Author's note: In early 2003, ESPN the Magazine ran a cover story on Ron Artest, calling him "The Scariest Man in Basketball." Not much has changed, even though everything has changed. Funny thing, though: everyone who meets Artest likes him. A lot. He comes across as kind and well-meaning and even endearing. So how to explain the horrible outbursts? Keep in mind that Artest grew up in chaos. Every day of his childhood brought the fear of violence and poverty and disorder. He saw his father hit his mother. He saw them get divorced. He saw his baby sister buried after she died of SIDS. Chaos is Ron Artest's phobia. Lack of control of his surroundings brings him back to a time in his life when the next moment could bring something terrifying. Basketball was and still is his antidote, his crutch. Ron Artest plays as if his life depends on it, because somewhere in the back of his mind he might believe it does. So it's possible that when that cup hit him last Friday, he became the little boy none of us can see in this big, brawny man. The Scariest Man in Basketball could also be the most scared.
Crazy. Ron Artest
is crazy. Sometimes it is said with a chuckle: He crazy! Sometimes it is said in admiration: Mmm, mmm, dude is cray-zy. And sometimes it is said in a grave whisper: I think he might be crazy.
His high school coach: "A wild man."
His college coach: "Kind of scary at times."
An NBA teammate: "The court is 94 feet of therapy -- for whatever's bothering him."
Look at the man. Watch him play. Watch him rip a phone out of press row, bust a blackboard, charge into a locker room after a loss and scream at his teammates, "Ain't nobody eating! Nobody deserves to eat!" Watch him hurl a TV monitor to the floor after a loss in New York and then smash a $100,000 camera to bits.
Listen to the man. Listen to him call himself unstoppable -- and mean it; then call himself a loser -- and mean it. Listen to him wonder aloud how he shut down Kobe and T-Mac and then wonder aloud why NBA players are so far beneath his expectations. Listen to him insist that if he were commissioner, he'd enforce a mandatory ejection for cussing "because kids are watching" but remove any punishment for punting a ball into the stands "because it's fun." Listen to him say this: "They better not put me in the All-Star Game. I won't shoot, but I'll dominate that easy game. I'll be playing hard defense. I'll be foulin'. I'll be flagrant fouling. Everyone will be like, 'What are you doing?' "
What is he doing? The whole league wants to know. Artest's own team has removed any "throwable" objects from the scorer's table -- and that was before he was fined and suspended for three games for chucking all that A/V equipment at Madison Square Garden. Teammates practice hard because they know if they don't, they're gonna get hurt out there. And opponents are just plain scared by Artest's arched-eyebrow scowl, his Joe Weider arms and his bump-and-run defense. "If there is any fear in your heart," says former teammate and longtime friend Marcus Fizer, "you will be afraid of that guy."
What will Artest do next? Here's a guy whose unmatched defense and drive ratchet up as his first-place team improves. Here's a guy whose own father says, "I always thought Ron's temper would be his downfall in life." Here's a guy who threatened his ex-girlfriend over the summer and was ordered to undergo anger-management therapy, then called his boss in Indianapolis to tell him the news and said, "I could sure use that!"
He wasn't joking. Artest had anger-management therapy once before. And out of those doctor's visits came a prescription that has stayed with him and buoyed him and transported him to an almost impossible happiness. Unspool all that crazy and you'll find a single thread that weaves from each outburst to the one before, and all the way back to the turbulent time that Artest first entered a therapist's office, at 8 years of age.
This nice delivery man in the cap and jacket can explain. Here he is now, in a Manhattan McDonald's on a Friday afternoon, after dropping off his last cases of bottled water. He devours six sugar cookies and two milks. "You wouldn't think I had a temper by lookin' at me," says Ron Artest Sr. And no, you wouldn't. A goofy, endearing smile stands out more than that 6'2", 250-pound brawn. But the man is sensitive, and he takes everything personally. Once, a co-worker challenged him, poked him in the chest, and Big Ron coldcocked him right there on the job. Ron Sr. is a Navy vet and a former boxer -- a one-time Golden Gloves heavyweight from Philly -- who put the gloves on his oldest as soon as Ron-Ron could keep them aloft. Ron Sr. says he prayed that sports might keep the boy from inheriting that Artest temper.
