It was nearly 11 months ago when Ron Artest signed with the Lakers, and the elation he felt that day was boundless but very much without meaning. There was no way Artest, once the villain of basketball, could comprehend what it meant to get another chance -- what it meant to be a Laker -- until he'd earned it.
The payoff came, along with the understanding, in a 72-hour period from the thrilling, chaotic ending to Game 5 through the clinching Game 6 in the Western Conference finals Saturday night. After saving the Lakers from a potentially devastating home loss with his improbable buzzer beater at Staples Center, Artest calmly and methodically made shot after shot, one sensible decision after another, in the 111-103 victory over the Suns that sent the Lakers on their third consecutive trip to the Finals.
|'Just wow, it just clicked,' said Artest about his connection with the Lakers. (AP)|
It clicked for the Lakers and for their erratic, well-meaning, sometimes incoherent co-pilot. And in that moment Saturday night, when it dawned on Artest how far he'd come, it became clear that Artest was carrying the Lakers on his own personal journey to redemption as much as they were carrying him to the brink of his first championship.
As is always the case with Artest, it's complicated. Achieving his first trip to the Finals, and helping the Lakers get back there again, marks the end of a journey that can be traced to the lowest point of his basketball life. For the villain of the Palace, closure is almost here.
In an interview with CBSSports.com, Artest recently revealed just how scarred he remains from the infamous brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 2004, when he was excommunicated from basketball and branded not only a villain, but also a damaged soul -- a castoff not worthy or capable of rehabilitation. And it is worse than that for Artest, who said to this day he feels like a coward when in the presence of his former Pacers teammates like Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal, as well as executives Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh.
"The biggest regret of my life, really, is bailing out on that Pacer team," Artest said. "I mean, outside not going to church every single Sunday, bailing out on that Pacer team is my biggest regret. Every time I see Jermaine, every time I see Steve [Jackson] and Jamaal [Tinsley] ... I get a little bit of a feeling when I see Bird, because he was such a great player and I respect him so much. So I get that feeling when I see Bird. I feel like a coward. I feel like I don't even belong in their presence, really."
The Pacers were coming off a 61-win season and a loss in the Eastern Conference finals when Artest's career, and the Indiana franchise, were dealt a blow from which it seemed neither would ever recover. As much as the brawl itself, and the 73-game suspension that followed, Artest is ashamed of his behavior in the aftermath -- demanding a trade and bailing on his team.
This is the first time Artest has spoken publicly about the anguish he continues to feel about letting his damaged emotions and anger -- pent up for decades -- nearly ruin his basketball career, and more to the point, dismantle an organization that seemed poised for a championship. In fact, Artest said he has not once told Walsh, Bird, Miller or anyone else how he feels.
"Never," Artest said.
Well, now they know.
"When I saw Jermaine [this season], I felt like I didn't even belong in the same room as him," Artest said. "I felt like a coward. I don't like feeling like a coward, and I feel like a coward. That's the biggest regret of my life. Steve Jackson, Jermaine, Jamaal, even Jeff [Foster] -- a blue-collar guy like him, put his life on the line for us on the court, and I totally disrespected him. And of course Reggie. I was in a position to win a championship, Reggie was in position, and I bailed out on Reggie. I feel like a coward. A big-time coward. It's hard for me to even speak to them, hard for me to see them."
Somehow -- maybe because, as Phil Jackson suggested, the basketball gods are on his side -- all of this has come full circle for Artest, who stands four wins away from the championship he feels he stole from himself and the Pacers six years ago. Artest, the pariah, whose tenure ended badly in Sacramento and with epic failure in Indiana, understood Saturday night in Phoenix that he's been given a chance to make it all right.
"I put it in God's hands," Artest said. "I always told God, I didn't know if he'd ever give me another chance. Because some things were not my fault, some things were. And the ones that were my fault, I felt pretty bad. But I feel blessed and I think God put me in a good situation in Indiana. He put me in a beautiful situation. I got married in Indiana, it's my home, four years there, had a chance to go to the championship and I screwed it up. Screwed it up. So I said, 'If you never give me another opportunity again, I'll understand.' He's just continued to bless me and I just keep getting more opportunities -- Houston, Sacramento, here. I didn't think he'd give me another chance, but he did."
The latest chance came fluttering through the air at Staples Center Thursday night, an airball from Kobe Bryant that Artest saw struggling like a wounded bird. His instincts, not always the best, told him to go save it. And so he did. He rescued the ball and saved the Lakers' season and then, of course, ranted about being disrespected by coach Alvin Gentry, who had the temerity to double-team Bryant and leave Artest open throughout the entire conference finals.
When Jackson chided Artest for launching too many ill-advised 3-pointers in the Utah series, Artest didn't recoil; he went on a scoring binge. Feeling disrespected by Gentry -- a sensible motivating source only in Artest's imagination -- he unloaded with 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting with three steals in the clinching game against the Suns.
"I'm just trying to play the right way, and the right way for our team is to get the ball to Kobe and get the ball to Pau [Gasol]," Artest said. "It's not a secret. Sometimes [opposing coaches] say, 'OK, let Ron shoot.' But that's not how we want to play. I don't want to jack up a bunch of 3s. But sometimes they leave me wide open and I'm like, 'C'mon, you guys played against me before.' You know? Even coach Scottie Brooks -- I love him -- but, 'You coached me. You know what type of player that I am. Why are you leaving me open?' So I just feel a little bit of disrespect. Obviously, I'm not the No. 1 guy, but I was. And I'll be able to get you in the post, bury you and abuse you in the post, then go out on the perimeter and just abuse you the whole game."
When the Finals begin Thursday night in Los Angeles, the Lakers and Celtics colliding again, Artest will be right in the middle of the tempest. It's where he's always been. At his best when he has an elite scorer to defend, Artest will represent one of the most important keys to the outcome in his matchup with Paul Pierce. It was Pierce who throttled the Lakers in the 2008 Finals, averaging 21.8 points in Boston's six-game triumph. The Lakers had no answer for him then, and so they cautiously embraced Artest last summer, taking the good with the bad because they knew what his kind of defense and ferocity can mean on the championship stage.
Artest embraces the challenge with the same willingness that he has finally summoned to confront his past. Miller was around Artest for the duration of the conference finals as a TNT broadcaster, and now he knows the shame Artest has been carrying around for six years. Chances are good that Bird, one of the greatest Celtics, will turn up at some point during the renewal of this rivalry that defined his career. And suffice it to say, if they cross paths, they'll have something to talk about.
Just as Artest feels ashamed in Bird's presence, Bird has a long memory, too. Speaking about Artest's strange marriage with the Lakers, Bird has told confidants this season that he's never felt more betrayed by a player than he was by Artest -- and that he's never misjudged a player that badly, too. And if you know Bird, you know that eats away at him to this day.
"I learned a lot from those days, and regret a lot," Artest said Sunday, the Lakers' last day off before the Finals. "It molded me to be a better teammate."
And maybe, finally, a champion.