For a kid who lived to play basketball, Ron Artest grew up in one of the best places in the world. Artest, the Bulls' second-year swingman, grew up in New York City, where there was seemingly a basketball court on every corner and the only thing that could halt a game- maybe- would be lots of snow or a driving rainstorm.
"New York City is where street-ball is a way of life," says Artest. "Sometimes the rims had nets, and sometimes they didn't. But you knew you could always get a game, and you knew you had to come ready to play, because everyone else on the court did. And that's how you got better."
Growing up on the mean streets of New York City taught Artest the value of hard work and dedication.
He still remembers the first time he soared for a dunk. "I was 13 years old, and I took the ball on the wing and came in with a one-handed jam," he confidently declares. "It had a little Michael Jordan flair to it, as I remember. It was a great playground moment for me. After that I was dunking all the time, but I'll never forget that first one."
For Ron Artest, his story is of a young man who always seemed to be on a fast track to the NBA. At 13 he was dunking on a New York City playground. Seven years later he was driving to the hoop against the likes of future Hall of Famers and boyhood heroes, Patrick Ewing, and Hakeem Olajuwon.
But the glitz and glamour of the NBA is a far cry from what Artest experienced growing up in the projects. In fact, when he arrived in Chicago, he visited the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, just for comparison's sake. "I grew up in a tough spot, but Cabrini's worse," he said.
Whenever he gets the opportunity, Artest tries to send a positive message to young people, encouraging them to follow their dreams. He tells them that if he can go from Queensbridge to the Chicago Bulls, then anything is possible for them, too. "My message is to find a dream and go after it, every day, and don't ever quit," he said. "I really believe that anything's possible. Those aren't just words, either. It's what I believe."
Artest's fearless approach to playing the game of basketball makes him one of the Bulls' most valuable players.
Those visits were a big part of Ron Jr's basketball education. The father and son would go after each other, sometimes until 3 o'clock in the morning, playing full-court one-on-one games. "It was a great way to stay in shape," he said with an understatement. "We would play some great games, up and down the court all night long, and by the time I turned 14 or so my dad couldn't beat me anymore. But he never stopped trying."
Putting food on the table is no longer a problem for Artest, but three meals a day weren't always available when he was growing up. But an empty stomach never halted Artest's resolve to chase his dream. "All I know is that my mom did her very best, and I was never hungry as long as I had a basketball in my hands," he said.
The playgrounds of New York City are a great place to develop toughness, and it's something Bulls Coach Tim Floyd likes about Artest. "I like Ron's fearlessness, his intensity, on the court," Floyd said. "Watching him play, you can tell he's faced a lot of challenges, and overcome them, in his life."
Artest's willingness to place team goals ahead of individual accomplishments sets a great example for his fellow teammates.
Growing up, it wasn't always about basketball for Artest. He was a once three-sport athlete, playing football and baseball along with basketball. Then as he got older- and taller- basketball became his No. 1 game. By the time he was a freshman at LaSalle Academy in Manhattan, he was playing basketball 12 months a year.
By his sophomore year, he started thinking that the NBA might be more of a reality than a dream. Artest started comparing himself to other players in the city, and his confidence level began to rise. "High school basketball was a great time for me," he said. "Compared to college and the NBA, it was so relaxed. Things came a lot easier back then, I can tell you that."
One year he played on an AAU team with fellow Bull Elton Brand and the Los Angeles Clippers' Lamar Odom, Artest's favorite active NBA player. Not a bad ballclub, right Ron? "We distributed the ball well and went 67-1," he said.
College recruiters started coming around in his junior year, and by his senior year he knew he wanted to stay close to home so he chose to play at St. John's University. Artest stayed at St. John's for only two years. He was a first-team All-Big East and a third-team All-American selection as a sophomore, when he led the Red Storm to the Elite Eight before being ousted by Ohio State, finishing only three points shy of a Final Four appearance.
Artest: "Find a dream and go after it, every day, and don't ever quit. I really believe that anything's possible."
But after two college seasons, Artest was ready for his next challenge: the NBA. "To get better faster, I thought it was time to play at a higher level," he said. "It was time for me to play against the best players. I couldn't wait to get after it."
His family's financial condition was also an issue. When you go to high school with your toes busting out of your gym shoes because you can't afford new ones, money is always on your mind.
The Bulls made Artest the 16th selection in the first round of the NBA Draft, and the stage was set for Artest to move to the highest level. As a rookie, Artest played in 72 games for the Bulls, averaging 31.1 minutes, 12.0 points, 4.3 boards and 1.7 steals. His production was good enough to make the NBA's All-Rookie second team.
Now Artest is well into his second NBA season, and he's fully aware of the differences between college and the pros. "We play 82 games plus preseason games, and it's a real grind," he said. "I found out early on how important it is to stay in shape, get your proper rest. When we're on the road, I spend most of my time hanging in the hotel, relaxing, watching movies and getting ready for the next game. But I also know that I'm having the time of my life. I'm playing ball every day and getting paid for it. Sometimes I feel spoiled."
When he's not playing, practicing or thinking about basketball, Artest can often be found playing video games or messing around on his keyboard. After basketball, music is his second love. His post-NBA plans include a career in the music business.
"I come from an area of New York City where a lot of big-name rappers are from," he said. "I love rap music. It's music where the artists tell what they really feel, the life they're living. There are guys I grew up with who are out there selling millions of rap records. I know I'd never want to trade places with them right now, but after my basketball career is over I'd like to get involved in the music business.
"I want to help the people in my community. There are a lot of kids out there with so much talent. They just need someone to help them and guide them. For me, playing in the NBA was my dream, and I conquered some tough odds to achieve it. For others, maybe music is their dream, and I'm going to do what I can to help them."
-- Article by Mark Mandernach; photos courtesy of Bill Smith, Chicago Bulls