Before Metta World Peace, there was Ron Artest, a high school prodigy and true New Yorker.
Over the last 14 years, we've forgotten much about the man, about the kid and about the player we thought we knew.
Though he's had only two names (that we know of), he's left a trail of other identities in his wake, as he's navigated what has been both a productive and equivocal career.
From charging into the stands and waging war with fans in Detroit in 2004, to the player who salvaged the Los Angeles Lakers' 2010 championship run, to the elbow he threw James Harden's way a little more than a year ago, we've bore witness to many different versions of the one we now call World Peace.
Almost a decade and a half later, World Peace has come home, where he once went by Ron Artest.
Where we once knew him.
Queensbridge, New York
Ron Artest was born in Queensbridge, New York, which is where our story begins.
His anger issues developed at a young age, on the heels of his parents' marriage falling apart.
He struggled to cope with the challenges life was throwing at him. And how could he not? He was but a child.
"A lot of Ron's anger came from the breakup of the family," Ron Sr. told Eric Adelson of ESPN The Magazine.
Ron Sr. and his wife, Sarah, eventually agreed to separate, but the former moved just a few doors down, so that he could stay close. Every day he saw his son, doing what he could to make the transition as easy possible.
Per Adelson, after receiving a few calls from some of young Ron's concerned teachers, the Artests sent their son to anger-managament therapy. It was there that his counselor suggested he find an outlet for his anger, a distraction from what was going on around him.
Then, a basketball player was born.
Ron became hooked, playing with his father whenever possible and circumventing the obstacles inclement weather presented the only way he knew how—by playing anyway.
He played through everything, through it all. The divorce, his sister's death, all of it:
The boy played in the Rucker Summer League and snarled on cue when all the older men called him "Ultimate Warrior." He played when Mom and Dad finally separated in '92, when his baby sister died of SIDS in '95 and on the day after the funeral -- where he watched Mommy put one of his basketball plaques in 10-week-old Quanisha's casket. The boy played on into high school, leaving his blood on the floor and elbowing bigger players and stepping on their feet just to scare them a little. He played in an AAU tournament in Phoenix, when some kid on his own team started yapping too much and Ron-Ron shoved him backward over a chair.
Basketball was the ultimate escape for Ron. On the court, everything was right. And damn't was he good. Really good.
Incidentally, the coach from St. John's at the time, Fran Fraschilla, was at the AAU tournament Adelson makes reference to. He saw Ron shove his own teammate, saw his naked emotion.
"That very day," wrote Adelson, "the coach from St. John's, there scouting the tournament, smiled at the muscular teen and thought: That's him. That's the one I want."
Ron was the one he eventually got too.
Fraschilla's interest in Ron seemed inevitable.
Like the budding basketball player he coveted early on, he too had a temper, a demonstrative demeanor that may have ultimately cost him his job.
Upon arriving at St. John's, Fraschilla sold Artest on being the linchpin for the team's success, on being as vital to the program's survival as the air we breathe.
Ron's coach admitted to Adelson that he pushed him, and pushed him hard. He would demote him to the second team just to get a rise of emotions out of him.
"It felt like Frankenstein in the laboratory," Fraschilla told Adelson. "You could tell he was ready to blow his stack. Everyone kind of feared him."
What opposing players came to fear was passion at its peak.
Artest willed himself to become one of the most aggressive defenders in college basketball. Easy baskets were a foreign concept to him.
If you got by him or one of his teammates, you were going to incur his wrath at the rim. Whether he hit the ball or your face didn't matter, he was sending a message:
Artest outright unnerved opponents -- the bumping, the elbowing, the unshakable glare. Even when someone got by him, big No.15 would follow his man to the hoop and put all his power into a swooping roundhouse right timed to his victim's release. Whether the swing hit ball, hand or head, the message got sent. The Red Storm became the Artest tempest, and New York ate it up. Sure, there were technicals and the occasional fights with teammates, but St. John's had given Ron-Ron a safe place to seethe.
