Under the dome
Ron Artest had a tough assignment: getting inside his own head
This article appears in the Aug. 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
ARE YOU CRAZY?
What's crazy? You need to decide. On Twitter you could say I'm pretty crazy, or you could say I just have a weird sense of humor. Off the court you could say I'm pretty crazy, or you could say I'm just ghetto. On the court you could say I'm pretty crazy, or you could say I just play really hard. To each person, I could be a different person. So you need to decide. Of course, there have been times when I've done crazy things. But I don't think I'm crazy. I just grew up in a crazy world.
WHAT DO THE DOCTORS SAY?
Well, there is a history of mental illness in my family. My auntie is in the hospital right now. She's had her ups and downs. I've had mine too. I first saw a doctor when I was 13, when I was getting in a lot of trouble. If I felt I, or someone else, was being disrespected, I would pick a fight.
WHAT LED TO YOU HAVING THOSE FEELINGS?
I think a lot of it came from what happened to me as a kid. Some of it was my parents' divorce. A lot of it was getting teased for having ugly clothes and nappy hair. I got bullied so much at 11 and 12 that I became the bully. I didn't want to get bullied no more. And that just carried on through my life.
BESIDES BEING A BULLY, DID YOU ENGAGE IN OTHER DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIORS?
Alcohol was part of the problem. At 15 I started to get twisted, and at 16 I was getting lit up on a regular basis. By the time the Bulls drafted me, I'd drink in the house all day, then go play a game. But I stopped drinking heavily in Sacramento. I'm sure I wouldn't have made the same mistakes if I hadn't been drinking. Was I crazy, or was I not sober enough to have a clear mind? That's the question.
BUT YOU CONTINUED TO HAVE PROBLEMS IN THE NBA. WHEN DID THINGS START TO TURN AROUND?
It started in Sacramento, when I had a domestic issue with my wife. I won't get into specifics, but the court said I had to take classes, had to change course. At first, I was mad. But I took a marriage class, and the teacher was amazing. I became a better husband. Then I took a parenting class, and I became a better father. And I took an anger management class, and that helped me too. Ultimately, I got hooked on self-betterment. All of a sudden, I was addicted to counseling. So when I got to Houston, I started shopping for a mental health doctor. That's when I found Dr. Santhi Periasamy. She's the doctor I kept thanking after the Finals.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF?
Every time we talked about my problems -- at home, in my life, whatever -- it would always come back to basketball. She helped me realize that. So we mostly talked about basketball. We talked about my moves, my shot, and how all of the pressure I felt about my game was interfering with the rest of my life. Like, I found out that an argument with my wife was because I had a bad game, and I had a bad game because Coach Jackson was getting on my nerves. I'd bring that stress back home. It was a cycle. Dr. Santhi said, "Solve the basketball problems, and you'll solve the rest." Now, I can take the pressure, the anxiety, the heat from the media and fans, and it doesn't faze me. I don't rush anymore. I'm not anxious for a game, or to get my shot. Everything will come to me. Dr. Santhi helped me figure that out.
OPPONENTS DON'T GET UNDER YOUR SKIN?
Nah, I'm much more mellow now. I can control myself on the court. If I get fouled, I say what I gotta say and move on. I don't mind being punked anymore. If someone gets in my face, I just walk away. Against the Celtics in the Finals, Tony Allen got in my face, but I don't got the time for Tony Allen. Now, if you're a star and you're talking trash, I'll talk back. All series long, Paul Pierce was talking: "You're a bum, you can't score, you can't guard me, I'm busting your ass." Everything.
HOW WOULD YOU TRASH-TALK AGAINST YOURSELF?
Well, I guess I would try saying, "You're crazy," or "psychopath." I got called both those things, and worse, in the playoffs. Fans in Utah called me Osama Bin Ron and said, "You need medicine," but none of that fazed me.
SO THERE'S NOTHING ANYONE CAN SAY?
All right, there is one thing that gets me really mad. Last season, Tim Legler, Charles Barkley and Carmelo Anthony all said something like, "Ron Artest is a step slower and can't play defense no more." I was 270 pounds, all muscle -- which was my goal for the season -- so I was fine, in my peaceful little world, until I heard that. It pissed me off so much! I put myself through my own midseason training camp. Didn't take a sip of alcohol from that time all the way through the playoffs. And by the Finals, I'd lost 20 pounds in two months. The problem was I was exhausted during that part of the season. That's why I was struggling. I was working out at 1 a.m., on the treadmill, in the gym. But I hit my stride in the playoffs. I shut down Kevin Durant, the NBA's scoring leader. I shut down whoever I shut down in Utah; they didn't have any stars at the 3. I shut down Jason Richardson. Shut down Paul Pierce. Three years straight, Paul Pierce is shooting 40.8% against Ron Artest. So, go ahead, tell me I'm slower. Tell me I can't play defense. Thank you.
