|Ron's latest brawl adds to his checkered tale|
He told friends he was called "the 'N' word" just before he was plunked with a beer tossed by a fan, and charged into the stands, igniting a melee that ranks as perhaps professional basketball's most disturbing incident.
Those who defend Artest and know him best - his friends from the Queensbridge housing project he grew up in to former teammates and coaches at St. John's - give him credit for his handling of the initial incident with the Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace. They point out that when Wallace reacted to a hard foul with a hard thrust to Artest's neck, he stepped back and did not retaliate.
Those who criticize him - from NBA officials to talk-radio jocks - insist there is no reason any player ever should go into the stands after the fans. They argue that Artest responded inappropriately to the fans' actions.
Beyond dispute is that this is just another in a long list of incidents involving one of the biggest talents to come out of New York City. There have been standoffs with coaches and other players, tussles on the court, flagrant fouls and last week's bizarre proclamation by Artest that he'd like a month off to rest up after working to promote a new album.
"The things that get Ron into trouble are the same things that make him such a great player," says Fran Fraschilla, who recruited Artest to St. John's out of Manhattan's LaSalle Academy and coached him during his first college season. "He is ultra high-intensity and ultra competitive.
"It makes him a guy you want to go into battle with, but it also puts him in a frame of mind where unpredictable things might happen."
Says a former LaSalle teammate: "I think we always thought Ron-Ron was a crazy guy in high school, but when you see him do some of the things he does, it makes you shake your head. You wonder if his head just handles things differently than other people."
According to one lifelong friend, Artest has sought professional help for his mental health and is on prescription antidepressants. In an interview with WFAN yesterday, Greg Anthony intimated that as well. Artest recently completed court-ordered anger management counseling that resulted from a domestic abuse charge.
"This is just going to contribute to him being misunderstood, which is the really sad thing," says Tarik Turner, who played with Artest at St. John's. "He was handling it well, until the fans crossed his line. It's too bad people don't realize what a character guy he is. They just see that and make a judgment."
Says Fraschilla: "If it wasn't for Ron's past history, a lot of the blame for that incident would lie with the Detroit fans. Instead, it becomes part of the video montage."
Artest is a blend of contradictions. He's selfish enough to want to take a month off, but generous enough to give his time and money to those who were with him on the way up. He's smart enough to know that he hates the public's perception of him, but not wise enough to get that image under control.
"He loved the toughness that came with being from the projects, but also knew that being in the projects was seen by others as being a failure," Fraschilla says.
Many summers, Artest returns to the Five-Star basketball Camp to help rising players in the LaSalle program. According to a longtime friend, "half his friends from the projects are on his payroll in one form or another."
He seems to know that his fierce competitiveness is an issue, but he also knows it inspires his game.
"It's a good and it's a negative," Artest said in a recent interview with Newsday. "If I didn't play the way I play, where would I be now? Some people say you have to change your game. But there's a difference between changing your game and controlling your emotions. I've got to control my emotions."
"His issues stem from a couple of things," Fraschilla says. "He has a heightened sense of competitiveness, more than any other player I've ever seen. And he has a tremendous fear of failure. Even as a high school senior, he was constantly talking about a need to take care of his family."
Artest was one of 11 children in a broken family, although his mother and father both played a significant role in his life.
"These were good people," says the former high school teammate. "Ron knew right from wrong. He just acted strange."
He arrived at St. John's with a mission. "I don't know where it came from, but he was intent on being the best and in my eyes, he was," Turner says. "If you thought anything less of him, he made it his mission to prove you wrong. No one practiced like Ron."
Fraschilla says that he used any excuse he could to put Artest on the second team during practice. "This was a guy who would go nuts if you scored on him, so when I would do that, it would ratchet up the intensity of practice about eight notches," he says.
Somewhere along the line, things began to change for Artest. He went from a success at St. John's, leading the Red Storm to the NCAA Elite Eight in his second and final season, to an enigma in the NBA.
"Ron Artest can't handle success," the lifelong friend says. "He can't handle being a millionaire and he can't handle life right now. He had a rough upbringing, fractured family, and it shows."
Artest has jawed with Pat Riley and tackled Eric Snow. He's smacked Paul Pierce and destroyed television equipment after a loss to the Knicks at the Garden. In one season, he forked over $400,000 in fines and suspensions without pay.
Now, he faces a suspension and severe fines. Worse, those who he injured in the melee have videotape evidence that they will be able to use in civil suits against him.
"Looking at Ron's face, I can see he's got problems," says Rob Johnson, the New York basketball consultant who also hails from the Queensbridge projects and is close to Artest. "I feel really sad for him. I'm afraid what the NBA is going to do to him."
"When he got hit with the beer, he just exploded," adds Johnson. "He can't handle the spotlight. There's a lot of pressure on him right now that he can't handle."
Some close to Artest believe he has become so averse to the NBA spotlight that he would like to leave it all behind, perhaps returning to New York and a career in the music industry.
"With that rap record and all that, I think he just wants out of the NBA," a friend says. "He had a quote the other day, he said he would rather be in Queens than the NBA. ... I wonder what's going on with him."
By most accounts, Artest, who is married to his high school sweetheart, Kimish Hatfield, lives a clean life and remains closely connected to his roots at LaSalle and in the housing project. He remains committed to the Wheelchair Classic, which he participated in as a high school player, often visiting the handicapped patients at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island when he is in town.
"If I ask him to help me do something with the Wheelchair Classic, it's never a problem," says Hank Carter, the event's organizer. "Ron, no matter what he's doing, will drop everything and come."
While Artest doesn't like his public image, those closest to him are the ones who most want to see it changed.
"He doesn't have a criminal gene, which is probably what a lot of people think if all they see is the video," Fraschilla says of the Friday night melee. "What he has is the competitive gene and possibly too much of it. He is misunderstood."
With Michael O'Keeffe,
Darren Everson and Julian Garcia
Originally published on November 21, 2004