It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday night, and Ron Artest is signing autographs in the middle of fucking nowhere. And he’s smiling. The 6'7", 260-pound forward for the L.A. Lakers sits in a flimsy wooden chair at a foldout banquet table, welcoming the long line of fans that stretches out in front of him. They’ve come to see him here in the desert, two hours outside of Los Angeles at the Indian gaming casino Pechanga. Over the course of his career, Artest, 31, has built a reputation for menace thanks to a history of suspensions, fights, and his all-around camera-smashing, referee-goading je ne sais quoi. “I’m still ghetto,” Artest has been known to shout. “I’m a gangster, so fuck everything.”
But tonight Artest—taking a long sip from the cup of green tea steeping next to him—seems anything but gangster. “Ron! Ron!” a guy says, really excited. “Bless my cup so when I drink out of this I can play ball!” “No problem,” Artest says. “What’s your name?”
“James. You all are gonna do it again! I got high hopes, high hopes.”
Those hopes are for a third straight championship for the Lakers this season, hopes that they will retain their position as the most dominant team in basketball today. The season is set to start less than 72 hours from now, but here sits Artest. At his elbow rests the glowing gold-plated championship trophy, and the fans tonight are jazzed, reliving that game all over again. Artest made the clinching shot in Game 7 against the Celtics, and so he is their hero.
Artest has come to the desert tonight to spread his love, to stoke the fan fervor, and, really, for some fast cash. Two hours, $20,000. Or thereabouts. Artest gets paid about $6 million a year, but after a long day of practice, photo shoots, and public appearances for his various charities, he has driven out here to sign autographs; get his picture taken with overweight middle-aged women in Crocs and bedazzled jeans; get on the mike and rap in the casino’s pink-lit nightclub, Silk; and then drive home, where he will sleep for about six hours before he goes to practice the next day.
“When they traded for Ron, I was worried. A lot of people were. But he’s been a model player,” says Jimmy Kimmel, who has hosted Artest for some memorable (and half-naked) late-night appearances. “If there is even a single Lakers fan who hates Ron, I haven’t met that person.” Although fans have opened their hearts to Artest, sponsors have been slower to embrace him. He’s too odd, too volatile. “See, I do everything other people don’t do,” says Artest matter-of-factly. “I go everywhere. It’s hard work. I have endorsements that I gave myself. I ain’t got no deals like every other NBA player—sneakers, Sprite, Gatorade, all that stuff. That’s great, but I don’t have the luxury to have those deals. So I gotta work extra hard.” He looks at the clock. The line is coming to an end. He gathers up his pens. Two guards from the casino come and cart away the trophy.
Artest goes up to his room for a quick dinner, and in no time he’s back in the casino, now at a VIP table at Silk. Around him his friends are sipping drinks, dancing with girls. Artest sits on a long gray banquette, texting on his iPhone, an older model with a shattered screen. Occasionally, a drunk girl makes her way into the periphery and shoves a scrap of paper in his face, and he signs it without looking up. He’s on the job. “I’m getting about $400,000 a year just doing parties,” he shouts, taking a chug from a bottle of Fiji water. “I’m not bragging about it, but that’s work, you know? One time I did seven shows in one day! All the way from 10 a.m. I do $5,000 here, $20,000 there. If it’s a poor city, I do $5,000.
You know, sometimes if it’s, like, middle America, I’m gonna go to a $3,000 show. And I don’t mind driving.” The reason corporate America doesn’t offer him big endorsements? “I’ve got a different way I think than everybody else,” he says. “What I do and what I say are different.”
That Ron Artest sits here now, being embraced by a crowd of graying, beer-gutted men and women, then rapping for a rapturous young crowd, would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. After joining the NBA at 19, Artest quickly ascended to the game’s elite, before one bad decision nearly derailed everything. At 24 he was in the wilderness, on the cusp of ending his career with a legend based on his fuckups and not his game. When the Lakers, fresh from their 2009 championship, traded for him, observers questioned the sanity and logic of adding such a wild card.
But this last year has transformed Artest; he’s somehow absolved himself of his past sins and emerged glittering and new and beloved by his fans. And he has loved them back, L.A. style—from his freewheeling near-nude appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to tweeting about his charities and driving around the city in a souped-up go-cart, Artest has made a name for himself and, most important, stayed out of trouble. “Sports are supposed to be fun, says Kimmel. “Ron stands out because he is one of very few athletes who don’t hide behind cliché. In fact, he sometimes doesn’t even wear clothing.”
