LOS ANGELES -- There's no fear or loathing on this campaign trail.
There's Ron Artest in a child-like state, sprinting to and fro on the beach on a sunny Saturday afternoon in January. And rest assured, no one is enjoying this mental health initiative more than the lead spokesman himself.
This isn't a public relations gimmick, though. This is the starting small forward of the NBA's defending champions hanging out with nearly 20 of his favorite Twitter followers, a blissful man of the Tweeple playing barefoot quarterback in a game of two-hand touch football that kicked off an hour late because, well, the basketball job still takes precedence and the Zen Master kept the Lake Show late at this day's practice.
Artest, who is still wearing his official purple and gold get-up from the session that ended less than an hour before, draws up plays on his hand and hurls passes the length of the field. He encourages his 11-year-old son, Ron III, to become his Jerry Rice, to ignore the footsteps and catch the ball at all costs when it comes his way. He hands off to his 13-year-old daughter, Sade, then sends her scrambling up the middle. He does it all while a small crowd of admirers watches his every move, their day brightened by the presence of a man whose reputation once cast the darkest shadow in all of professional sports.
"I always tell people that Ron is one of the nicest people I've ever met -- not just one of the nicest athletes, but the nicest people," says 22-year-old Cassy Vasile, a Los Angeles native and lifelong Lakers fan who answered Artest's Twitter call that involved secret location information known only by his closest social media friends. "If you spend five minutes with him, you realize that he has the biggest heart ever.
"He's really just trying to be a supportive person. ... He has really broken barriers for NBA fans. He's not on some pedestal. You can really talk to him."
That's the message Artest has been pushing for some time now, from his unforgettable thanking of his therapist and hysterical postgame press conference after winning his first championship in June to his decision to auction off his championship ring on Christmas Day as a way of attracting global attention to the overlooked cause of mental health. Like any good politician, the themes of his philanthropic pitch have remained consistent.
Openness. Honesty. Emotional freedom for all.
But the approach doesn't always work wonders, especially when it's Phil Jackson on the receiving end of an informal therapy session. Such was the case in a late December practice, when Artest shared his views on his relationship with the Lakers coach and later feared that the reporting of his flare-up threatened the image he had worked so hard to repair.
And now, with the Lakers having won just four of their last eight games, ESPN.com's Marc Stein is reporting that Artest is hoping to be traded before the Feb. 24 deadline. This is, to be clear, the other shoe dropping that I wondered about when Artest and I met on Jan. 15. The seeds of his discontent appeared to have been planted, and it seemed a good time to check in and see if that was, indeed, the case.
While the 31-year-old veteran insisted he was still happy in Los Angeles as we sat on opposite couches inside a second-story suite in the HAX gym where his kids were practicing basketball at the time, it's worth examining his words a little closer in light of the latest news. He did, in fact, bring up the fact that he often sits on the bench during fourth quarters, and explained why the Lakers' worst losses were 'an illusion' because he wasn't in the game.
He covered it all in the 40-minute chat, from his dedication to the do-good way of life to his post-basketball aspirations (pro football and/or boxing) and, of course, his relationship with Jackson and these Lakers in his second season in Los Angeles.
FanHouse: So it was fun seeing you do your thing with the Twitter folks at the beach today. If the league locks you guys out, you'll have even more time for sandball. How do you see that, as far as how you'll spend your time?
Ron Artest: Well first I'll probably take some time off with my kids ... do things I wasn't able to do (during his career), like coach at the school for a little bit or volunteer at their school for a couple months.
Then I've got a couple options right now. I could train more in boxing, treat that like my training camp so I'll still be in shape. Or I could start training for football, and instead of doing cardio on the treadmill or cardio in the pool, do my cardio in training and that will take care of everything: my foot quickness and drills and take care of my strength, because foot quickness in boxing and football helps in basketball. Soccer is even better. It all connects with each other. I would take that.
FH: Would you think about actually having your first fight during the lockout if it went on long enough?
RA: I'm not getting in the ring for like three years. I don't plan on really fighting professional until I'm probably 37 (years old). I have more time to do the boxing. And in boxing, I can fight my own level of fighters. I don't have to fight (Vitali) Klitschko. ... So the boxing is going to be there. Football is the one I worry about, because I don't know if I'll be as athletic (three years from now). But if I can get a tryout, I really want that tryout. And if I don't make the team, I might try the CFL, but it depends what other opportunities are coming up.
