My Sportsman: Ron Artest
The most sincere of all celebrations was held in the late hours of June 17 in the interview room of the Staples Center, where Ron Artest gathered his family around him. He talked about his admiration for Kobe Bryant and his consummated love for basketball and his psychiatrist who helped him save himself. He gushed on and on and on and finally admitted, ``I totally forgot the question you asked.''
Yet he was on this podium after Game 7 of the NBA Finals because he never had forgotten THE question -- the singular issue of his self-destructable career: Could he be a reliable star? There wasn't any doubting of Artest's stardom at both ends of the floor because of his intimidating array of size, strength, skills and defensive bullying. But could he ever channel and apply those skills to the pursuit of an NBA championship? Would he come through when his team needed him most? People who knew him too well doubted he neither would nor could. They were convinced the pressures would overwhelm him, he would lose his way and the defending champion Lakers would regret their contentious decision to replace free agent forward Trevor Ariza with Artest, who had contributed to three playoff series victories in 10 years while attracting more attention for his violations than for his achievements.
"I feel sometimes like a coward when I see those guys,'' said Artest that happy night last June as he referred back to his former Pacer teammates, who were transformed from contenders to nobodies when Artest incited the 2004 brawl at Detroit. ``Because it's like, man, I'm on the Lakers and I had a chance to win with you guys [at Indiana], and I feel almost like a coward. I never thought God would put me in this situation again because of that.''
As a Laker he worked his way through a frustrating regular season in which he rarely appeared to conform to the demands of the triangle offense, a trend that followed him into the final seconds of the Western finals Game 5, in which Artest missed seven of eight shots, including a couple of jumpers he should not have attempted in the final minute. But then he rescued a Bryant airball and banked it in at the buzzer for the 103-101 win and a 3-2 series lead over Phoenix to put the Lakers through to the NBA Finals against Boston.
That surprising put-back was the omen. Down 3-2 to the Celtics, the Lakers leaned on Artest and he carried the weight. He went 6 of 11 for 15 points in Game 6, and then -- on a 6 of 24 night for Bryant -- Artest was producing 20 points with 3 offensive rebounds and his typical mauling defense on Paul Pierce to lead the Lakers to their 83-79 comeback victory. Yes, Ron Artest led them to their 16th championship. "Ron Artest was the most valuable player tonight,'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson after Game 7. "He brought life to our team, he brought life to the crowd.''
Artest applied his own oxygen mask before helping others, as the airlines suggest in moments of emergency. He knew he had issues and he didn't know how to fix them, so he surrounded himself with experts who could help him help himself. David Bauman, his agent, convinced him to accept less money and then worked out the deal to bring him to the Lakers. Heidi Buech, his publicist, helped him improve his image and learn to deal with his mistakes. Lou Taylor, his business manager, helped him to hold onto his money and provide him with financial stability. Dr.Santhi Periasamy, his psychiatrist, freed him to win Game 7 in the greatest of all basketball rivalries.
"Thank you so much," said Artest of his psychiatrist. "There's so much commotion going in the playoffs. She helped me relax."
How many players would admit to their failings in their moment of triumph? That's what Artest did last June, and he wanted everyone to hear his confession.
So liberating was his breakthrough that he promised to auction his championship ring for a mental health charity. Ron Artest defied all predictions, just like this nomination. He is my Sportsman of the Year.