Staring intently at his audience, Metta World Peace talked. And talked. And talked.
This time, the Lakers eccentric forward wasn’t bragging to a reporter about how he’ll be one of the NBA’s best players in the 2012-13 season. He wasn’t acting goofy, as on a recent appearance on Russell Brand’s “Brand X” where the two stripped and wore each other’s clothes. He wasn’t defiant, the way he was after earning a seven-game suspension for delivering a vicious elbow to Oklahoma City guard James Harden a week before the 2012 playoffs.
Instead, World Peace sat recently in a room at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA before 13 adults who suffer various mental health disorders. A half-hour later, he gathered with 23 kids with similar issues. World Peace provided them with a simple message: I’m facing the same problems you have.
“I’m still learning about myself,” he said. “This actually helps me in telling my story so I can continuously improve myself, stay mentally stronger and not let stuff bother me as much as it used to when I was younger. I still make mistakes.”
With that admission, World Peace then reflected on a dark past.
He relived the frustration of living poor in Queensbridge, N.Y. World Peace recounted an unstable home environment, considering that his dad was diagnosed as bipolar and his parents separated when he was 13. World Peace has received counseling for anger, marriage and parenting issues. He matter-of-factly said he has few friends because many of them, family members included, are either in jail or are dead.
World Peace has grown since his involvement, as Ron Artest, in “Malice at the Palace.” In 2004, as an Indiana Pacer, World Peace drew an 86-game suspension for going into the Pistons crowd and punching a fan for throwing a drink at him. Since then, World Peace auctioned off his 2010 NBA ring for $651,006 to benefit mental health charities. He testified before Congress on behalf of the Mental Health in Schools Act, which would raise $200 million in grant funding to 200 schools. He appeared in various public service announcements and billboards on behalf of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. Because of those efforts, World Peace won the 2010-11 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.
All those efforts and the sincerity behind his name change took a step backward after the incident that nearly gave Harden a concussion. But as a Times reporter recently watched World Peace talk with mental health patients in an event he hadn’t planned to publicize, it’s clear that episode marks part of the journey he’s taking in managing his emotions.
“People still see me as erratic and wild at times, but I feel really good with where I’m at right now,” World Peace told the patients. “I still like to have fun and do random things. I’m really comfortable because I address my issues.”
Several minutes passed after World Peace echoed those words, part of a detailed account on how he manages his demons. Dr. Thomas Strouse, medical director at the hospital, then intervened.
“For those who have never heard Metta talk before, I think it’s so amazing how open he is and how much of himself he’s comfortable sharing with the group,” Strouse said. “I’m thinking maybe folks have questions or comments they want to ask you.”
And boy, did they have questions.
“What type of music do you like to listen to when you’re angry?” a patient asked.
“I rap, but I can’t listen to rap,” World Peace said. “It makes me almost throw up. It’s kind of weird. I listen to a lot of 1920s music. If I’m listening to rap when I play ball, it makes my emotions too high.”
“Do you often engage in breathing exercises?” another asked.
“Breathing exercises help me out a lot,” World Peace said. “If somebody is saying something and I don’t like what they’re talking about, I do exercises like that.”
“A lot of us who are dealing with stuff create different defense mechanisms,” said one patient. “What defensive mechanisms do you have?
“Before, my whole problem was I wasn’t able to move on from adversity,” World Peace said. “I wasn’t able to move on from anything that wasn’t working in my favor. That was my defense mechanism, in not being social. But not being social and holding everything in makes it worse.”
More questions were asked about his childhood, his therapy, his willingness to tell his story. Some even asked why he changed his name and what he thinks of the Lakers' acquiring Steve Nash. World Peace appeared eager to take more questions, but a hospital official indicated that time was running out.
So instead World Peace interacted with patients in a different way. He signed countless pictures, basketballs and shirts in his new name. Sometimes he wrote “Metta World Peace." Other times, just “Peace.” He posed for photos. He marveled at a banner a group of patients made with the message in purple and gold paint, “Welcome Metta World Peace!" He challenged a patient to a pingpong game after hearing that he plays frequently.
“It’s great he actually goes to hospitals and shakes hands with patients,” said a patient who says he’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “It was a very positive experience. It’s helping me get over my stigma.”
World Peace is also trying to get over his.
He says he talks with his psychologist, Santhi Periasamy, about everything -- frustrations from his play, media scrutiny, his family life, his branding interests. But plenty of the time centered on the aftermath surrounding his incident with Harden.
“I was [angry] at how these guys are disrespecting me the last couple of years,” said World Peace, who averaged a career-low 7.7 points per game on 39.4% shooting last season. “I said I’m so furious that I want to bust everybody… She said, Ronny, relax. Just play. Don’t worry about it. Just let the game come to you.”
It was the same message World Peace gave the patients. They nodded, well aware of the progress he's made and the struggles he still faces.
Metta World Peace strips with Russell Brand
E-mail the Lakers blog at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the Lakers blog on Twitter.