Sheltered by the love and adoration of an entire city, Artlest led the Red Storm the best he could, never holstering his emotion. Not once.
When Fraschilla left and Mike Jarvis replaced him, little changed. The fire was still lit, and the the intrinsic flames of desire never once flickered.
Ron finished out his time in college with career averages of 13.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. The Red Storm compiled a 50-19 record during his time at the school, much to the delight of fans and newspapers.
Two years into his collegiate experience, Ron Artest, not Metta World Peace, made the jump to the NBA.
Before Metta World Peace
Fame changes people, but it didn't change Ron. Not immediately.
After being passed over by the Knicks, who coveted Frederic Weis out of France (cue the collective cringe coming out of New York), Artest was selected with the 16th overall pick of the 1999 draft by the Chicago Bulls.
But as Adelson notes, Ron never really left Queensbridge:
As a Bulls rookie, he funneled money to his people until he was nearly broke (The Mag assembled them all for a July 10, 2000, Total Access), then applied for a job at a Chicagoland Circuit City for the camaraderie and employee discount. He practiced and played to exhaustion, and then snuck away from team hotels in bad neighborhoods to test his shot against bent rims, fierce cold and numbing winds.
Artest's reputation continued to grow. Stars around the league knew he was a combative defender. He didn't allow himself to be pushed around as a kid, as a high schooler or in college, he sure as hell wasn't going to change now that he'd made it.
Opposing players continued to fear him, and so did his teammates. That fear was also laced with some respect, much of it coming from His Airness himself.
Artest broke two of Michael Jordan's ribs during a summer pickup game, not out of malice, out of practice. And MJ loved him for it.
"I love Ron Artest," Jordan said, according Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated afterward."He's got so much intensity and such drive. I wish I could have played against him six years ago."
His thirst for competition and hunger for winning has garnered praise from one of the greatest players to ever step foot on the floor, back while he was still a neophyte no less. That means something.
What some mistook as misplaced rage early on was effort. For better or worse, Artest was going to get after that ball, and if he made headlines while doing so (like by breaking Jordan's ribs) then so be it.
Back then he didn't actively seek out the attention he was being paid. He was doing what he thought to be his job, and he was still damn good at it.
Ron Artest, Gone Forever?
I don't pretend to know Ron Artest. Or Metta World Peace. Or any of the other aliases he may or may not have. None of us do.
Fraschilla would later speculate that all Ron did was borne out of fear for slipping back to where he was, to where he came from.
"He has a tremendous fear of failure," Fraschilla told Adelson. "He worries that he'll have to go back to Queensbridge."
I don't pretend to know that either, nor do I believe Fraschilla knows for a fact that was the case. Everything about Ron (or Metta) has been vexing. He's an enigma wrapped in another puzzle. And as his travels took him through Chicago, Indiana, Sacramento, Houston and Los Angeles, he became impossible to figure out.
None of that matters now. This isn't so much about those stops, as it is about this one, where our story began, and may eventually end.
"Whether I come off the bench or start, it really doesn't matter," he said of joining the Knicks, according to Howard Beck of the New York Times. "Whether I'm a starting player or sixth, seventh man or eighth man. For me it's all about how can I help the young guys."
Never make the mistake of saying he never wanted to win, especially now. This is no time to harp on the things he's done and the person he seemed to morph into.
All we know is that he still loves this game, the one he started playing almost three decades ago, before high school, before college, before the NBA and before he was Metta World Peace.
The one he has returned to home play.
"You know me, I give 100 percent," he said (via Beck). "It doesn't matter how many years I got left in me. It's about giving 100 percent in everything I'm doing."
Only we don't know you, neither Ron nor Metta. We know you worked your ass off to get here, to get to this point, and that you'll give 100 percent moving forward.
We know that you're home. For now, at this very moment, that's enough.
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