Eight years ago, when the Detroit Pistons went up against the Indiana Pacers, the arena erupted into the biggest fight in NBA history. A commentator for the Lakers/Thunder game earlier this season feared that history would repeat itself after Metta WorldPeace regressed into the old Ron Artest that stoked the flames of that brawl as an Indiana Pacer. This year, MWP was relatively tame, that is until Oklahoma City’s James Harden had his lights knocked out after colliding with MWP’s thundering elbow. Metta had committed another wrong that he has tried to right over the course of a seven game suspension, explanations to referees and even Conan O’Brien. Soon, MWP will return to the lineup. If the Lakers face the Thunder in round 2 of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, the tension will be thicker than your average rap beef. Come full circle with us as we revisit the Ron Artest cover story from Issue 43.
Mass Appeal Issue #43: After getting physical with a fan, Ron Artest became the NBA’s most infamous all-star overnight. With a rap album and a new NBA season serving up a fresh start, the Queensbridge native takes Mass Appeal on a journey into the housing projects that made him the man he is today.
It all started with a push. No, actually, it all started with a hard foul, delivered from behind, an added “fuck you” at the end of a game whose outcome was already long-decided. No, actually it started years earlier, miles away in the Queensbridge Housing projects.
What the nationwide viewers (NBA on ESPN!) of the Pacers/Pistons game on November 19, 2004, saw was this: A Ben Wallace drive to the basket. A hard foul by Ron Artest. A retaliatory push in the back by Wallace. At that point, Artest did the right thing. He walked away. There was less than a minute left in the game, more than 70 games left in the season. His team was up by double digits, in the house of the defending NBA champs. This was no time to blow things out of proportion. Artest walked over to the scorer’s table, sat on the padded top and then laid down on it. A Dennis Rodman move. Wallace, already irate at the turn of events—the loss, the foul, the seeming disrespect in his house—threw a towel in Artest’s general direction. Then a fan, emboldened by anonymity and alcohol, tossed a half-full beer that landed square on Artest’s chest. And before anyone could react, Artest sprang off the table, cat-quick, and bounded into the stands.
As it turned out, he attacked the wrong guy—some four-eyed little dude who will forever know what it means to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was only the beginning. Teammate Stephen Jackson joined him in the stands, throwing haymakers like some Golden Glover gone mad. Jermaine O’Neal cold-cocked some other fans who were dumb enough to rush onto the court. And all of this went out over the airwaves. Mike Breen called the play-by-play, as it were, but it was color man Bill Walton who delivered the mea culpa in his usual droll tone. “This is a disgrace,” he said, delivering what may have been his first-ever understatement. And then as the Pacers were escorted off by a phalanx of security guards, game over but win intact, with beer continuing to pour down like rain, he got in one more shot. “This is a low moment in NBA history.”
It may have been the lowest. It certainly wasn’t the first brawl ever—fights were pretty typical back in the ABA days. And there had even been higher-profile battles—Dr. J once attempted to choke Larry Bird, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kermit Washington delivered what may have been the most devastating punch in history in 1977, forever changing the face of a young Rockets forward named Rudy Tomjanovich. But this was different. This broke down the invisible barrier between the athletes and the fans, and delivered—again, on national television—the image of finely tuned and enraged (and enormous) black athletes charging into a rather sedentary, out-of-shape, mostly white, crowd. It didn’t help that the guy Ron went after looked like a cross between Macauley Culkin and Harry Potter.
Justice was swift. NBA commissioner David Stern issued a statement the very next day, calling the events “shocking, repulsive and inexcusable—a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA.” The day after that, the inevitable suspensions were handed down. Ben Wallace, who many saw as the instigator of the whole thing, was suspended for six games. Jermaine O’Neal was suspended for 25 games, Stephen Jackson for 30. And Ron Artest? His season was over.
