Lakers’ Ron Artest says he’s more comfortable this season


If Ron Artest had his way, he’d still be on the interview dais in the aftermath of the Lakers’ championship celebration, soaked in champagne, surrounded by family members and yelling out loud to reporters and broadcasters, if not the world, “Acknowledge me, please!”

It was the first stop in an off-season of partying that finally ended a few days ago. Where to begin?

With his frequent appearances at nightclubs? His banter with late-night talk show hosts? The hero’s welcome returning home to Queensbridge, N.Y.? Or the wacky race car he was driving when he was pulled over by a Los Angeles police officer? (It turned out to be street-legal and the only problem was an expired registration, Artest said.)

Artest smiles when he looks back on it, starting with his 10-minute stand-up routine shortly after the Lakers won the championship in June. “Nobody ever did it like that — real free, all positive energy, family, champagne,” he said Monday. “I wasn’t even supposed to go up to the podium.”

Artest took it from there. The party had started.

It took him awhile to finally remove his uniform from Game 7 of the Finals.

“It was like two and a half days after,” he said. “It was a bad situation. It was real smelly.”

Artest carried the Lakers in the first half of Game 7, collecting 12 points and three steals while his teammates foundered, but he scowls at perceived slights by Boston personnel who have strongly suggested the Lakers wouldn’t have won had Kendrick Perkins been healthy.

“They were up 13, and now they have got all these excuses about why they didn’t win Game 7,” Artest said. “It was the biggest minutes of my career at the most crucial time of my career. I never got down on myself throughout the whole season. That’s what that Game 7 was.”

Artest acknowledged he didn’t do much with a basketball during the off-season. Like most of his teammates, he got far away from the court. He opted instead for hour after hour of dodge ball at the L.A. Jewish Community Center.

“It’s good for agility, good for staying in shape,” said Artest, who smiled when asked whether he was proficient at it. “No. I can catch, but there’s a lot of good dodge ball players.”

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson watched Artest’s off-season from afar, sometimes chuckling, but he fired a minor warning shot last week before training camp began.

Jackson provided an update Monday.

“He’s been fine. He’s suffering a little bit of the pangs of training camp, though,” Jackson said. “Mobility-wise, he’s got a little hamstring issue. He’s managing to push himself through practice, but you can see he’s not moving with the fluidity that he’s well-known for.”

Artest has a slightly strained right hamstring.

Artest, who will be 31 in November, said he weighed 258 pounds at the start of training camp, 10 fewer than a year ago. He wants to be 254 when the season starts, remembering how sluggish he felt early last season when he was too heavy.

“I’m in great shape,” he said. “I’m going to be quicker this season than I was last season.”

Artest made another switch from a year ago, going from jersey No. 37 to 15, the number he wore at St. John’s University and earlier in his NBA career. “I get a chance to finish off what I started with the 15,” he said.

Artest wore No. 37 in honor of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” being atop album-sales charts for 37 consecutive weeks.

“The MJ tribute is never over,” Artest said almost wistfully. “It was a great season, and that 37 was special.”

The new season is right around the corner. Artest says he’ll be ready.

“I’m much more comfortable this year, but still I’ve got to play my role, stay humble in my role, not do too much,” he said. “I gave so much away early in my career, from awards to accolades to wins with all the trouble I had. So it’s real important right now to be focused.”

Bryant, Blake practice

Kobe Bryant took part in the evening session of Monday’s two practices and remained on track to play in the team’s first exhibition game next Monday in London against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“He just wants to get a little bit of activity on the court in contact with bodies, so he can feel like he’s back playing a little bit,” Jackson said.

Bryant, however, declined to provide an update on his surgically repaired right knee.

“I’m not talking about my knee anymore,” he said.

Steve Blake also practiced Monday after sustaining a mildly sprained left ankle the previous day because he was pushed by Sasha Vujacic at the end of a drill.

Times correspondent Mark Medina contributed to this report.