It didn't. Not in the grimy-bricked Queensbridge projects of New York that Ron Sr. and his wife, Sarah, called home. Not when there were eight kids -- six siblings, two nephews -- in two bedrooms. Not when money was so tight that Ron Sr. borrowed from seven different loan sharks. Ron-Ron ate and ate -- he started eating solids at 3 months -- so Daddy took food from the hospital where he worked and bought $300 worth of groceries at a time on store credit. And not when Ron-Ron saw Daddy get angry and start yelling. Saw Daddy's jaw set and his eyes go from warm to hot. Saw Daddy hit Mommy. Ron-Ron offered to lie to the cops, but Daddy said no, that's not right. Never lie. Never hit a woman. Don't be like your father.
But it was too late. Ron-Ron's own temper began to smolder as his parents' marriage fell apart. And he knew only one way to cope -- by lashing out, like Mom and Dad did. So when a boy cut him in line at the school cafeteria, Ron put his enormous hands around the kid's throat. When an older cousin taunted him on the playground, Ron knocked him out. Only 7 years old, Ron was trapped by the madness he feared and the only method of coping he knew. "A lot of Ron's anger," says Ron Sr., "came from the breakup of the family."
Ron Sr. and Sarah did not stay in love, but they did stay involved. Dad moved only a few doors down from Mom, visited Ron every day and took care of the spankings when his oldest got into trouble at school. But it wasn't enough. After several calls from worried teachers, the Artests sent their 8-year-old son to anger-management therapy. The counselor talked and listened and found out what would distract Ron from all the trouble at home. After a few weeks, he offered a suggestion: basketball.
So Ron played against his humongous daddy, who shoved him and held him and sometimes tackled him to make him strong inside and out. The boy played in wind and snow and after midnight and by himself, and played on that day when the director of the community center asked him, "Why are you always so upset?" The boy played in the Rucker Summer League and snarled on cue when all the older men called him "Ultimate Warrior." He played when Mom and Dad finally separated in '92, when his baby sister died of SIDS in '95 and on the day after the funeral -- where he watched Mommy put one of his basketball plaques in 10-week-old Quanisha's casket. The boy played on into high school, leaving his blood on the floor and elbowing bigger players and stepping on their feet just to scare them a little. He played in an AAU tournament in Phoenix, when some kid on his own team started yapping too much and Ron-Ron shoved him backward over a chair. That very day, the coach from St. John's, there scouting the tournament, smiled at the muscular teen and thought: That's him. That's the one I want.
Hoops made Artest feel better, made him excited and then made him special. His new coach, Fran Fraschilla, told Ron he would be the linchpin, the perfect player for rugged St. John's. The coach tweaked and taunted him, demoting him to the second team just to rile him up and stir up practice. "It felt like Frankenstein in the laboratory," Fraschilla says. "You could tell he was ready to blow his stack. Everyone kind of feared him."
Artest outright unnerved opponents -- the bumping, the elbowing, the unshakable glare. Even when someone got by him, big No.15 would follow his man to the hoop and put all his power into a swooping roundhouse right timed to his victim's release. Whether the swing hit ball, hand or head, the message got sent. The Red Storm became the Artest tempest, and New York ate it up. Sure, there were technicals and the occasional fights with teammates, but St. John's had given Ron-Ron a safe place to seethe.
And Ron gave back. Fraschilla got canned because of his own temperament, but Artest's will and talent made the Johnnies a force. Mike Jarvis -- the guarded anti-Fran -- sat Artest down in his first week on the job just to exchange pleasantries. Right away, Artest leaned forward in his chair and said, "Do you think we have what it takes to get to the Final Four?" Jarvis tried to process it -- a player challenging him? -- and said, uh, yes. So Ron took it to another level. More bump-and-run defense, more fights, more dismissals from practice, more winning. Artest dragged his team to the Elite Eight as a sophomore, then invited about a thousand of his neighbors to the Queensbridge community center to announce he was going pro at 19. Come on, everybody, let's get out of the projects once and for all.
But Ron never really left Queensbridge behind. As a Bulls rookie, he funneled money to his people until he was nearly broke (The Mag assembled them all for a July 10, 2000, Total Access), then applied for a job at a Chicagoland Circuit City for the camaraderie and employee discount. He practiced and played to exhaustion, and then snuck away from team hotels in bad neighborhoods to test his shot against bent rims, fierce cold and numbing winds. "He has a tremendous fear of failure," says Fraschilla. "He worries that he'll have to go back to Queensbridge." So heaven help anybody caught loafing. At halftime of one Bulls game, he picked up a ball and threw it against the locker room wall -- just missing the heads of some teammates -- again and again until he saw confusion turn to fear. Then, after the loss, he screamed at teammates who went right for the postgame spread. For every dollop of fear, Ron-Ron had two scoops of crazy.