WHAT ABOUT PHIL JACKSON? DIDN'T HE GET UNDER YOUR SKIN?
Yeah, that's true too. Phil Jackson is the only person these days who can truly get under my skin. And he gets under my skin 80% of the time. Phil totally controls me. In practice, he'll always joke about me and bother me, saying stuff about my shoes or whatever. All season, he'd say, "Ron can't shoot." But after Game 4 of the Finals, when we were tied at two, he changed his tune. He came to me and said, "Ron, I need you to play your game. You have to make plays." Oh, man. I was so happy! I called Derek Fisher and a couple of my friends and said, "Coach told me I could make plays! Boom! Let's go." What happened? I made plays. When my coach and teammates are behind me, there's nothing you can do to stop me.
Ron Artest's life as a movie
My character would be a basketball player who secretly doubles as a bounty hunter. None of my teammates know, because when I'm bounty hunting I wear a disguise -- a black leather jacket, nice shoes, some black jeans, definitely black shades, a fedora and a gray beard. Oh, and a cane. But even with my disguise, a villain finds out I'm the bounty hunter, and he wants to get back at me, so he attempts to kidnap my point guard. So now I have to stop the villain and protect my team without finding out I'm this bounty hunter. There's a climactic scene when my team and I are all on a bus and the villain's people are trying to get to it and my bounty hunting agency and I have to prevent it from happening without revealing my identity.
In the end, I catch the guy trying to kidnap the players, and he gives me the location of the villain's headquarters. My agency and I run over there and take the whole network down.
BUT YOU'VE SAID YOU REALLY DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR INDIVIDUAL GAME?
I don't. It's all about winning now. I spent a lot of my career fighting coaches. When coaches told me don't shoot, I'd shoot anyway. But now I'm able to listen to a coach and sacrifice my game. It wasn't always that way. In Houston, I was one of the best players in the league, in a contract year, and I'm not starting? Are you kidding me? Shouldn't I have cursed out my coach or GM? Shouldn't I have told my agent to get me the hell out of there? But I didn't do any of that. I was pissed off, but I didn't once say anything to anybody. Then, I get to LA, and ignorant people are saying, "Ron can't fit in."
BUT YOU DO LOVE THE SPOTLIGHT, RIGHT?
I don't care about that anymore. I've totally sacrificed my ego. And what happens? God is giving me everything. Look, I'm the editor in chief of this magazine. And God blessed me with a ring. Don't get me wrong, the spotlight is nice, but winning puts you in the spotlight.
WHEN DID IT BECOME ABOUT WINNING FOR YOU?
In Sacramento. When I got there, we were in last place in the West. Coach Rick Adelman said, "Ron, the team will go as far as you take us." Well, we went to the playoffs. But this is the important part: Outside of Mike Bibby, I was the go-to guy there. Every play was going through me. But we had Bonzi Wells, too, and he was playing well. So I said, "Coach, we should play through Bonzi." And what did Bonzi do in the playoffs? Averaged 23 and 12. Right there, I realized I cared a lot about winning. I also learned I'd be a good coach someday.
WAIT, YOU WANT TO BE A COACH?
I want to be a coach, bad. I'd love to coach the Knicks or St. John's, but I'd go anywhere. I want to coach immediately after I retire. I'd be good for a bunch of reasons. I know the little things, like how important spacing is. I also understand how to deal with players, so I'm able to coach a player like me now. I know when the problem is emotional versus selfishness. I've hurt teams with my selfishness, and I've hurt teams with my emotion. I know the difference. If a player doesn't listen to me, I know how to respond. And, of course, I know defense. It's not just physical; it's more than that. How do I get through a playoff game with only one foul, as physical as I am? It's about knowledge. I know every player's moves and tendencies. I know exactly where all 10 guys on the court are supposed to be, and when. I'm 100% sure this coaching thing will work. All I need is a good staff, and to watch more tape. One thing I don't do is watch tape. I gotta start if I want to coach.
EVERY GOOD COACH NEEDS A GOOD MOTIVATIONAL QUOTE. WHAT'S YOURS?
"It's not what I can do. It's what I'm gonna do." That's mine. I made it up. I was in my house one day, reading the newspapers, and everybody was writing me off. I'm like, what the hell is everyone talking about? And that's what popped into my head.
BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN EXACTLY?