FH: Where do you feel like your athleticism is these days?
RA: I can move. When I'm full of energy, I can move. But sometimes I over-train, and when I over-train there'll be games where I'm real slow. But I'm still guarding (Golden State's) Monta Ellis, and I'm not as fast as those guys but I'm 260 (pounds), still guarding the quickest guys or the strongest guys.
FH: When the story broke about you getting upset with Phil at practice, you were pretty bothered by the perception you thought it put out there. I thought it was a pretty small situation, based on what I'd heard, and definitely based on some of the things that have gone on in your past with other coaches. Why did it bother you so much?
RA: Perception is everything right now. Before (earlier in his career), I always told people, 'Oh, I'm not worried about my image.' And I would just let everything happen naturally. I was letting my image transform or transition naturally into the person that I'm going to be and the person that I want to be, so a couple things happened (the Jackson story) that came out and it was a setback. I don't want to have no setbacks. I want to be positive.
FH: It was a small deal though, was it not?
RA: It wasn't a big deal. It was put out as a big deal, but it wasn't a big deal. It was as professional as you're going to get in a professional relationship. It's like in the music industry: if you've got a guy, a producer, and he asks the piano guy to come produce on his track, and he gives the piano guy $100, he might be scared to ask the producer (about making changes) because he wants to be on the job so bad. So you've got to hit a point where you have a professional conversation, and if you feel like you can't talk to somebody in your business or who you work with, that's not good. So that conversation that we had was a professional conversation.
FH: And how did it go?
RA: It was a little bit awkward. It was awkward. It was awkward because I was shy. I was a little bit confused on certain things and I only have known the guys (the Lakers) for a year, so the personalities weren't really clicking yet, so I actually had to take a back seat with my personality to fit into everybody else's personality. But sometimes I still get a little bit frustrated with people's different ways.
But when you've got one coach, you've got to adjust to his personality. So it was like trying to adjust, but then eventually it was, 'OK, I know your personality, but it bothers me sometimes.' You know what I'm saying? But it was real professional. Real professional.
FH: It was reported as a loud conversation. Was it loud and professional, or no?
RA: Even if it was, it was very professional. If it was yelling or no yelling, it was very professional. People can read into it, but obviously it wasn't no jawing back and forth. Obviously it wasn't no disrespect.
FH: It made me wonder, though. Is that a bump in the road that you're going to get past, or is it a situation where maybe the dynamic has changed in L.A. a little bit? I know you pretty well, and I'm thinking, 'Maybe Ron's telling himself, 'I put myself in the back seat, I changed myself for you guys, but I've been here a little while now and I'm not sure how much I love this situation.''
RA: Ah, no no no. LA is the perfect fit. I'm just doing my job. I don't have any problems doing my job.
FH: So no long-term effects of that situation?
RA: Actually, you know what? Long-term it don't really have nothing to do with me.
FH: What do you mean?
RA: The only time when it has something to do with me is when I'm setting the basketball goals, the boxing goals and all that stuff. The football goals. But I'm not playing basketball to make (personnel) decisions.
FH: OK, let's switch topics then. That was hilarious seeing you out there playing sandball with all those folks. But beyond doing it for fun, you were saying earlier that you think it's important to do things like that. Why?
RA: I just think it's important. Obviously this world is dangerous, but I think it's important that people learn how to get that communication back. That's where the mental health awareness stuff I've been doing comes into play.
It doesn't mean you're crazy. It means coming together and being social. You can't be locked away (psychologically). You should be able to express yourself however you want to express yourself -- your feelings, your emotions. People get locked in and it just causes so much stress. You should try and live in a stress-free environment. That's how I live. That's how I move. Everything I'm doing, for the most part, is being free. Exactly what America is -- free. I think that's very important.
It started in Sacramento. I was trying to do this mental health stuff in Sacramento, right before I got traded. I was still in transition. I was letting the transition happen naturally. I didn't do a lot of things there. I was still in the transition from getting into trouble and everything like that and becoming who I want to become. I was always thinking that if I do (the transition) too fast, it's not going to be too believable. It's going to be like an endorsement push and people are going to think that I'm trying to get commercials and endorsements.
