We have all heard the stories of Artest’s redemption time and again and rest assured, this is not one of those. Ron Artest is hardly a redeemed man, barely able to move past the now-infamous 2004 “Malice at the Palace” incident that sealed his fate as one of the NBA’s greatest thugs.
He is more entertaining now, and often more contained, able to pick and choose the moments when Mount Artest erupts, in spite of the lava that threatens to flow at all times.
He is not a saint, this man. He is not nearly one of the faces of the league that employs him, nor even the image associated with his own team. Despite his own attempts to channel himself with the Rockets — by shaving the team’s logo into his hair, of course — the franchise still funnels the publicity machine through the likes of the gargantuan Yao Ming, and the oft-injured Tracy McGrady (who happens to be injured right now, in fact).
Perhaps Ron Artest can best be characterized as a square peg merely trying to find his place in a world of round holes. In this era of NBA basketball, Artest is an outcast, a defensive force with the finesse of a bull in a china shop and the ability to rile opponents with the best of his peers.
No matter that he averages over 17 points per game and has an offensive skill set that pits him amongst the better scorers in the league.
Unfortunately for the 6′8″, 270 pound brute, the era of square holes was some twenty years ago, when Artest-like figures were omnipresent throughout the league. This is best exemplified by those very same Detroit Pistons that the ex-Pacer went toe-to-toe with five years ago.
Those Pistons that won NBA titles in 1989 and 1990 were notorious for a style of play that rivaled even Artest’s, turning hand checks into love taps, and earning foul calls by tainting the court with both blood and wayward bodies sent flying by the attitude that easy baskets were impossible to come by.
Back then, Ron Artest would have been a staple of the association, a persona that could see eye-to-eye with the Dennis Rodmans and Bill Laimbeers of our world.
Today, he is an outcast, a pest, a bully, a criminal.
He has already been presented with two ejections in the Rockets-Lakers second-round playoff series. Once for a flagrant foul on Pau Gasol in game three (an ejection that the NBA, masters of the post-meaningful issuance of punishment and vindication, later rescinded), and prior to that for confronting Kobe Bryant after Bryant had delivered a well-placed elbow to the face of Artest in game two. Only Artest, it seems, could earn his ticket out of a ballgame after an opponent’s indiscretions.
Whether you subscribe to the notion that this current version of Artest is either hero or villain, or perhaps somewhere in between, the fact is the man is making basketball fun to watch.
In today’s world of cheeky rule-bending and over hyped finesse, Artest is the straight-shooting outlaw who has never quite managed to refine the rough-around-the-edges approach to his job.
He is the anti-flopper, the arch-nemesis of a Manu Ginobili, more willing to challenge an opponent’s drive to the rim, than teeter and hope for a charge.
Like it or not, Artest plays the game the right way. He brings a workman-like attitude to both ends of the court, treating each defensive possession like a war he must win, and at the same time bringing stability to an otherwise unstable offense. He can be counted on for the big shot in crunch time, while similarly being relied on to scrap for buckets and boards in the paint.
Ron Artest may not be a role model and may be miles from perfect, but amongst a legion of players, owners, officials, lawmakers, and front-office types that have tried to shun his behavior and quiet his style of play, he is making us notice him for reasons good and bad.
We may tune in for Kobe, but we walk away remembering Artest, and that is really all that matters.