, Artest's penchant for community engagement would be great for whichever city lands him, and his presence in the CFL would give the league some more media attention south of the border. The CFL doesn't need Ron Artest to be successful, but if he did want to venture up north, it might benefit both him and the league.