Ron Artest: An unlikely advocate
Laker's bond with his psychologist helped calm him and gave him courage to speak out
LOS ANGELES -- Ron Artest walked into the room fidgeting, tugging at the sleeves on his wrinkled, blue sport coat. Yes, sport coat. He owns one.
"Had to dig in the back of the closet to find it," he said.
The occasion was not the NBA Finals or even a game at the star-studded Staples Center. Artest was not preparing to strut into some Hollywood party or a TV studio to tape any of the numerous talk shows he'd been on since the Los Angeles Lakers had won a second straight NBA championship. Artest was in a small, dingy classroom set off to the side of a middle school auditorium in East L.A. that was rapidly filling up with hundreds of excited and noisy students.
"Man, I'm nervous," he said to no one in particular.
As he helped himself to the fruit on a table also set with pastries and coffee, in walked security agents surrounding California Rep. Grace Napolitano. She nearly squealed upon seeing Artest, then checked herself and calmly said hello and shook his hand.
It was an unlikely liaison: he a star athlete fresh off his first NBA championship; she a U.S. representative with star power of a far different kind. Yet there they were, at Eastmont Intermediate School to promote federal legislation HR 2531, the Mental Health in Schools Act, and to encourage students to seek counseling if there was trouble in their lives.
"What you're doing today is even more important than winning the world championship," Napolitano said to Artest.
Softly, he answered, "I know."
Artest nearly backed out. Overwhelmed by the idea of having to face publicly not only his own mental health issues but also the pressure of what impact that might have on young, impressionable minds, he was close to canceling.
Artest's past actions have caused many people to think, "That guy is nuts." He appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in only boxer shorts and told a news conference crowd that he wanted to trade the Chargers for the Clippers and that he was sad that Pluto was no longer a planet. During the NBA playoffs last season, he told reporters on either side of him that they could ask questions at the same time "because I can handle that. You're there; you're there," he said, pointing to each ear. "Fire away."
And, of course, there was the infamous "Malice at the Palace" in 2004, when Artest charged into the stands in Auburn Hills, Mich., after a fan threw a drink on him. He was suspended 73 games and labeled a social pariah. Oh, yes, and crazy. But his comments after winning the NBA title in June sparked all this current interest in him and created the unlikely alliance between the representative and sports star.
"I'd like to thank my psychiatrist, Dr. Santhi. She really helped me relax," he told ABC's Doris Burke after Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
It was one of the more irreverent thank-you interviews in recent memory. But the much-maligned and, he said, misunderstood Artest wanted everyone to know that he had not gotten his first ring alone.
"Thank you so much, so difficult to play, so much emotion going on in the playoffs, and she helped me relax," he said. At that moment, Dr. Santhi Periasamy, a licensed psychologist, was at a concert in Houston, where she lives, with one eye on a television set that had the game on. She had to hide her interest.
"I couldn't make it obvious, and I couldn't really be invested" because of patient-therapist confidentiality ethics, she said. "It would have been awkward for some of the people I was with to all of a sudden see me watching [the NBA Finals] intently." Because the sound was low, she didn't learn of Artest's thank-you until the next day. A fellow psychologist with whom she had gone to school heard Artest thank "Dr. Santhi" and phoned her from the bathroom in her Los Angeles house. Although she didn't know Periasamy was seeing Artest, she didn't want her husband to hear the conversation, because of her own concerns about confidentiality.
"She said, "I think somebody just said your name on TV," Periasamy said, laughing. "I was shocked. Stunned."
Periasamy began working with Artest in 2008 when he was with the Houston Rockets. A court in Sacramento, when he was with the Kings, had ordered him into therapy after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor domestic violence. Artest declines to speak about specifics of what happened the night he was arrested, but he spent 10 days in a work-release program and was ordered to undergo counseling.
"The courts made me take anger management, the courts made me take a parenting class, which was great. They suggested you take a marriage class, which I did," he said.
When Artest was traded to the Rockets, he still hadn't finished what the court mandated, so he went in search of a new therapist and found Periasamy. When he completed the court requirements, he decided to continue to see her, finding a soul that calmed him, helped him focus and, he said, helped him become a better basketball player and better man.
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"There were things I could not handle, and I needed help," he said.