I'd always say, 'I don't care what people think or I'm not trying to change.' I always said that because I always felt that if I do it too fast, it's not going to be believable. But now it's happened gradually, real slowly, and now I can really lay it on people. Now I'm going to lay it on.
FH: So what's next, then, especially now that the whole ring auction is over?
RA: Ah, man, just mainly trying to be inspirational. Mainly for the music. I used to put out music back in the day that I wish was never put out there. But definitely with music I'm trying to be inspirational. Definitely with the mental health and what happened with the ring, I'm like ahead of the game right now for myself and I'm able to help more people.
We're going to go more different and do a documentary supposedly on the plastic in the ocean and stuff like that. Something on the abuse of women, mainly focusing on Afghanistan, a lot of trafficking of women who are being abused and sold so we're doing something on that also. It's important. It's important people know that, first off, you've got to treat women with respect. And most of all, boys who just finished college, they've got to know that when you've got a family you've got to be a good dad.
The harsh reality is that whether you're with the family, whether you're with the girl or not, you have to be a good dad. That's the harsh reality. Just because you get a divorce or you're not with your family, you can't think that you can not be a good dad.
People would always say, 'Man, Ron is such a great guy. He's such a great guy.' But there was a lot of stuff I was doing where I'd think, 'Man, I wish people would stop saying that because I'm still making so many mistakes.' Say it when the timing is right. That's why I tell people that I'm not a role model right now, I'm just an example. I want to be a role model, but I'm not ready for that title yet. Hopefully in a year or two, I'll be a role model.
FH: Let's talk hoops for a minute here. With one title under your belt and all these other goals, are you as hungry now for a championship as you were last year?
RA: Yes. My coaching staff said I had one of the best training camps outside of Lamar Odom. Obviously we have our coach who plays Kobe (Bryant), Pau (Gasol) and Andrew (Bynum), but even in the regular season my jumper was falling, I was on fire. But then somewhere in the season I wasn't playing as much, but in my heart that doesn't mean I was failing individually, that I wasn't one of the best players in the NBA. And it shows. (But) it don't show statistically.
FH: Your role is the same as it was last season now with Matt (Barnes) getting hurt. I know you guys get along, but has that been an adjustment having him on board as far as sharing more minutes than before at the same spot?
RA: We're not in the same spot. We're on the same team. Me and Matt don't play the same position; we play on the same team. Me, Matt, Kobe, Pau, Ron Artest, Lamar, Bynum -- whatever combination you want, we move as one. That's it. That's what happens. We move as one. The only thing we can control is what's in front of us. That's how we move.
FH: Break down last season compared to this one for me. What are the main differences for you?
RA: Last year I didn't really know the offense that much. I realized this is (Bryant's) team, so he really dominates the game a lot and I had to adjust my way of thinking. My whole summer before my first year as a Laker, I practiced spotting up. Even if I played with regular players in the street, I'd be a spot-up player because I knew Kobe was going to dominate the ball and I wanted to perfect my role. But then during the playoffs, I'd see how these teams be playing off me ... and I'd mess up. I'm like, 'A couple years ago, y'all were double-teaming me, and triple-teaming me,' so I had to readjust.
The whole year I was going through a transition of getting comfortable, and then the playoffs came and, bam, the old Ron Artest came, the best one -- where he locks up his player, where he locks up a former Finals MVP (in) Paul Pierce, he gets five steals, a couple rebounds and scores buckets. So this summer, it was different. I didn't prepare to play a role. I prepared to play like Ron Artest played. And that's to help my team.
So sometimes it's uncomfortable a little bit because I can't play how Ron Artest plays all the time, but I don't quit. I don't quit on my team. I still do what it takes to win. So even if I have two points, I'm so arrogant with my defense -- because I already know my defense can change a game. So when people are saying, 'Ron Artest is playing bad,' I'm like, 'No, I'm playing great. Just give me a chance and I'll show you.' That's the difference. The difference this year is I'm definitely playing how Ron Artest is going to play.
FH: You guys as good or better than last year right now?
RA: We're definitely better.
FH: But you've had a few tough stretches ...
RA: Yeah, but it was an illusion. It was definitely an illusion. The games we lost, I didn't play in the fourth quarter -- maybe once or twice, all the games that we lost. And being a crucial part of last year's victories, I just thought I couldn't help my team. So on the bench, I would clap and do everything I could to help my team. I'm clapping on the bench, working hard, trying to do whatever I could to help my team. I'm working out after games, trying to stay in shape, but it was an illusion. I wasn't even in the game.
