For a good four days in 2004, the most famous NBA player in all the land was a strict anomaly: a hard-nosed, defense-first behemoth whose commitment to hardy, physical play and grueling details were worlds away from the post-Jordan shenanigans we’d been trained to expect from stars. He didn’t just upend celebrity within the Association; making the media rounds and catching regular news coverage, he became as searing a crossover presence as anyone since, well, MJ himself.
Unfortunately, this one-man crusade of atavism was on parade for all the wrong reasons, and his actions—attacking a fan and triggering the worst sports riot this side of Europe—were attributed to his roots in New York’s notorious Queensbridge Housing Projects, as impeccable a reference point for pop-culture thuggishness as the braids and tats that had made Allen Iverson a semiotic menace in the ‘90s. Overnight, Ron Artest became a household name, a scourge unto all organized sports who threatened the very existence of their rules, regulations, and marketing plans. And if there was some undercurrent of support for the ride-or-die actions of his teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal, especially among athletes themselves, Artest could still be pointed to as the spark that forced such a conundrum of collective logic. Not since the point-shaving dybbuk Jack Molinas had one man so sweepingly embodied the league’s worst nightmare.
Yet, a year and a half later, there is arguably no player more worthy of establishment love than Artest. Following an ill-fated attempt to return to the Indiana Pacers, who had stood faithfully by him, allowed his plight to consume the franchise, and then balked at acknowledging his utter centrality, Artest got shipped off to Sacramento. Once there, he did nothing less than instantly remake the team in his image; by turning what had been a shrinking, jump-shooting team into a gnashing wall of intimidation, he added a highly advantageous edge of unpredictability to what had been one of the easiest rosters to game-plan in the entire Association. He appointed himself leader through blood-and-guts fiat, and proceeded to will them into the postseason. Matched up with the blandly unstoppable San Antonio Spurs, it was Artest in all his varied forms who made the series competitive: defense that clotted up the Spurs’ facile ball movement; awkward mismatches that threw crumbs at a careful scheme; seeming obliviousness to the odds, which allowed them, even in losing, to disrespect the team most likely to make it out of the West.
Even his hard elbow to the schnoz of Manu Ginobili, which got him suspended for a game, was a stroke of genius. Conventional hoops wisdom says that this kind of move sets a tone, sends a message, and plays mind games whose implications reach beyond the dots and numbers of the company scoreboard. Brendan Haywood became an instant national hero when he dared to lay hands on LeBron James in the lane; more than a few withered grumps flickered with delight when Raja Bell defied all that is basketball and flung Kobe Bryant to the ground. Yet somehow Artest’s figurative gesture—far slighter, part of making a play on the ball, and ultimately far more meaningful to the ebb and flow of the series—got dismissed as stirrings of the primal chaos that lurked in Artest’s soul and would, in the end, destroy us all. Columnists like Bill Simmons endlessly lament the dearth of figures like Charles Oakley, the no-nonsense tough who watched Jordan’s back in Chicago and took care of business when it came to team manhood. Artest is Jordan and the pre-Knicks Oakley rolled up in one, a two-way beast of skill player who also happens to provide psychological heft to the game’s increasingly precious bottom line. What throws the world into utter dismay is how sharply he refuses to integrate the two: he insists on being a franchise player and the center of the offense (which he should be) while, at the same time, fulfilling an increasingly marginal role (Danny Fortson, anyone?) with the feral gusto of a 1920s New York City Jew in a hoops cage match.
In this day and age, Artest is a full-blooded contradiction, a force too mighty for the game to grasp. At best, stars contribute on offense, defense, and through their charisma; Artest, who insists on also playing the antiheroic role of enforcer, is nothing less than a living, breathing, four-dimensional galaxy unto himself, an altogether novel understanding of what it means for the mighty to walk among men, for the painter to share socks with the butcher. Granted, Jordan was a man, Bird had attitude, Oscar would never back down. Still, all of these men are milestones in the progression toward today’s insulated, pampered superstar on the court. For them, this attribute is gravy, icing, male nipples being touched, and high-school girls with fake tails rolled up in one: a duty that falls far from the eventual target of faith. In Artest, polar opposites collide as time and space collapse, and the league just plain ain’t ready. The past has been reborn, in all its gritty, macho, ruggedly handsome glory, and, standing around us today, it is mad ugly—even when tempered by all that we ask of All-Stars nowadays.
This past week, Artest offered to play for free if his Kings would only bring back demented wingman Bonzi Wells and mild head coach Rick Adelman, who at press time had just been deposed. Most will point to this as further evidence of his battiness, his inability to play by the rules, his penchant for self-destructive grandstanding. Me, I’ll be rolling my eyes as if I were hearing a “knuckle under for the team” speech delivered from the top of a mountain for the thousandth time, albeit by a slightly darker, nappier silhouette. Except, in this case, it will be the “right way” purists who will have to cower in the awesome shadow of moral rectitude. He who controls the past controls the future, and Ron Ron has successfully yanked that rug right out from under their curled and shaven feet.