And a growing rep. The whispers began around him and carried coast to coast. They got louder with each visiting All-Star who left Chicago with lots of aches and not so many points. "A lot of guys in the league don't like to be touched," says Sixers guard Aaron McKie. "He's gonna touch you." At least. All the Bulls remember the day they got a call about Artest breaking MJ's ribs in a summer '01 pickup game before Two-Three's final comeback. They heard MJ was ripping on Ron for being broke. They heard that Ron blew a gasket, punched Michael, body-slammed him, pile-drived him, you name it.
Is any of it true? Artest denies anything more than setting a hard pick. Does it matter? No. Who else in the NBA can break Air's ribs and become even closer friends with the man? MJ even says, "I love Ron Artest."
Which brings us to Indianapolis, where the 6'7", 246-pound Artest is the engine of this Pacers team. He averages 16 and 6, wears his new buddy's No. 23, plans to marry his high school sweetheart, owns a new house in the 'burbs and recently signed a six-year extension worth $41 million that kicks in next season and will afford him all the Circuit City equipment he can carry. He arrived in a big trade at the deadline last season and plays for Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre -- two of the Bad Boys he once idolized. Thomas says Artest is "about as complete a player as we have." Aguirre says Ron has Rodman's hustle, Laimbeer's grit and defense not even Dumars could match. When Jalen Rose, who went to Chicago in the deal that sent Artest to Indy, was told Artest wasn't even on the All-Star ballot, he said simply, "Wow."
What does Ron say? Well, today he's driving his grimy Mitsubishi Montero from the gym to his house to pack for a trip to Milwaukee. Artest drives the speed limit but talks a million miles an hour -- smiling and unwrapping the tape from his jammed fingers. Yes, his defensive style is purposely "erratic." Yes, he worships the game's superstars, and yes, he gets bothered when guys don't hustle. "The most talented," he says, "are not the hardest-working." And yes, he has an anger problem: "When I'm upset, it's not good. I'm not really thinking about the game. I feel like I've failed."
Every game is still the end-game for Artest. No matter how aware he is of his temper, no matter how earnestly he struggles to control it, every glare or taunt from an opponent brings him right back to the trauma of his childhood, when he failed to stop the disaster unfolding around him. He is disappointed in himself every time he loses his temper. He is ashamed of the time he verbally assaulted ex-girlfriend Jennifer Palma over the phone, telling her -- according to a complaint filed by Palma -- "If you don't call back, I'm going to have to hurt you." He can't bear the fact that once, in a fight, he shoved her. He meant it when he told Walsh he sure could use counseling, but any perceived threat to his livelihood turns Ron the maturing professional basketball player back into Ron-Ron the cornered little boy. At the first of his 26 mandatory therapy sessions in December, the therapist asked Artest why he gets so angry. Ron looked at the doctor with eyes wide and pleading, and said, "It's because I'm being spoiled and I want things my way."
Artest parks and walks into his unimposing five-bedroom brick house, where two of his three kids are running around in their jammies and the TV is blaring and gift boxes are strewn about everywhere. So many walls, but just one adornment: a plaque given to Ron for charitable donations to the New York City Housing Authority. This place is a little Queensbridge in Indiana. Ron greets his fiancée, Kimisha Hatfield. This fall they had a fight, and Kim started to hit Ron, and Ron ... grabbed his kids and went outside and called the cops. He didn't hit her, didn't retaliate. "If I did that," he says, "I should be in jail."
Ron grabs his suitcase, kisses Kim and hugs the kids goodbye. He heads for the airport and talks about the time he saw his dad hit his mom. "When something like that happens," he says, "you get angry, depressed and sad. But if you keep focusing on it, you won't be able to have any fun." He smiles that endearing grin he got from his father.
Artest is certainly having fun. This situation is so much better than in Chicago, where friends worried that all the losing would push him a little closer to the edge. Now the team is new, the city is new, the house is new and Artest's status as a star is new. Still, the questions loom: What happens if the Pacers start losing, if troubles mount at home, if the pressure gets too great? Artest offers an answer: "Muhammad Ali used to prepare, always prepare, even if he lost. All I can do is prepare."
And play. For now, and for as long as he scares every player he stares down, Ron-Ron can rely on the medication that got him here. "Basketball was always something I felt I could dominate -- something I could control," he says. "I can always get a ball and go play. That's the best thing for me. I can play like a savage. Until my legs break off or I get paralyzed, I can play this way. It helps me be me."
Doesn't sound so crazy, now does it?
This article appears in the January 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine. E-mail Eric Adelson at email@example.com.
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