FH: Not to keep taking it back to you and Phil, but is there any positive effect of the practice situation between the two of you? Any chance it changed the dynamic between you and your coach?
RA: I think there's a little bit more respect. But there's really nothing to say (about their relationship) because I wake up every day feeling good. It's never been anything there really as far as anything negative, because every day -- no matter what happened yesterday -- I'm going to go into practice or the game the next day focused on what I've got to do.
FH: What's he like with you guys? Do you have lighter moments with Phil?
RA: Oh, he always lets his guard down. He jokes all the time, with everybody.
FH: Give me a story...
RA: Sometimes he makes fun of your shoes. Sometimes if you don't practice hard he'll make a comment or say something funny or make fun of how you shoot, saying 'You can't shoot.' One time in a game, I was shooting a free throw, and he said, 'Ron!' right when the ball was being released out of my fingers, and I missed the free throws. He's a clown.
One time I was in the corner last year in the regular season, and I'd missed a couple shots, and he said, 'Don't shoot.' I said, 'You don't want me to shoot? I'm wide open.' He said, 'Yeah, don't shoot.' So I shot it anyway. But he's like that. He's totally in control and relaxed. It was funny though. He's funny man. He's a character. He has a special way of coaching.
Last year (that made it) hard because I'm in this transition of being this different person, but it's like I'm not that far removed from being the person I didn't want to be. So right behind me is the person I'm fighting, you know? It took me a while to say, 'Oh wow, the way he coaches is the right way.' So now, playing for him, it kind of makes me a better person. It's like a whole 'nother life playing for coach. You find out things about yourself. You find out a lot of things about yourself.
FH: Do you still talk to your psychologist?
RA: All the time. Twice a week, maybe.
FH: On the phone, on the couch?
RA: It's everything. Phone. E-mail. I speak to her all the time -- about anything, no matter what it is. Anything and everything.
We'll eat together. She'll come here (to the HAX gym) and we'll talk while we're watching a game. She came to Baltimore one time when we went there to see my sons play. My other son was playing in (Washington) DC, and game after game we were driving back and forth.
FH: How did you hook up with her specifically?
RA: In Sacramento, when I got in the problem with my wife. A guy named Ron Jennings, who's a parenting counselor (connected them). He's awesome.
FH: Part of mental health for some people sometimes involves medicine. Do you take anything?
RA: No, but that's part of the stigma, too.
FH: Which is why I felt comfortable asking, to be honest ...
RA: Yeah, it's no problem. But with the medicinal, there's two issues. Parents really have to get educated on what's going on. There's a bunch of different branches of mental health. One branch, in the black and Hispanic community, is (the mental problems) come a lot from the household. A lot of people are growing up without dads, growing up in a violent environment, so now that mental health issue is the family.
Not having a strong family structure breaks you down, spiritually, emotionally, every which way if you're not strong enough to deal with it. And most of the people who aren't strong enough to deal with it are in jails, right? And then there's a whole 'nother issue if you have an illness. It could be major or minor. If you have a minor issue, there could be some (medicinal) prevention before it gets really, really big when you get older. If you get a hold of it as a kid, you can prevent it early from becoming a big scar. ... And some kids are strong enough to get over it, and some aren't.
FH: Did medicine ever play a part in your career?
RA: It could have. I could have been in a situation where I could have just not gone through therapy or evaluations and just said, 'Hey, give me some medicine.' And just get rid of the problem like that. That's what some people do. But it wasn't necessary. If it was necessary, then yeah I'd do it, but you've got to do what's right for you in that situation.
I'm not experienced on the medicinal, so I can't really comment. I don't have a lot of expertise on that ... but I do know that if it's necessary then you might have to do that. The stigma is what I'm trying to change, and to let people know it's OK to talk to somebody. You've got to be able to talk to somebody.
My whole thing is helping people with their goals. As a kid, you've got goals. But when you get older, what happens to your goals? You were thinking about playing He-Man and Thundercats, but what happened, you know? That's a scar. Something happened. You weren't thinking about selling drugs at five years old. You were thinking about maybe being like Michael Jackson. That's where I come into play. That's my whole focus. So let's heal you and figure out what happened.