washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Sally Jenkins

With Artest, A Human Quality

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page D01

Let's imagine that Ron Artest is a knowable person, instead of an animated cartoon of NBA excess that we can conveniently vent on and villainize. If the NBA would like its players and fans to get along better, perhaps it should introduce them to one another. If Ron Artest and John Green were more personally acquainted, it might make it harder for them to punch each other in the face.

Let's imagine a pair of heavy work boots, stomping around a frozen outdoor basketball court in a graffiti-scored housing project along a disconsolate stretch of the New York skyline. The boots, thick heeled and capped with steel toes, are kicking holes in a thick sheet of ice that covers the court, so that a boy with arms thin as winter branches can play basketball in the freezing winter. The boots belong to Artest's father, Ron Sr., who breaks up the ice so his kid can play in endless cold and savagely competitive games of one-on-one, sometimes into the early hours of the morning.

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Upstairs in their apartment in Queensbridge Houses, nine people share two bedrooms. When Artest Sr. wears the boots to work, he reports to a juice truck. He delivers heavy cases of Snapple to local stores. Sometimes he works as a messenger. For a while he works in a hospital kitchen, and then as a messenger again, but he always winds up back at the juice truck. Artest's mother, Sarah, works as a bank teller. Sometimes Ron Sr. has to stick cardboard in the work boots to make them last so he can spend money on sneakers for his seven kids.

Ron Sr. will be putting the boots back on. This week, he went back to work on the juice truck, three days a week, to make some extra money, because his son is under suspension and will lose about $5 million in pay this season, his penalty for charging into the stands and brawling with abusive fans after being hit in the face with a flung cup of liquid. "Ron has a big heart and he has big pockets, and his heart is bigger than his pockets," says his father. "He takes care of everybody and he's going to be without money so I'm going back to work so he doesn't have to worry about me."

You think Artest is just another overpaid thug, a spoiled and falsely elevated 25-year-old with tattoos and a bad attitude? Let's imagine that you make more than $5 million a year -- but the government takes 39 percent of it, and the state takes another 8 percent, and then you have to pay the accountant, the business manager and the agent their 10 or 15 percents. With what's left over you're supporting your own family of four children, as well your parents, while helping out your six siblings and your 13 nephews and nieces, who you've vowed to put through private school. Let's imagine you just lost every dime.

Every summer you go back to the Queensbridge Houses courts and throw barbecues for the whole neighborhood because you want to stay real, sitting outside in a cut-up T-shirt and slippers. You know what strangers don't, that urban public housing isn't automatically synonymous with ghetto, and while there are shootings and the odd vial on the streets, the buildings are full of good working class people who wake up every morning and have jobs to go to. A lot of their kids manage to get into college on athletic scholarships. Every summer, you play Wiffle ball and pickup on those courts you grew up on, and you choose the best kids from those local courts and send them to elite basketball camps, for which you're known as a generous, soft-spoken soul who doesn't spend profligately so much as you give profligately.

Imagine how everyone at Queensbridge feels about Ron Ron, as they know him, the gentle-voiced, skinny kid who played in all temperatures and became a huge NBA success, and now is facing public condemnation. Put yourself in the Queensbridge apartment of Jamaal Speede, a longtime friend of the Artest family, when the phone rang last Saturday. On the other end was Ron Ron. "I'm sorry," he said. "I let the kids down."

As a player at St. John's, he got counseling for the first time for his temper; was it a result of desperate clawing against his circumstances, or did he inherit it from his burdened father, or was it the result of some form of abuse? According to an account in the New York Post, the therapist asked him. "Why are you so mad?" Artest replied, "My family is suffering."

No doubt some readers will say these details of Ron Artest's life are irrelevant and beside the point, and that plenty of people grow up in distressed circumstances without resorting to violence. But to me details are everything because they're the only thing that prevents us from viewing each other as cold abstractions. In considering what happened between Artest and the fans last week in Auburn Hills, Mich., in all the discussion of racial and class "components," and cultural wars, we've lost sight of the human components.

We see athletes more and more on television and through other media exposure, but we paradoxically know them less and less. We stare at them from a remove and watch through screens, communicating strictly through wireless Internet connection, or remote control, or marketing agenda. The same is true vice versa. Athletes increasingly view the public as something they have to be protected from, a collection of hounding fans, extortionist groupies and wallet-grabbing cons. Everyone is divided into two sides, with any troubling subtleties erased. There are only winners, losers, good guys, bad ones, thugs and angels.

Athletes and spectators no longer know each other, feel they inhabit the same world or share the same travails. When Artest and fans stood face to face in Auburn Hills, suddenly and menacingly real to each other, they met as cold types and enraged, alien strangers. They swung indiscriminately. One fan was as good as another. Why? Because they were all the same. It never occurred to anyone they might hit the wrong person. Specificity was lost.

But we've done the players the same disservice. We make sweeping assumptions about Artest's circumstances and character based on his race and the address he came from, and hurl abuse at him, and insist that if he makes $5 million a year then he's supposed to accept a cold drink in his face without a human reaction.

Details are the connective threads that make us knowable to each other. Specificity is what teaches us that things and people are simply not that simple. What the NBA needs to do for its fans, and what we need to do in our general envisioning and portraying of each other, is not simplify but to amplify: What's present in Artest, from those work boots to his temper, is present in all of us.

Let's imagine what Ron Artest is feeling right now, and surmise that his temper is the great struggle of his existence, a flaring that has intermittently threatened to undo all the positives in his life. Let's imagine that you yourself were sitting in an office after a heated argument, trying to regain your composure, when someone hurled a glass of ice in your face, and ask how you might react. Let's think similarly for a moment on the fan who threw the cup. Let's wonder for a moment if alcohol has been his own great struggle? Let's ask if those two men don't have more in common than we might have initially supposed.

"People are people no matter where they come from," Ron Sr. says. "Ron is flesh and blood just like the guy who threw the drink is flesh and blood too. Just because you come from the projects doesn't mean you're an animal."

Let's imagine what might happen in a perfect world. Let's imagine that all of the fans who feel they were wronged dropped their civil suits and their hopes of carving easy money from the huge headless bull that they see as overpaid pro athletes. Let's imagine that the athletes dropped their own complaints and countercharges. Let's imagine that the league could gather fans and the players in a room, to meet as people.

Let's imagine that David Stern opened a book and read from W.H. Auden, "All men are equal not in respect of their gifts but in that everyone has a will capable of choice. Man is a tempted being, living with what he does, and suffers in time, the medium in which he realizes his potential character. The indeterminacy of time means that events never happen once and for all. The good may fall, the bad may repent, and suffering can be, not a simple retribution, but a triumph."

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