Metta World Peace. Quite frankly, the makeover was always going to be difficult to pull off. After all, there is that bit of a leopard never losing its spots.
For those wondering what am I talking about, this is about the game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the LA Lakers in Los Angeles on Sunday night. With less than 1:45 to go in the second quarter, the Lakers’ self-christened Metta World Peace ran the ball down three quarters of the floor and dunked over two Thunder players in an exclamation play.
So far, so good. But then, while celebrating the dunk with some frenzied chest thumping, World Peace also landed a vicious backward elbow to James Harden's head and dropped the Oklahoma City guard to the hardwood.
It was a brutal play, which earned a flagrant-2 foul for World Peace and ended his game on the evening. Harden, meanwhile, knocked out by the elbow to his head, did not return to the game (although he tried) and underwent a battery of tests on Monday in Oklahoma City and must meet strict protocol before he can be cleared to return for the Thunder.
World Peace’s offered an explanation on his Twitter account after the game – “I just watched the replay again. Oooo.. My celebration of the dunk really was too much... Didn't even see James ..... Omg... Looks bad.”
Was it as inadvertent as World Peace made it out to be?
Just watching his reaction to the Thunder players, Serge Ibaka in particular, baying for him following the injury to Harden, World Peace was ready to offer a defense for his actions in true Sugar Ray Leonard style. He even left the arena slapping his hand with fans, betraying any hint whatsoever of regret.
Mike Lopresti, writing for Detroit Free Press, therefore, was at his scathing best when he said, “When push comes to shove, and shove comes to elbows, he [Metta World Peace] is still Ron Artest.”
And everyone knows that Ron Artest, as World Peace was called before September 2011, has a history of controversial on-court incidents. The most famous among his list of infamies is the ‘Malice at the Palace’ episode during which Artest was at the center of an altercation among players and fans during a game in Auburn Hills, Michigan on November 19, 2004. Jonathan Abrahams, who provided a fascinating oral history of the incident emanating during the Indiana Pacers versus Detroit Pistons game on that day this year in February 2012, wrote in his introduction to the piece on the episode, “Artest commenced a bizarre journey that took him from being one of the country's most loathed athletes to Metta World Peace.”
Despite that history, there is a perception that World Peace is a reformed individual. Never mind the name change, Artest’s notable charity work over the past few years, including his participation in creating mental health awareness, has led people to believe that he is no longer the enfant terrible who once smashed video equipment after a loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and was even involved in a mid-game confrontation with legendary NBA coach Pat Riley as a Pacers’ player.
That reformed view is what perhaps led teammates and opponents also to stand up for Artest in this hour of crisis. A player no less than Kobe Bryant’s standing defended his Lakers’ mate saying, “One play in the heat of a battle, all of the sudden it changes his perception as a man and as a person? No. Everybody, all you guys, know what a sweet guy he is.” Oklahoma City big man Kendrick Perkins, surprisingly too, spoke in defense of World Peace, saying he would never intentionally harm another player.
The flip side to those arguments is ‘What if?’ What if Harden’s injury was any worse than the concussion threats he is reported to being treated for? What if the knock to his head has ended his season prematurely? Perhaps, that is why NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner suggested that World Peace’s suspension must be linked to Harden’s recover time. Perhaps, that is why Lopresti ignored calls for considering the entire episode as a one-off and wrote instead, “To say he [World Peace] needs to learn from this is laughable. He is 32, and Sunday was his 903rd game as an NBA player. Just when is this great awakening supposed to come?”
The NBA, to my mind, has always been the model league for handling on-court incidents whether it be between players or towards garnering greater respect for the game itself. Unlike professional soccer, the league also does not tolerate any disrespect towards the referees who are in charge of running and controlling the game.
Hopefully, the league will make the correct call this time as well.