“If Ron had really gotten himself involved in the social life in Los Angeles, it could’ve been a distraction,” says Lakers coach Phil Jackson. Artest met Jackson 11 years ago when he was about to leave college and enter the NBA. He told Jackson about his young baby, his girlfriend, his family in the projects of Queens, and they made a connection, says Jackson. “He’s got a certain freshness, a certain naiveté—he doesn’t seem like he’s giving anything but the full truth of his being. There’s no veneer around him.” Jackson says that since coming to L.A., Artest has been fully focused. “His purpose has been to play basketball and do the things he wants to do for kids. It’s big-hearted things. He understands that it’s vulnerable to do that, but fans love him for that vulnerability.”
For years Artest did everything he could to keep that vulnerability tamped down, gaining a reputation as one of the strongest defensive players in the league. With a large family back in Queensbridge to support, Artest left college as a sophomore and joined the NBA, playing two and a half seasons for the Chicago Bulls before being traded to the Indiana Pacers. He flourished there and solidified his reputation as a defensive star. Still, over the years, Ron Artest says, he’s had to work harder than anyone else in the NBA for his money because of his reputation.
That reputation was cemented on a Friday night in Detroit in November 2004. The day started out normal enough—cold and ugly. Artest practiced with his team, then went back to his hotel to rest. The previous season had been the best of his career. He’d made the All-Star team and been named Defensive Player of the Year. He loved Indiana; he loved the team. And they had this game. They were going to win. “Oh, yeah, we felt like we were so good, like rock stars. It was like we were gonna win every game.”
And they were winning, the Pacers up 15 points over the Pistons. Then, with less than a minute left in the game, Artest fouled the Pistons’ enforcer, Ben Wallace, who didn’t like it—didn’t like being treated that way when they were losing so badly already, and so he shoved Artest. After some jostling Artest walked away and, like a man who knows his demons, put himself in a quiet place, lying down on the scoring table and covering his face with his hands. “I was mad. Then I just relaxed,” he says now. “I was trying to wait for everything to clear out, but nothing happened.”
Then a fan threw a cup of beer down from the bleachers, hitting Artest. As if on instinct, Artest leaped to his feet and clawed his way through the stands, pushing fans out of the way, trying to find the guy who’d thrown the cup. “I wasn’t thinking. I was just reacting. It’s sort of a blur. He hit me in the face. I looked where it came from and went in that direction. That’s all I remember.”
He found someone, some random Pistons fan, and within seconds an all-out brawl erupted. Artest’s teammates Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson jumped into the fray, throwing punches. The game was stopped, and the Pacers had to be escorted out by police and security guards, with the crowd throwing everything they could find at them—beer, trash, chairs.
The fight was quickly dubbed the darkest day in NBA history. Jackson, O’Neal, and Wallace were suspended indefinitely, and Artest was suspended for the remainder of the season—73 games, the longest non-drug-related suspension in NBA history. It cost him nearly $7 million in lost salary. “Businesswise, it was bad, I think, because it was a black man who was running into the stands.I looked bad, you know, for America.”
For a while things got weird for Artest, and he struggled with what he learned to think of as his “temper.” Artest was 13 years old when he was first forced into therapy, which he continued through high school and then college at St. John’s in New York. “I was 18, at St. John’s, and I got in some trouble, had a temper problem, so I had to see a counselor. And then when I was in Chicago, I had a temper problem, so I saw the counselor. When I was in Indiana, after the brawl, I had a therapist, and then in Sacramento I was seeing a counselor. And I started anger management, like, two or three years ago.”
Don’t think, though, that those years of counseling have made Artest regret what happened in Detroit. “No.” That’s it? “There was nothing to learn. It was a fight. I mean, we lost a lot of money, but you just knew it was out of your control. They did what they did, and we did what we did. Everybody handles a situation differently. Nothing to learn. It wasn’t up to me. It was up to the person that started it.” He stares straight ahead. You can tell he’s supposed to say something different here, that this probably isn’t the answer David Stern and the NBA brass would like him to give. Does he wish it had happened differently? What if someone threw another beer cup at him again? “I don’t know. If somebody threw something at me, I’m probably going to defend myself.”
To read the rest of the article, pick up the January issue of Maxim, on newsstands now.