Artest may no longer have been the player he once was. But that night made it OK, finally, to open ourselves to one of the NBA's few true originals. They just don't make them like Artest anymore, and when they do (Gilbert Arenas, anyone?) the story often ends badly. Lucky for Artest, he got that part out of the way.
But if the Lakers forward started this season as a national treasure, he was still something of a joke. When he was at his most dangerous, literally and figuratively, even Artest's most pointed critics would admit he was the game's mightiest on-ball defender. They took him seriously. The fear of Artest, too, was a kind of compliment. He was a crisis point for the NBA exactly because he was so damn good. He became a winner with the Lakers, and a beloved one (despite being with the Lakers), and yet was denied any ballast. "Artest being Artest" brought us non-stop amusement, where before, it had been the source of the best kind of controversy.
Except, in an unlikely way, late-period Artest has started to matter again -- and you can thank his therapist for it.
Pretty much everything Artest said that night was from the heart; the mention of his therapist, though, seemed the most tangential. As it turns out, it was possibly the most important thing he said, and absolutely key to the way he saw himself. Want proof? This season, Artest has made mental health advocacy his new m.o. as a public figure: raffling off a championship ring to raise money, recording a PSA, and now, according to NBA.com, possibly donating his entire 2011-12 salary away to charity.
From Scott Howard-Cooper at the Hang Time blog:
[Ron Artest] is seriously thinking about handing over at least half, and maybe all, of next season's $6.79 million salary. "I'm definitely considering the whole thing," Artest said. "Or maybe 60 percent."It wouldn't be Ron Artest without that last, distracting, maybe even self-defeating, mention of taxes and the angst they cause him as a multi-millionaire.
Although he may not finalize details until the summer, he called the plan "very serious. I've talked to my wife about it already. It's a powerful message. The message is about the inspiration. That's what I want, to inspire people. People will be like, 'Wow. Why is he doing this? Oh, that's why. Wow. We need to help educate.' I didn't come [to the Lakers] for the money. Obviously I could have gone somewhere else, even a lesser market. Pay less taxes. The taxes here are freaking killing me, you know what I'm saying?"
This isn't the first time Artest has thought of giving his salary away, which might come as a huge surprise if we were talking about any other player. In 2006-07, which feels like light years ago in Artest's story, he considered giving that year's paychecks to "to college and high school scholarships." The difference is, this time it's personal. Arenas and former Arizona teammate Richard Jefferson once had a competition to see who could give the most lavish gift to their school. Jefferson, who gave the money to build a practice facility, won. It was funny -- a novel way for players to go about helping out their alma mater, and the latest "what can't Arenas make weird?" episode. Artest's earlier plan, while I don't doubt that it was sincere, seemed to tell us as much about his erratic behavior as what he really felt was important.
Ron Artest has had, to say the least, an eventful career. Through it all, he's been one of the most talked-about figures in the NBA -- usually for all the wrong reasons, or reasons that sought to make light of him as a person. That's all changing. Through it all, though, he is still undeniably Ron Ron. These days, "Artest being Artest" isn't scary, or laughable -- it's the new benchmark for authenticity in a league that's often sorely lacking in that department.