BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — When Ron Artest first came to town I ignored him, wanting nothing to do with a wacko.
“A lot of people do that,” Artest says.
I thought he was just a thug.
“I tell people who call me a thug you’re calling the right person a thug,” he says. “I was raised to be a thug.”
Others insist he’s a sweetheart, although Ron Artest and sweetheart don’t really seem to go together.
But here we are in a Detroit suburb, the wacko thug more sensitive, insightful and sweet than advertised. Metta World Peace is now nine years removed from the Malice at the Palace.
“The brawl,” as Artest calls it, the day he flipped out and went storming into the stands looking for the fan who hit him with a drink.
We agree to meet over lunch along with John Green, the fan with the great aim who threw a cup of Diet Coke at Artest and won a $50 bet and 30 days in jail for doing so.
We can’t meet Sunday when the Lakers play the Pistons because Green is still banned from attending events at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
There was a time when Artest would have welcomed such a ban, admitting now, “Nobody knew it at the time, but I could never ever go back to Detroit so I asked Indiana to trade me.”
The Pacers were befuddled by the request, but Artest knew the Pacers were going to be regular visitors to Detroit.
“I almost had a nervous breakdown,” he says. His stay in Indiana ended in controversy and Artest decided he would not play basketball again.
He put on 25 pounds, sank further into depression and was shipped to Sacramento. Timbuktu does not have a team.
The first time Sacramento was scheduled to play in Detroit, “I found a reason not to go,” he says, while admitting he cried at one point.
“For two minutes,” he says, probably coming as a shock to the guys who used to get out of his way in the ‘hood.
Late word arrives about lunch. The cup-throwing fan wants to be paid $2,500 to talk, and while Artest says he might have been willing to pay Green if notified earlier, I’m telling him the newspaper would end the interview even before it starts.
Artest still wants to help the guy who almost cost Artest everything, meaning he really is a wacko. The thrown cup begins a chain of events costing Artest around $7 million in salary and endorsements and a year in his prime.
“I was so bitter,” he says, and bothered by being bitter.
So Artest posts a picture of Green on Twitter and if anyone produces Green’s number he’ll take them to lunch.
He gets the number and goes to lunch as promised.
Artest calls Green, “because like a recovering addict there are steps that have to be taken to heal. I could not carry a grudge any longer.”
But Green is the same guy who helped cement Artest’s public and lasting image as a troublemaker.
“People have better things to do than worry about me,” Artest says, and sometimes he really does make sense.
He calls Green, who says right away, “Hey Ron, what’s up?”
Artest laughs. “Just like that, he says, ‘Hey Ron, what’s up?’ I wasn’t bitter anymore.”
They develop a friendship, and Artest explains they have similar issues so he understands Green.
“It’s disappointing he didn’t come for this, but he’s probably trippin’ or something, and I understand.”
For those who might not remember, Artest is playing for Indiana back on Nov. 19, 2004. He fouls Detroit’s Ben Wallace and Wallace shoves Artest.
“I’m raised to take nothing from nobody,” Artest says.
There are 47 seconds left in a game that Indiana is winning by 15, and the urge to fight Wallace is overwhelming. But Artest follows the advice of his psychologist.
“Go to a different place and relax.”
So Artest climbs atop the scorer’s table.
“I was just trying to calm down,” he says.
While he’s lying there he gets hit with the tossed drink and looks up to see a fan raising his fist. Artest doesn’t realize the guy has bet Green $50 he can’t hit Artest and he’s just lost his bet.
He’s about to lose his life if Artest unleashes his full fury.
Artest runs to him, trampling one of Indiana’s broadcasters, who will suffer five fractured vertebrae.
Artest does not hit the fan, but shakes him, wanting to know if he threw the cup. When Artest returns to the court, two fans follow. Artest feels threatened. He throws a punch that is so effective it drops them both.
The game is called, and Artest being Artest in the locker room later asks a teammate, “Do you think we’re going to get in trouble?”
He gets the last laugh.
He’s fine now with Detroit, so much so he’s now telling another Detroit story.
“I come here and I’m on a bad stretch so I ask the hotel concierge to get me a basketball. It’s snowing and I’m in my shorts. We find a neighborhood so I can try and find my street game again.
“But the guy who drives me there notices a white car watching me so he calls the police. They arrive, find guys with guns and arrest them. I don’t know what they had in mind, but I found my game.”
Artest, though, can’t avoid the NBA, taking the brunt of punishment for going into the stands. He’s suspended for the rest of the 2004-05 season, certifying his reputation as a thug who might go wacko any time.
“Even as a kid I had anger issues,” he says. “It’s not normal to walk around on edge all day, but that’s how I lived.”
He’s close to his parents growing up, but hears them argue until it escalates into divorce. He says he’s filled with anger and depression.
He hears the same thing now in emails from troubled parents and kids. He always tells them the same thing: “The family household is everything.”
He talks about helping kids a lot and has the resume to demonstrate it’s more than talk. UCLA has already honored him for advancing the cause of mental health.
He’s fortunate early on, he says, because his mother sends him to counseling while not allowing him to be medicated. And he still never has, although he acknowledges that’s the answer for some.
“I was 13 when I met with a counselor. There were like 12 kids in a group and they all had problems,” he says. “I just loved the group activities.”
Easy to understand now why he enjoys playing for the Lakers.
He says he remains a work in progress, refusing to be called a role model. “I’m more of an example of what can happen,” he says with insight.
“It’s a great time in my life,” he says. “I know now I can play with passion and not go over the edge. When I first came to L.A. I couldn’t play with passion because when I got too high I couldn’t control it.”
The conversation over, so much time wasted in ignoring him before now, I remind him to have a good game against the Pistons and to behave.
I can’t help myself.