It’s October 31st, 2006, nearly two years removed from the day that changed Ron Artest’s public perception. It’s the first day of a new NBA season, the first he’ll start as a member of the Sacramento Kings, as a lockdown defender in the shootout-happy West. It’s also the day his first album drops (a coincidence David Stern must be psyched on), an independent release called My World. And if you’re wondering why we’re bringing up the brawl right away when it happened back in ’04, it’s only because Ron did, too. On the first full track, “Haters,” second verse he rhymes, “How was I supposed to know he was gonna throw beer / Hit me in my face and I go run up the stairs / Touch the wrong person Steve Jack had my back / O’Neal and A.J. with the counterattack / Didn’t plan none of this but condemned for all / They did the same to Jesus so why I be treated different.” Ron Artest does not fuck around, though. He knows what people are interested in, and he serves it right up.
“That’s why I put it first on the album,” Artest says. “Just because, you know, it was so highly publicized, and people talked about me the wrong way, and now I get a chance to tell people how I feel. They can either love it or hate it, and anytime people want to go back and listen to that song, or anytime anyone wanna say something about me, they can go back and listen right to that song and that’ll sum everything up.”
The League is different now, even different than it was in 2004. Pre-game warm-ups are still conducted to hip hop blaring through in-arena PAs, but there’s a dress code now. No more baggy jeans and Timbs to the arena. Techs are handed out if you even look at a ref wrong. Even the ball has changed, from the venerable leather Spalding to a space-age composite rock that’s been near-universally panned by the players (but what David Stern wants, David Stern gets). Much has changed, but Ron Artest is still here. The changes didn’t come because of him—at least not directly—but his involvement in the brawl, and the nonstop coverage that immediately followed, sure sped up the process. The League has changed tremendously. Him? Not so much.
Ron was something of oddity in NBA circles even before the brawl. He once applied for a job at Circuit City in Chicago—while he was playing for the Bulls. He just figured the discount would be nice, although he’s not exactly the kind of dude who’d really need one. A defensive pitbull with a temper to match, he stacked technicals like Rodman, aggravating opponents and teammates alike. Despite his obvious talents, he was traded from Chicago (his favorite team growing up) to Indiana, where he joined All-Stars Jermaine O’Neal and Reggie Miller in the quest to win a championship. But it’s not Chicago or Indiana that defined him. Ron grew up in the Queensbridge Projects, the same housing Ps that produced Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shante, Nas, Mobb Deep and Cormega. And while Ron might not have Nas’ lyricism or Mobb Deep’s beats, he’s got street cred to spare. After all, dude tried to fight Detroit. All of it.
“It’s the world that I live in, QB made me / A moms that loved me and a pops that raised me” — Mobb Deep (Havoc), “It’s Mine”
Queensbridge Housing Project, America’s largest public housing development, lies just over the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan. Take the subway there and you come out of the 21st Street-Queensbridge station right at their feet, a sprawl of weathered six-story buildings originally built in 1939. Fences ring the PJs, and the surrounding blocks provide the next layer of protection—bodegas, check cashing joints, the obligatory pizza/fried chicken/ice cream spot, taxi cab depots. Kids ride past on department-store bikes, guys in skullys lurk on corners.
Nestled within, at the heart of Queensbridge—a mere half-block from the subway stop—is a basketball court with painted asphalt and neatly netted rims. It’s an unseasonably chill late August afternoon, with rain on the horizon and grey skies above. There’s a run going anyway, as there always is, and if it weren’t for the uniforms—white and blue on one side, black and red on the other—you wouldn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary.
And truth is, there really isn’t. When the game ends, chaos ensues—kids of all ages start shooting, one rides a bike in circles on the court. Welcome to Ron Artest’s Triple Threat Tru Warier Classic—one of four annual tournaments Ron throws in QB. No signs proclaim this, no flyers promote it. But there’s Ron himself, casually dipped in his signature K1X (a small German company still seeking major US distribution) gear, denim shorts—and official NFL socks, of all things, walking around like he owns the place. Which may as well be the case. Later in the day, after the end of the tourney got rained out, he led a tour of the PJs for his team owners, the billionaire Maloof brothers.