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Artest leads countdown to '11 title

LOS ANGELES -- When all the players had been introduced and all the diamonds had been distributed Tuesday night, Ron Artest left the receiving line, walked toward commissioner David Stern and asked for the microphone back. A nervous murmur spread through Staples Center, as if the ring ceremony were a wedding reception, and Artest was the nutty uncle who wanted to make one more toast. Stern handed over the mic, though he could not have been sure what would come next: another shout-out to the psychiatrist, a plug for the reality show, a riff on life in Queensbridge? Artest faced the corner of the arena where the championship banners hang, counted to three, and said: "2010-2011."

The newest banner was unveiled, though of course it was not for 2010-2011, leaving the crowd to wonder if Artest had lost track of time or was just that focused on what lies ahead.

A year ago, Artest sequestered himself in the Lakers' locker room for their ring ceremony, the Chinese character for "champion" etched in his scalp. Artest's agent, David Bauman, heard fans in the lower bowl asking "Where's Ron?" and even he had no idea. Artest, new to the Lakers, did not believe he deserved to participate in the ceremony on opening night or visit the White House with the rest of the team in the middle of the season or touch the Larry O'Brien trophy in promotional television spots before the Finals. By continually depriving himself, Artest built his hunger for a title, but now that he has captured it, the Lakers must wonder if his appetite will be the same.

The public is used to seeing Ron Artest try to prove himself and redeem himself. Watching him handle unqualified success is a new experience. The last time Artest was at Staples Center on a night that mattered, he scored 20 points in Game 7 of the Finals against Boston, one of the few Lakers who did not appear overwhelmed by the stakes. His postgame soliloquy about the benefits of therapy turned him into an unlikely spokesman for mental-health awareness and all of a sudden he was meeting Bill Clinton, giving a speech alongside a California congresswoman and pushing a bill to provide funding for mental-health programs in schools. When it came time to order his ring, Artest requested a size 11, even though he wears a 14. He wanted to raffle off the ring and donate the money to mental-health charities, and if the band fit him, he feared he might be tempted to keep it.

He looked down at the ring Tuesday night -- the three-dimensional cutout of his face, the 16 oversized diamonds commemorating each Lakers title, the 16-karat gold hiding a tiny piece of the ball used in Game 7 -- then put it back in the box and shoved it in his locker. He said he will appear on Larry King Live on Wednesday night to announce details of the raffle. Artest is obviously hoping to bring attention to a worthy cause, but it's clear he has his own psychological reasons for parting with the ring. He is trying to move on from the best moment of his career and he realizes that the first step is getting rid of the evidence.

"The story has been written about that ring," Artest said. "We have to get a new one now."

He is building back the hunger by pretending it was never satisfied. Artest scrapped plans for his reality show because he said "this season is too important." He showed up to training camp nearly 20 pounds lighter than last year because he wants to be able to keep up with Kevin Durant in the playoffs. He announced that he would abstain from alcohol. And he set a goal to shoot at least 40 percent from three-point range, a target he hasn't met in six years.

"I can't be any more motivated than I am right now," he said.

Game 7 overshadowed the fact that Artest did not play as well as he wanted in his first season in Los Angeles. He averaged 1.4 steals, the lowest of his career. He averaged 4.3 rebounds, the lowest since his rookie year. He was often lost in the triangle offense. But Lakers coaches say that most players don't fully comprehend the triangle until their first summer away from it, so in that sense, Artest is right on schedule.

"This season should be better," Artest said. "I'm better."

Smarter?

"I don't know about smarter," he said. "I'm pretty dumb."

Predicting how he will fare is as futile as guessing what he will say. The Lakers are hopeful that Artest will bring the same jagged edge, but already he has taken on elements of the championship persona, talking about making shots "when it matters" and insisting that the mission is "about June." Artest's first appearance as a defending champ was a struggle. He shot 3-of-15 on Tuesday and was relegated to the bench as the Lakers came back from a 15-point deficit to edge the Rockets 112-110. Instead of Derek Fisher, it was Steve Blake with the crucial three-pointers down the stretch, and instead of Artest, it was Shannon Brown with the power drives. Miami has the stars, but if opening night was any indication, the Lakers and Celtics have the depth.

Artest is already leading the countdown to another unveiling of another banner. Asked what happened this time, with the reference to 2010-2011, Artest explained: "2010 champions. 2011 coming soon."

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