It wasn't the first time he had sought help. On and off for the past 20 years, Artest said he has been in therapy with probably eight different psychologists. His troubles began when he was growing up in the projects in Queensbridge, N.Y. When he was 13 years old, his parents divorced.
"Suddenly I was the man of the household, but I was also a young kid getting into a lot of trouble," he said. "I grew up with my mom and my dad, like a Huxtable family, going to church all the time. And then when they separated, I was like, 'Wow, what happened?' And my older brother was in jail; I was getting in a lot of trouble.
"So my mom brung me home one day, smacked me in the back of my head and said, 'Boy, you need some counseling.' I said, 'All right, Ma.'"
Artest continued counseling when he went to St. John's University in New York City.
"I was a street dude in a Catholic university," he explained. "You know it ain't gonna mix. I had a quick temper. I wanted to kind of correct that. So when they said, 'Hey, you want to see a counselor?' I'm like, 'Yeah, why not?'"
He was never labeled or diagnosed with any kind of disorder. He was prescribed an anti-depressant, but he was leery of side effects and flushed the pills down the toilet. He wasn't seeing anyone when he charged into the stands that night in Auburn Hills and doesn't think that had he been seeing someone, it would have changed the outcome.
"That would have turned out the same way because that would have been the first time it happened," he said. "Now if it happens a second time, I can figure out, 'OK, this is going to happen.'"
Some of those ejections, perhaps?
"Yeah, the technical fouls, the flagrant fouls would have been able to be controlled," he said. "Back in the day, if you foul me the wrong way or you think you're tougher than me, I'm going to show you who's tougher. But as I get older and understand myself, that really makes no sense to me."
He said the arrest in Sacramento ultimately changed his life.
"A lot of things happened in my life which I wish would never have happened, but I would not be here today without going to jail in Sacramento," he said. "It all helped me make the transition to where I am today. I learned how to spend more time with my children, helped me to be a better parent, a better husband."
Periasamy and Artest met often in her Houston office during the year he spent there. She was careful to protect his identity, often scheduling his appointments when her building was less populated and the office that she shares with two other psychologists was empty. She specializes in eating disorders and professionals in high-stress situations, and she was impressed by Artest's diligence and willingness to continue seeing her when nobody was forcing him.
"I really admire people who take that first step," Periasamy said. "And I really admire people who continue in therapy because research shows that most people only come to one session. So I think it's amazing when they come back."
Artest said that he discussed his goals and habits with Periasamy. He talked to her about wanting to remain a great individual basketball player but also become one who cared more about his team. He said he believes it is a tough balancing act but one he seemed to take more control of once he was with the Lakers.
"I spilled my guts to her, so I can fix it, become a better parent, become a better person, be relaxed, enjoy the blessings of everything in my life," he said.
Periasamy traveled with him several times, including a trip to Boston during the Finals after he had had a particularly bad night at the free throw line.
"I was a nervous wreck," he said. "I needed to get focused. I wasn't focused on the game."
And she was on the phone with Artest after he and Lakers coach Phil Jackson got into a public tiff after Jackson criticized Artest in the media and Artest tweeted that Jackson needed to "close his yapper."
"Coach has a way of getting your attention," Artest said. "And I didn't know how to deal with that. I'm like, 'OK, are you going to do the same thing you did in Indiana?' That's something I don't want to do anymore. And I needed help with that."
Periasamy was back in Los Angeles in mid-September when Artest was considering pulling out of the assembly at Eastmont Intermediate School. They spent the day talking and figuring out how he would relax himself and ignore the critics. He said he understood their skepticism.
"I know the type of person I am," he said. "I'm a clown, a goofball. I'm on the edge. I went on 'Jimmy Kimmel' in my boxers. I don't want my son listening to somebody who's on 'Jimmy Kimmel' in his boxers. I understand why they said that."
But at the same time, he asked himself, "If not me, who?" he said. "Who has the credibility of having gone through it and the credibility to speak about it?"
And so he kept his word on a hot September afternoon. He walked into the auditorium and up to the podium, and as the wide-eyed students finished cheering and hung on his every word, he spoke. He told them about the trouble he had along the way, how he wasn't afraid to get help and he's not afraid now to admit it.
"If you need help, talk to someone, find anyone," he told them. "It's important."Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN.