Ron Artest finds peace amid mental health journey

Former Laker has tamed demons that sometimes marred his playing days

LOS ANGELES — There are two hours before the Los Angeles Lakers tip off and by coincidence, Ron Artest is killing time while standing in the sweet spot at Staples Center. A few dozen feet to his left is where he took the biggest shot of the 2010 Finals, and a few dozen feet to his right is where he thanked his therapist for giving him the strength to swish it.

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He is perfectly positioned in the middle of two life-changing events, and therefore you can safely conclude that he’s feeling balanced right now.

The former All-Star — who on a whim renamed himself Metta World Peace, but cheerfully still answers to Ron — is at peace. You can see it in his eyes, his handshake, his smile, his skip in his step.

“I’m good,” he says. “You?”

What about the demons? Well, they never really left him. They hibernate and lurk and stay on standby. Lord, how those demons created a mess for him. At times they nearly stole his soul, although it is the now-retired Artest who is winning that war. He’s moving forward — triumphantly and surprisingly so, you soon learn — while never too embarrassed or hesitant to survey what he left behind.

And that’s the thing with Artest: He’s open to discussing how, in the prime of his life, he wasn’t sure how much longer he wanted to play ball, how much longer he wanted to live.

Moment starts a movement

It was on June 17, 2010, the best night ever, with the world watching and listening, that he revealed how he was receiving treatment for mental illness. In this case, it was anxiety and depression, a pair that tag-teamed him since he was a kid, that Artest was seeking to slay.

This is a personal issue that most folks, to use a term, keep on the low-low. Artest, now 39, is not most folks. As the confetti still helicoptered from the ceiling, and with his jersey still moist from the Game 7 sweat caused by a tense Lakers title victory over the Boston Celtics, Artest went on and on about his improved mental health and how it played a part.

Little did anyone realize it then, but eight years ago a movement in the NBA was born. A cause was created, a stigma lifted, all because Artest rambled. It’s OK now to tell the world that you need therapy. It’s fine if you’re a physically strong professional athlete to admit having a mental illness. A hidden door opened and sympathy and understanding rushed in.

There is Kevin Love, pouring his heart out about his own mental health. And DeMar DeRozan, another All-Star, stepping forward and making a statement. Keyon Dooling detailing his rebound from childhood sexual abuse and the havoc it caused him. And Chamique Holdsclaw, one of the greatest female basketball players ever, revealing her struggles and explaining how therapy saved her from emotional ruin.

NBA players are just normal people. They deserve to be treated as normal, and sometimes it’s hard to be normal when you’re playing at the highest level and playing before millions of people.”

Ron Artest

Their tales, all different to a degree, share the same path, which leads to the search for relief, a road paved in part by Artest.

Asked about fellow players and people from other walks of life emerging from the shadows to tell their stories, Artest sounds like someone who feels a great sense of satisfaction.

“I thought it was good that they did that,” he says. “NBA players are just normal people. They deserve to be treated as normal, and sometimes it’s hard to be normal when you’re playing at the highest level and playing before millions of people. What Kevin and DeMar did was normalize what they were going through. And people who were going through the same issues, people who weren’t as famous, could relate to them.

“Kevin and DeMar are equally important to this awareness as myself. It’s about human life. About Kevin and DeMar making athletes feel more comfortable. They’re getting people to talk about it.”

Highs and lows in NBA days

Artest almost sounds as if he has a doctorate in psychology. And while he never took a class in that, he spent countless hours being tutored. The words come freely with no hesitation. You ask, he tells. And there is much to say.

At his highest point athletically, Artest was one of the league’s premier two-way players, the Kawhi Leonard of his day. Tough, fearless and determined, Artest was hell on anyone dribbling the ball and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2003-04. He also could rebound (6.5 rpg with the Sacramento Kings in 2006-07), pass and score. He averaged 20.5 ppg in 2007-08 and played 17 NBA seasons.

His signature moment came later in his career, though. He bailed out Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who misfired throughout Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, and his shot put the bow on the Lakers’ 16th and most recent championship. Artest took a pass, and from the deep corner launched the 3-pointer that extended the Lakers’ lead and put the champagne on ice.

Of course, those peaks were dwarfed by the fateful night in the Detroit suburbs when he went on a rampage through the stands. “The Malice at the Palace” in 2004 has its own carved-out space in NBA dishonor, with Artest serving as the ringleader who sent part of America tsk-tsking about race and sports violence and losing control.

He was suspended for the remainder of the 2004-05 season on Nov. 21, 2004 and estimates that night cost him $50 million in fines, future salary and endorsements. He earned a 7-game suspension in 2012 when he delivered an unsolicited (and vicious) elbow to then-Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden. Those were a few of the multiple acts of misbehavior from a player who stamped a reputation for himself.

“Showing up to practice and disrupting practice, showing up a coach or a teammate, just going over the line,” he says quietly. “There’s a lot of things I wish I had done differently. But maybe I couldn’t at that time. I felt trapped.”

‘I always had anger issues’

My introduction to Artest came when he was 18; he was a freshman at St. John’s University, I was a sports columnist at Newsday. It was inside a locker room at the United Center in Chicago, moments after St. John’s was eliminated from the NCAA tournament. In one corner was Felipe Lopez, the former New York schoolboy sensation who’d just played his final college game, shaking and sobbing into a towel.