It means a lot of things. I may not win a dunk contest, but you're not dunking on me. And I'm not as fast as you, but I'll beat you to your spot. It's not that I can't score -- I will score, and I'll make sure you're not going to score. It's the best quote ever.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE?
Titanic. When DiCaprio is trying to save the young lady, that was dope. When she tries to save him, and he dies, that was dope too. That whole situation was tragic. When I saw the baby in the water, frozen? I cried a little, but mostly I was pissed. I'd just had my daughter, so when I saw that frozen baby, I was like, "What the f -- !? That's bull -- !" And let's not forget about CÚline Dion. That woman is unbelievable. You know how much I love my music? Well, I wouldn't put out a song for 10 years if that meant I could put out a song with her. Her voice sounds like pure fresh air. It sounds like what it sounded like when the world was created.
WHERE ARE YOU MOST AT PEACE?
At the beach. Man, give me a mango drink, some sand, that water, and it's all good. I love running in the sand. But sometimes I'm scared as hell of water. Whenever I'm out there, I'm thinking, "Damn, some tidal wave is about to come!" Okay, so maybe I'm not totally at peace at the beach.
NOW THAT YOU'VE WON A TITLE, DO YOU STILL HAVE ANY PERSONAL GOALS IN THE NBA?
I would love to get back to first-team All-Defense. I own defense. It's like my corporation. I'm the CEO and everyone else is just an employee. The fans and players know I belong. When you need a stop, who you going to call? Not the goddamn Ghostbusters, I'll tell you that. You call me.
DO YOU STILL WANT TO PLAY FOR TEAM USA?
I want a gold medal so bad, I'd be the water boy. But they won't even let me try out! I've been trying to get on that team forever. Three years ago, I called Jerry Colangelo. He answered the phone. I said, "Hi, this is Ron Artest," and the dude hung up! At least let me try out. Give me a chance to represent the ghettos of America. Come on, Team USA! I don't have much time left.
HOW ARE YOU KEEPING IN SHAPE THIS SUMMER?
My secret weapon is spin class. It's crazy. My first time there, I'm like, "What the hell is this? A bunch of girls and old people on bikes? Easy." So I get on the bike, and within 10 minutes I wanted to quit. But I can't when these girls are hardly sweating. Can't quit. So I kept going. When it's over, I've got a pool of sweat under me. I've never done anything so hard in my life.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON KOBE?
I thought you'd never ask. We'll be on the plane, playing cards. Kobe will walk up, stop the game and say, "Ron, come to the back of the plane." Then, he'll show me some tape and say, "Look at this. Here's what you need to do." I'll go back to my seat, and then he'll walk up to Shannon Brown, stop the card game and do the same thing. And it doesn't matter if you're sleeping. He'll wake you up and show you things you've never thought about. He puts so much time and passion into the game. I have no problem following somebody who's worth being followed, who works as hard as me. I will follow Kobe anywhere.
WILL IT BE A LAKERS-HEAT FINALS?
Don't sleep on Boston, but I like Miami in the East. It would be an honor to face the Heat. I'll take LeBron. Kobe's on Wade. Gasol's got Bosh. It'll come down to Andrew Bynum. If he's healthy, we can't be stopped.
YOU'VE PLAYED FOR FIVE TEAMS OVER 11 SEASONS. WHERE IS HOME?
By now everyone knows Queensbridge is where I grew up, but Indiana is my home. My whole family's been out there since I signed with the Pacers. It's where I got married. It's where my new life began, where everything I worked for started to come true. It's where I signed my first big contract. I have a special place in my heart for Indiana.
... DESPITE WHAT HAPPENED WHILE YOU WERE WITH THE PACERS?
Listen, I told my agent last off-season that if Houston doesn't want to keep me, my first choice was New York. That wasn't an option, so I said, "Let's go to Indiana." I would've gone there for any amount of money. If they would've offered me $4 million, I'd be a Pacer now. I just felt like I owed them something. I owed them more good seasons. I didn't give them my all because I was mad about my contract. Now I know to leave the selfish stuff for an appropriate setting. The fourth quarter isn't the time to worry about yourself. I finally stopped worrying about money after I made Larry Bird mad for the last time. I told him I wanted to be traded, and I regret that. But I don't regret asking for the time off to work on my music, because I needed time to work on my head, too. I was still trying to figure out what I was becoming, and what kind of person I wanted to be. I was lost. I needed that time.
WHO DO YOU WISH YOU COULD'VE PLAYED AGAINST IN HIS PRIME?
Jordan, because I'd want to see what he'd do to me. I think he would've busted my ass.
Sam Alipour is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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