Ron Artest had us all believe.
He completely and convincingly remade his entire image. He made us believe he’d grown up from the immature punk who was the focal point in one of the ugliest moments in NBA history, to a gregarious, quirky player that everyone liked.
He was a vital piece to the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2010 Championship run. He won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2011, given out annually to a player, coach or trainer who shows outstanding service and citizenship to the community. Last year he even changed his name to Metta World Peace. He made us believe he changed.
He made us forget about the short temper that made him run into the stands during the infamous “Malice in the Palace” in 2004. He made us forget the immaturity that led to 13 suspensions for a total of 111 games over his 13-year career.
And then, last Sunday, he made us remember again.
When Artest (sorry, but I refuse to call him World Peace after Sunday’s actions), cocked his elbow and launched it into the temple of unsuspecting Oklahoma City Thunder forward James Harden, he erased all of the good will he had been earning the last eight years. His entire persona went from goofy and harmless, to tired and insincere with one boneheaded move.
By now, you’ve heard all of the names Artest is being called for this foolish act. Immature. Punk. Bully. Idiot.
It’s that loaded last word that is the most harmful. The NBA has always been forced to deal with an issue no one wants to talk about — getting a mostly white audience to accept and embrace a game played by mostly black players. Complicating the issue further is that most of these black players are enormous, tattooed, and a mere inches from paying customers.
So when Artest drove the lane hard, threw down an aggressive dunk, screamed and pounded his chest, then elbowed Harden, the whole scene was probably a little too surreal for some fans to take.
The NBA has been fighting the “thug” stereotype for years now, making and enforcing strict rules to keep any and all fighting out of the game. This isn’t your father’s NBA where the “Jordan Rules” reigned supreme. Now if you look at an opponent a little too long, you’ll get a technical foul. Give a hard – but clean – foul, and you still might get a flagrant foul and ejected.This isn’t the 1980s, where Kevin McHale could clothesline an opponent, and you’d have to read about it or hope to see a replay the next day. When Artest elbowed Harden at around 4:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, Twitter nearly blew up with every reporter (and not just those that cover the NBA), blogger, and fan furiously tweeting out their opinion about it. About 20 minutes later, popular blog The Big Lead had already posted the video on their website. Forty minutes later, Deadspin posted it too.
Yesterday morning Mike and Mike in the Morning, and every other major sports radio show discussed, the elbow ad nauseum. Debate shows argued over Artest’s intent. Sports shows guessed how long he’d be suspended. In the 24-hour news cycle, this type of story has incredible legs.
The NBA has made it a priority to market players like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose as assassins on the court and angels off of it. But for every positive story about NBA players doing good, it only takes one incident like this for the NBA to end up looking like the league out of control all over again.
Artest’s elbow negatively affected several people. He hurt his career, and possibly the Lakers’ chances in advancing deep in the playoffs, depending on how many games he’s suspended. It hurt Harden — who got a concussion from the blow — and the Thunder, who were a trendy pick to with the NBA title this year. It hurt the NBA, which once again has to explain the behavior of its players.
It also hurt fans of Artest. We thought that Artest had finally become a mature player and mentor and had learned from his mistakes.
After Sunday, we’ll never believe that again.