In another corner was Artest, a far less-celebrated New York schoolboy sensation, eyes dry and open wide.

Losing a basketball game caused some ache but this was hardly the definition of pain for someone from Queensbridge, the largest public housing development in America. Artest certainly saw and heard and felt worse in a neighborhood where a fist to the face, or something more sinister, wasn’t far away. His world changed when his parents divorced while he was still a boy, and he had an often-troubled relationship with his father. Thrown for a loop, Artest lost control.

“I always had anger issues because that’s all I grew up around, anger,” he says. “I also had love and that’s why people see two sides from me. I saw my parents happy and mad. I grew up with friends who were happy and the next moment guns were firing. As a kid it was unbalanced and confusing. There was never a chance to relax. It was just get up and see what’s going to happen today. I might have a good day. I might wake up on the other side of the bed. I was suspended in nursery school, kindergarten, first through 12th grade every year for fighting. In college I got in trouble and in the NBA I was in trouble for something or another every year except my last year.”

There was always a charming side to Artest, whose alter-ego behavior was often rationalized as just being different, innocent, quirky. Like when he applied for a job at an electronics store during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls so he could get the employee discount. Or when he asked the Pacers, his next team, for time off during the season so he could go on a promotional tour for his eponymous rap album. Fun, goofy stuff like that.

Something else simmered underneath, though, and initially Artest struggled to come to grips with it. He knew he wasn’t right, and while he spoke with counselors during his high school and college days, he didn’t receive the deep-diving psychological help that his condition demanded until much later.

When he finally received professional help, he was forced to do so: One of the court-ordered conditions for Artest after being sentenced to 20 days in jail (he served 10) for domestic violence in 2007, when he played for the Kings, was examination for anger management and other possible mental health issues. Artest has had regular visits ever since.

“I was the best two-way player in the league at 24,” he says. “I was also spiraling downward emotionally. My emotions were eating away at my skills. Like a parasite eating away at your body. It was eating away at my skill and my work habits and my mental focus and my discipline.

“Before I got into the brawl I wanted to retire. I requested papers to file to the NBA. I knew something was terribly wrong and nobody really knew. The league called and asked if I really wanted to do this. I needed time away because I couldn’t get a hold of myself. There were so many things bothering me, so many things I couldn’t handle: Taking care of so many people, wanting to have fun, not being a loyal partner with my now ex-wife … I said, ‘OK, I need a break. I need to put my life in order.’ I didn’t go through with retirement but I wish I did. It wasn’t about the money. I was going crazy by 2008.”

Pressing on for good of others, cause

Right around that time, Artest began taking an active role in the mental-health movement. He lent his name to the cause. He spoke with experts in the field. He met with city officials in Sacramento and urged them to promote mental health awareness in the public schools, stressing that early recognition is the key. He fed his curiosity by reading, learning, probing.

Artest was part of the California movement to adopt lime green as the color for mental health awareness and is active during May, the month designated to observe awareness. It’s all designed to help those suffering from, but not limited to, bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.

“I was doing it because there was a lot of people out there who needed some help and they weren’t getting it,” he said.

Artest became a regular patient for therapists in Sacramento, Houston and LA when he began bouncing from team to team once his career reached the sunset years. Without therapy, Artest was asked if he’d be in position to take the shot that won a championship.

“I don’t think so,” he says.

What happened next was the actions of a changed man who still kept his quirk: He put his championship ring up for raffle nationwide in 2009, with the proceeds helping to fund mental health charities. With a minimum purchase of five tickets at $2 each, the contest raised $651,000, far more than what the ring would’ve fetched in a straight auction.

I played basketball so I wouldn’t have to sell drugs or guns and stuff. When I started, I wasn’t playing for the love of the game. I was playing so I wouldn’t have to go to jail.”

Ron Artest

The winner was a man from nearby working-class Hawthorne named Raymond Mikhael; he bought $100 worth of tickets. In an emotional speech while accepting the ring, he cited his mother, a schizophrenic, as the motivation for participating in the raffle, and that nearly bought Artest to tears.

As for the ring itself, Artest says he doesn’t have any regrets for selling it off.

“I never tried to replace the ring with a copy, either,” he says. “I don’t care about jewelry. I just wanted to win a title. I played basketball so I wouldn’t have to sell drugs or guns and stuff. When I started, I wasn’t playing for the love of the game. I was playing so I wouldn’t have to go to jail.”

He’s a father to four kids and recently became a grandfather with the birth of his eldest daughter, Sade’s, first child. One of his sons, Jeron, is a high-scoring high school player and, depending on the college board exams, the Ivy League could be in his future.

Artest’s post-playing career might surprise some. He put a brother through law school. He has a CPA division in his company, The Artest Management Group, where his firm helps athletes with tax preparation. The company also has a film division.

Artest has been a mathematics wiz since high school — think of the Matt Damon character in “Good Will Hunting.” He’s using those skills to develop a sports app and is taking analytics classes at UCLA.

“It’s like basketball all over again,” he says. “I’m putting everything into it, every fight and grit that I put on the defensive floor. I’ve turned it on mentally. We’re grinding. It reminds me of when I was 13 and trying to figure out how to learn how to play basketball.”

Artest wanted to create a relaxed workplace environment, and so his employees enjoy a side benefit: Once a month, a psychologist is on property for anyone seeking relief, and at least one person on staff signs up each time.

“I actually enjoy therapy,” says the boss.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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