Ron Artest is trying to be a role model


It was just like the old days, when the Lakers were winning championships and reporters crowded around players to soak in the latest update on Shaq vs. Kobe.

But in this season’s first chapter of a Ron Artest controversy, there was no mud-slinging. No hint or allegation that the media was at fault. No finger-pointing at other players.

Artest basically confirmed that he drank too much alcohol earlier in his NBA career, backing up his statements in a Sporting News story Wednesday that he sometimes consumed Hennessy cognac during halftime while playing for the Chicago Bulls.

“The whole purpose of the testimony was to share problematic times in my life with the youth,” Artest said Thursday. “There’s a lot of kids out there right now that’s going through the same things I was going through and they’re able to relate.”

In an eight-minute interview Thursday that was ultimately cut short by a Lakers official, Artest didn’t go into further detail about his locker-room drinking with the Bulls, though he did discuss other parts of his past, particularly his hard-charging lifestyle as an NBA athlete.

“It almost drove my family apart, but luckily my wife took me back,” he said. “I feel real relaxed and free and sober. I feel great.”

Artest, 30, went back to his childhood days in New York, when he played basketball with other neighborhood kids, some of whom “went and got ‘Olde E’ to re-energize,” he said, referring to Olde English malt liquor.

He would eventually imbibe plenty of times along an NBA path that has put him in controversial spots throughout his five-team, 11-year career. Artest spent 2 1/2 seasons with Chicago, was traded to Indiana, and played in Sacramento and Houston before signing with the Lakers five months ago.

“I was slowly cleansing myself in Sacramento,” he said. “I was 98% cleansed in Houston and now I’m telling you my whole story in L.A.”

The NBA is still considering whether to fine or suspend Artest. The Lakers play tonight against the Miami Heat.

Lakers officials, meanwhile, consider Artest’s in-game drinking to have been too long ago to fret

Or as Kobe Bryant said flatly when asked about the fallout from Artest’s admission: “What fallout? He ain’t doing that [stuff] here. It’s got nothing to do with us.”

Artest has been a model student since arriving, the kid sitting in the front of the class and raising his hand.

“We’re real happy with Ron,” Coach Phil Jackson said. “He’s an exceptional teammate. He’s almost too caring and sharing at this point. We have to encourage him to be a little more individualistic at times.”

In other words, Artest needs to stop passing up shots, Jackson’s most frequent criticism of Artest so far. Artest is averaging 12.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists.

Jackson, who has handled wild cards such as Dennis Rodman in the past, didn’t seem concerned with the latest Artest headlines.

“I really haven’t talked to him about it,” he said. “I probably will at some point. We met [Thursday] morning [as a team] and talked about other issues that were important to us about the team right now, but I anticipate that was something that was blown out of context a little bit.”

Blown out of context?

“I don’t know if this was a daily or game-by-game occurrence or not,” Jackson said. “I just don’t think a player can get away with that kind of thing in the NBA. Someone’s going to see you, there’s going to be alcohol on your breath. It’s just not going to happen on a day-to-day basis. I know Ron said those things and I have to expect that he’s speaking the truth, but I still don’t know how far that went, if that was a once or twice occurrence.”

If the NBA stepped into the story, their interest would tilt more toward Artest’s unflattering comments toward referee Joey Crawford, who helped hand the Lakers last season’s Western Conference semifinals if Artest is to be believed.

“Joey Crawford basically said, ‘Who cares about the Houston Rockets? Kobe Bryant is on the floor,’ ” Artest told the Sporting News.

Artest, who spent last season with Houston, pretty much apologized for his comments Thursday.

“Joey’s a good person,” Artest said. “That question was asked a while ago, in the summertime, and I just felt bad for the Houston Rockets fans. It was a comment I probably shouldn’t have made.”