Artest had just been introduced as the newest and most incendiary member of the world champion Lakers, smiling and cracking jokes even as reporters showered him with questions about his past as a brawler, a rapper and a rival to Bryant. As the car prepared to leave the practice facility, a crowd of fans pressed in. "They want me to sign something," Artest said to the driver. "I'll only sign ..." -- he gave this some thought -- "... four things."
The driver lowered his window and took in a silver Sharpie and four mint-condition basketballs, one after another. "That's four things, guys," said the driver, but one fan persisted. He thrust forward a pair of vintage Artest trading cards, saying, "You can keep one."
Artest signed one of the cards and handed it back. "There you go, guys," he called out. "I'll see you next time."
Throughout the smooth half-hour ride to the beach Artest held the card between his fingers, glancing at it from time to time. Staring back at him blankly was a rookie for the Bulls, the No. 16 pick in the 1999 draft out of St. John's, broad-shouldered but 20 pounds lighter and with no idea of the troubles that lay ahead. "He played hard," said Artest of his rookie self. "When I look back, when I was younger, I didn't really know how to play. Couldn't shoot really consistent, no off-the-dribble jumper. Just a baller, and some really good defense. Great defense."
"How much smarter are you than this guy on the card?" I asked.
"This guy?" Artest said, raising the card with a chuckle. "This guy was dumb."
By signing the 29-year-old Artest on July 8 to a $33 million contract over five years, the Lakers got more than a bargain. They have provided Bryant with a more aggressive
Because Artest is Artest, though, nothing is certain. All his previous employers, the Bulls, Pacers, Kings and Rockets, have dreamed of channeling his abundant talent and energy in a constructive way. And while his behavior has been much steadier of late -- he was a rock in the playoffs, leading Houston to its first series win in 12 years -- he remains as difficult as ever to predict. For instance, Artest had planned a monthlong family vacation in the Bahamas after the season, but he had to cancel it because he couldn't find his passport. Instead he flew to L.A., checked into the trendy new SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills and spent late May and June telling the bellhops and desk clerks that he hoped to join the Lakers.
When the news about Yao broke, "some of the people in Ron's [entourage] were saying, Now the Rockets need him, and we have all the leverage," says Artest's agent,
After Artest spent one long night coming to grips with the fact that he needed to find a new team in a recessionary market light on big-money suitors, he reset his priorities. He told Bauman he wanted to play for a title contender, even if it meant settling for the midlevel exception, with a starting salary of $5.9 million. With that understanding, says Bauman, "it came down to the Lakers and Cleveland."
The Cavaliers were interested, and Artest says
The Lakers had known of Artest's longing to play for them well before he booked a room at the SLS Hotel. After the Celtics blew out L.A. in Game 6 by 39 points to win the 2008 Finals, Artest, who was watching courtside in Boston, went to the visitors' locker room and told coach
But when Kupchak looked at the footage, he saw evidence of Artest's newfound restraint. "Your immediate reaction as a player would be to react with another elbow -- and [Ron] didn't do that," says Kupchak. "It didn't look to me like Ron made up his mind to get Kobe later on in that series. I think he just wanted Kobe to know, You got me, I know you got me, and I want everybody else to know."
Artest in fact takes pride in the respectful relationship he has with Bryant because it grew from their on-court rivalry. "I was in my prime defensively when I was younger, and I was major problems for Kobe," says Artest. "And as he got better, he was major problems for me. It's like a heavyweight bout -- just fight and fight, and after the fight we embrace each other."
While much has been made of Jackson's handling of difficult players -- most famously when he rehabbed
The car stopped, and Artest walked out along the carnival of the Santa Monica pier toward the Mexican restaurant. He stopped and posed among cardboard cutouts of celebrities such as
She'll know soon enough. One reason Artest was willing to accept a pay cut to come to L.A. was the prospect of endorsement deals and other entertainment projects as outlined by Magic Johnson, who spent more than an hour on the phone recruiting Artest. Though Artest was raised on the New York playgrounds of Queens, he is simpatico with Hollywood: He is in talks to star in a TV reality show, he has hopes of developing new relationships to rejuvenate his secondary career in music, and he will wear number 37 because of a MySpace suggestion to honor the late
It may sound as if Artest is not focused on basketball, but the good news for Lakers fans is that in recent years he has instituted safeguards to help prevent him from straying too far. Bauman, publicist
The dynamics of their relationship became a little too public when Artest made a video of himself taking a call from Bauman the night of July 1, shortly after the agent received an initial recruiting pitch from the Lakers. "I just spoke with Mitch Kupchak for a half hour," says Bauman by speakerphone on the video.
"What he want?" asks Artest.
"What do you think he wants?" answers Bauman. "He wants to get you a championship ring next year."
The conversation continued for several minutes as Bauman detailed a variety of contract options with a number of teams. Afterward Artest posted the video online without telling his agent, which caused Bauman's heart to stop when he first heard about it, as he frantically tried to recall if he had said anything that would embarrass him or the teams he had discussed. (He hadn't, fortunately.)
Artest was finishing lunch in Santa Monica when he brought up the video. "Did you see that thing with me and Dave?" he said with a grin. "I didn't tell him I was recording it."
"You know that's illegal, right?" said Buech, sitting at the far end of the table.
"Yeah," said Artest, lowering his head. "Now I do."
"In California it's illegal to record a phone conversation without letting someone know you're recording it," she said, just so there would be no doubt.
After all these years of finding himself in trouble and wondering why, Artest finally knows how much he doesn't know. Having learned the hard way that he needs guidance and firm borders, he pays for the professional advice he doesn't always like. He also has decided, at his own financial expense, that winning a championship is more important than bringing home the maximum paycheck. Will he find what he came for in L.A.? At the very least, the reality show is going to be terrific.