There was a day during the Rockets' playoff series against the Lakers when Ron Artest sat under the basket at Houston's practice facility and let loose. Not his temper or his demons, but his personality. This wasn't the erratic powder keg who went into the stands at the Palace. This was easy-going Artest, drinking in every moment.
Very laid back.
A marriage that once seemed implausible -- the hardscrabble, sometimes self-destructive star from the housing projects of Queens embracing the sparkle and serenity of Hollywood -- was consummated Thursday. Artest, who famously exchanged smack with Kobe Bryant during the regular season and almost bounced him from the playoffs, has agreed to a five-year, approximately $33 million deal to join the Lakers.
|After scenes like this in early May, it didn't seem possible that Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest could soon become teammates. (AP)|
Watching Artest join Shaq and LeBron in Cleveland and 'Sheed fill a need in Boston -- the Celtics offered a multi-year deal to the Walking Technical on Thursday -- would've been a tough pill for Bryant to swallow. Only days after declining to terminate his contract and agreeing to discuss an extension, Bryant didn't need that. Instead, he got the only player in the NBA who is as tough and ruthless an hombre as he is.
There was never any questioning Artest's talent or his drive. Judgment has been, shall we say, a bit of a problem. But Artest never runs out of second chances, and he is getting this one because he went to Houston and stayed clean. He didn't hurt the locker room chemistry; he made it better. His ego didn't demand attention or siphon energy from those around him. For the first time in his career, Artest didn't have to carry a team, only his own weight. If Yao Ming hadn't broken his foot in Game 3 of the conference semifinals -- a crushing blow that could resonate for the Rockets into next season and beyond -- the Lakers might not have made it out of that series.
No, the Lakers aren't taking their chances with Artest anymore. They saw him at their home games in the Finals, sitting in the first seat right under the basket at the Denzel end of the floor and taking it all in. When I spoke with Artest then, he was wide-eyed and wishing he could walk onto the floor and commit a hard foul that Steve Javie would call a flagrant. Back then, before it was known that Yao's foot could keep him out all next season, Artest was pretty sure he would be returning to Houston. But he knew he would have options.
"A lot of options," he said.
The perfect storm began brewing with the Yao news, and yielded a thunderclap or two when Trevor Ariza, the 24-year-old free agent who helped get L.A. past the Nuggets in the conference finals, was offended by the Lakers' offer of the full mid-level exception -- five years, $33 million or so. Ariza wound up taking the same deal from the Rockets to replace Artest.
It takes a lot to offend Artest at this point in his career. Five years and $33 million from the Lakers -- complete with a chance to finally win a title, team with Bryant and Phil Jackson, and run again with boyhood friend Lamar Odom -- wasn't going to do it.
"I don't really care about the money," Artest told CBSSports.com in a phone interview that broke the news of his decision to sign with the Lakers. "I'll play there for nothing. ... L.A. was very interested in me, and they got me."
Artest, 29, was exuberant on the phone. "Lakers, Lakers, Lakers," he said at one point. "I'm in L.A. right now." He had spent most of the offseason there, plotting his next move and imagining himself in purple and gold -- jawing with Bryant in practice, not the playoffs. He had just finished meeting with Dr. Jerry Buss when we spoke. Phil Jackson -- "Coach Phil," Artest called him -- had already made his pitch, which should tell you everything you need to know about whether Jackson will be back to try for his 11th ring.
"I talked to Coach Phil, and I was happy to talk to him," Artest said. "Big fan of Coach Phil. My agent talked to [Mitch] Kupchak, and I met with Dr. Buss. I'm very, very excited."
It presumably will be Jackson's job to make this work, but that should be easy for the man who coached Dennis Rodman in Chicago. Artest is a lot of things -- sincere, competitive, merciless, sometimes out in left field -- but he's no Rodman. He's no gimmick. The combination of Artest being in L.A. and not being in Cleveland is every bit as momentous as Shaq joining LeBron.
On Wednesday, the chatter was about Artest going to Cleveland to form a three-headed monster that might just have been big and ornery enough to end the city's 45-year championship drought. But Artest said talks with the Cavs "never got that far. ... I love the Cleveland Cavaliers, though. I love LeBron and Coach [Mike] Brown and Shaq." But L.A.?
"L.A. is what it is," Artest said.
Some people didn't want to believe Artest when he said these things Thursday, especially the people of Cleveland, Boston and Orlando. But sure enough, a statement came from Artest and his agent, David Bauman, announcing the agreement, which can be finalized after the moratorium on player movement is lifted July 8. In the statement, Artest waxed poetic about Jackson, Buss, Kobe and Pau Gasol.
Then he added this kicker: "I look forward to helping the Lakers defend their championship, and it will be great to finally not get booed in the Staples Center."
There was good reason to be dubious about Artest, who had been cracking on his 9,000 Twitter followers for days. It was revealed that comments on Artest's Twitter page Wednesday were erroneously attributed to him. Or so we thought.
One minute he was in L.A.; the next, he was asking for restaurant recommendations in Vegas. Back-to-back-to-back tweets had Artest signing with the Knicks for $12 million -- "Thanks Donnie Walsh!" -- and then signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers and losing his deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Word got out that it wasn't really Artest's account -- 96TruwarierQB.
"I was telling people it wasn't," Artest said Thursday. "But it was. I was just having fun."
That's what you get with Artest. All that, and the stuff on the court, too.