Ron Artest's Great Odyssey to the Finals
His blood brother from Queensbridge, N.Y., and the Lakers were in the NBA Finals against Boston in 2008, and the then-Sacramento Kings small forward had crossed the country to see the Game 6 loss in Beantown that ended it all.
But whether by design or serendipity, it was indeed the day he inserted himself into the Lakers' script. He awkwardly wandered into the shower area of the visitor's locker room at TD Banknorth Garden, then boldly told Kobe Bryant that he wanted to throw a few punches the next time the Celtics were knocking him out of the championship bout. Two years later, the most unlikely of storybook endings is on its way to being complete.
The Lakers finished Phoenix 111-103 in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in large part because of Artest's 25-point outing and seemingly endless energy. Driven by disrespect once again, Artest called out Suns coach Alvin Gentry for dismissing his offensive skills with his defensive strategy and backed up his words with a 10-of-16 shooting night in which he buried 4-of-7 three-pointers. And now the Celtics await in the NBA Finals, with Artest insisting he wouldn't be pinching himself between now and Thursday's series opener in Los Angeles.
This was Artest's plan all along, but even he couldn't have imagined it coming together like this. He had put the bug in Bryant's ear that one night, insisting he could add the toughness and defensive know-how that was missing to fell the gritty beasts from Boston. His audition began in earnest a year later, when Artest challenged Bryant like few others have during the second-round series with Houston in which he took an unconventional approach yet again to earning the Lakers star's respect.
Along the way, Artest said a transformation was taking place. By both choice and circumstance, he was forced to focus on the winning, to seize his chance at hoops redemption rather than chase the sort of status and riches this league would never afford him in his post-brawl life. So he signed with the Lakers last summer as a free agent, putting his name on a five-year, $33 million deal that he would have scoffed at just a year before.
The lesser-known story of the summer of 2008 involved Artest's career crossroads, when he fully expected to be given an extension by the Kings and was -- stop if you've heard this before -- disrespected when it never came. Artest had informed the Kings in unofficial ways that he saw himself as a maximum-contract player. As irony would have it, it was a courtside chat at the Staples Center with the matriarch of the Kings' ownership group -- Colleen Maloof -- that made Artest believe he would be given just such a deal.
The two had chatted during a regular-season finale against the Lakers in which Artest hadn't played due to injury, with Artest later saying he believed assurances had been made from on high. He was traded to the Rockets four months later because, as Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie would say of his overwhelming presence at the time, "If there's too much shade, then the grass doesn't get to grow."
As it turns out, Artest wound up growing too.
"You've got a little ego, and sometimes you've got to get rid of it," said Artest, who will forever be linked to the 2004 Detroit brawl in which he entered the stands while playing for Indiana. "Like when I went to Houston, that prepared me to get rid of my ego when I was coming off the bench. It wasn't convenient for me to come off the bench last year. I mean I'm in my contract year, so averaging 12 points is not going to get you the money that you want as an NBA player. It wasn't convenient for me at all.
"It was convenient for me to say, 'Coach (Rick) Adelman, I need to start.' Don't bring me off the bench. I need to start over Shane (Battier). People forget that. But was that right for the team? No, that wasn't right for the team, so I had to get it in my mind that I'm not going to make the money I'm going to make. I've just got to deal with it. I'm going to be a mid-level (exception salary) player. Hey, let's just play basketball and let's win. That's why it was easy to come here and fit right in."
Odom, who grew up in one of New York's toughest neighborhoods with Artest while playing with him on numerous AAU teams, shared that message with him as well.
"I saw him coming to a whole bunch of (Lakers) games (when he was a free agent last summer), and I kind of knew what that was about," Odom said. "And when I heard that (Lakers management was) mentioning him, I let him know that he deserves to play basketball on this level, to get this kind of look, (and) how important it is to just play basketball on a major, major level."
Odom and the rest of the Lakers knew the sacrifices Artest had made, shifting his focus from a two-way player who averaged 20.5 points per game in his final season with the Kings (2007-08) to one who would again become a defensive specialist. They had seen the rougher stretches of his transition, most notably with the triangle offense and the intricacies that frustrated him so. They had sensed the uncertainty within him, with Artest well aware that the purple-and-gold landscape was so unique he would have to conform instead of confound.
That was the thrust of the elation after his last-second putback of Bryant's missed game-winning attempt won Game 5 on Thursday, when the Bryant-Artest pairing was reversed for once and Artest's teammates were universally thrilled during his moment. One game later, the growth on that front continued as well.
"I see what you're saying, and I think so," Artest said when asked if he "became a Laker" in the last two games. "It just clicked all of a sudden. Boom. It was a perfect connection all of a sudden. I do have that feeling. I do have that feeling. We're one. We just became one, and that's been hard, because you don't want to come in here and do too much to mess up their rhythm. These last couple games, we just clicked."