By Mike Wise
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 12:55 AM
My first image of Ron Artest came from behind a chain-link fence. On a sticky, Manhattan summer day maybe 15 years ago, he and future NBA stars Lamar Odom and Elton Brand worked their games and dreamed their dreams in a riveting AAU game on the West 4th Street Courts.
I vividly recall a good run going bad when one player, upset over a controversial call, violently punted the basketball into orbit.
Technical foul. Shouting. Ejections. Game over. Ball and sanity gone, never to return that day.
"I think it was me or Lamar," Artest said on Thursday afternoon, trying to remember who kicked that ball skyward. "Probably me."
We were sitting at a table in an empty banquet room at the Dulles Airport Marriott, an hour or so before his flight whisked the Lakers forward back to Phil, Kobe and the oh-so-important saga of whether the reeling defending champions will ever recapture their swagger.
The better story, of course, is the one about a player thanking his therapist on national television immediately after Game 7 of the NBA Finals - an outright brazen admission in the warped, never-show-weakness world of big-time athletics.
"I think people thought I was crazy at first," Artest said. "And then, after a while, I think people looked deep inside themselves that had issues like this and they were slowly saying: 'Wow, Ron Artest is really on to something here. And now, he went from a crazy to happy person.' "
He spoke a couple of hours after leaving Capitol Hill, where he spent part of the NBA All-Star break advocating for legislation to provide children with mental health services at their schools, services he never had growing up in Queens.
"A lot of my scars were never healed," Artest said. "So I had to heal my scars through counseling. You know, I had issues in my family that were more from a psychiatric stance."
Artest, 31, said he didn't receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis until he was about 13 years old. But it took more than a decade of often-bizarre and violent behavior - throwing a video monitor at Madison Square Garden after a loss ("You were there for that game, too?" he said, laughing); firing a rack of basketballs inches over terrified teammates' heads at halftime of a game; the melee with Detroit Pistons fans in 2004 dubbed "The Malice at the Palace"; and, most seriously, domestic disputes with his wife and the mother of his first child - before Artest got genuine help.
"My dad took medication so they said I should take medication too," said Artest, who declined and has chosen to rely on counseling and therapy.
"When I got to Sacramento, the NBA helped me find a good parenting counselor," he said. "They helped me find a good marriage counselor, which is probably the deepest counseling I've been through. And then I did anger management.
"It's nothing to be ashamed about," he added. "I think actually getting help is the new cool."
On the Hill, he supported a bill sponsored by California congresswoman Grace Napolitano. Sharing stories of bipolar members from his own family, Artest mostly talked of the reason he auctioned off his 2010 NBA championship ring for more than $600,000 to charity this past December - so the Mental Health in Schools Act of 2011 could provide kids who don't know they have psychological problems with the on-campus help an anxious, fidgety kid never got years ago.
"I used to get bullied when I was young, so maybe [the anger and violence] was my way of acting out," he said.
The timing of his visit to Washington had a tad of irony to it, given that the player formerly known as "Mr. Unstable" was smiling and spraying perfume on a TV reporter after the slumping Lakers lost to the lowly Cavaliers earlier this week.
Ron-Ron, though, saw growth in that moment.
"Before, when we lose a game like that, I may have . . . just walked up and took somebody's food out of their hand and threw it on the floor just for not playing hard," he said. "What I did with the perfume, I don't advise anybody to do that. But I was feeling good. It's one of 82."
As we finished talking and he was off to catch his flight, I again saw why many people had more compassion than contempt for him after his worst moments. Beneath the volatility was always this authentic, childlike innocence. His outbursts seemed less about malice and more about the hard-wiring of his disturbing past interfering with his logic.
After the meltdowns, there was also this naivete about what he had actually done, the damage he caused. He always immediately went back to being Ron-Ron.
Really, what other NBA player ever applied for a job at Circuit City in Chicago - while a member of the Bulls? He actually told them he would work Sundays if he got to use the employee discount for electronics.
What other athlete would befriend John Green, the fan who once pelted him with Diet Coke in Detroit - who was partly responsible for Artest losing $7.5 million while serving the longest non-drug-related suspension in NBA history, 73 games - the guy whom Artest now sends free jerseys. "We call each other," Artest said. "We cool now. We've been talking for three years."
Even when he threw that monitor or went into the stands, I never thought he needed a trade or another suspension as much as he needed help.
Now that he was finally courageous enough to get it - in a profession that employs a misguided few who privately worry that Artest, Dennis Rodman and other troubled souls would lose their "edge" with therapy or medication - Ron Artest wants to help others.
Troubled and worried kids, who need to know what's wrong with them before they grow up and make terrible mistakes and don't know why.
That's a much better story than squirting Lamar Odom's wife's signature line of perfume on someone after a loss, no?