In most seasons, the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award is a minor NBA honor given out by Professional Basketball Writers Association in a pretty low-key ceremony. That changed last season, when Ron Artest (the artist currently known as Metta World Peace) earned the award for his charitable activities in supporting mental health awareness. It was an impressive and noteworthy turnaround for a man who once seemed like a force of destruction.
Then, of course, he elbowed James Harden of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the head and saw his reputation take a terrible hit. Perhaps sensing the danger of becoming the butt of jokes, the PBWA went with a safer pick this season. In doing so, they didn't leave the Lakers locker room, choosing big man and concerned citizen of the world Pau Gasol. From Mark Medina for the Los Angeles Times (via SLAM):
For the past seven years, Gasol has served as a UNICEF ambassador, traveling the world during the off-season working with programs aimed at nutrition and education for children. This past March, Gasol participated in El Rey Theater's "Play List With the A-List," in which celebrities sang karaoke in order to raise funds for UNICEF; Gasol sang the Fray's "How to Save a Life." Gasol also released an iBook this year in three different languages, with all proceeds benefiting UNICEF. Gasol plans on another project with UNICEF after he plays for Spain in the Olympic Games in London this summer, from July 29 to Aug. 12.
Gasol frequently visits Children's Hospital of Los Angeles for reasons that go beyond making photo-opportunity appearances. He attended medical school at the University of Barcelona and maintains a strong interest in that field, so much so that he watched a spinal surgery in the summer of 2010. Gasol also visits Memphis' St. Jude's Children's Hospital when the Lakers play the Grizzlies, something he also did frequently when he played in Memphis from 2000 to 2008.
We highlighted that performance of "How to Save a Life" when it hit the Internet, but Gasol's commitment to these causes goes well beyond singing off-key versions of songs featured on "Grey's Anatomy." He cares deeply about these issues and does his best to help others.
Yet it'd be wrong to claim that Metta World Peace doesn't still care about those same mental health causes just because he elbowed Harden. In truth, he received this award last spring for reasons mostly unrelated to how he acted on the court — good behavior matters, but it's still an honor based on what a player does in his non-basketball time. World Peace continues to support the same charities and do more of the same sort of work. The elbow was bad, but as long as he continues to work on his own problems he won't have disgraced the rationale behind the award.
Gasol, though, is clearly a less controversial choice, and one who isn't likely to cause any controversies over the next year. But that doesn't mean he's any more deserving than his teammate — he's just gone about being worthy in a different way.