In the milieu of professional sports, winning has been, and always will be, the best elixir for washing away the sins of an athlete.
And for the better part of six years, Los Angeles Lakers small forward Ron Artest has been thirsting for a sip from that cup since he was the center of an altercation among fans and players during a game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers.
The infamous brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit, Michigan cost Artest the remainder of the 2004-05 NBA season, which totaled 73 games and the playoffs, and became the signature moment in the career of the eccentric and enigmatic Queens native.
So when the Lakers allowed Trevor Ariza, a key contributor in the team’s 2009 championship run, to depart via free agency, many pundits questioned the decision to acquire Artest to fill the void; particularly after Los Angeles finished almost ten victories short of their win total in the 2008-09 season.
The 2010 NBA Finals raised additional questions when, in Games 4 and 5, Artest averaged 8.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, while shooting a dismal 31.6% from the field, in losses that pushed the Lakers to the brink of falling to the Boston Celtics in the Finals for the second time in three years.
However, in performances that belied his virtual non-existence in the previous two games as well as his volatile past, Artest played the two best games of his career to lift Los Angeles to its 16th NBA Championship and help Kobe Bryant enhance his legacy in the process.
In a defensive performance for the ages, the Lakers held Boston to only 67 points in Game 6 to force a deciding Game 7 at the STAPLES Center.
Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 26 points and Pau Gasol finished one assist shy of a triple-double (17 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists), but it was Queensbridge’s own Ron Artest who was the difference maker on both ends of the floor.
Artest scored 15 points and snared 6 rebounds while holding Celtics captain Paul Pierce to only 13 points, on 6 for 14 shooting, in a game that certainly reminded his hometown why he earned the nickname ‘Tru Warier’ in his youth. But Artest would save his best for last in the final game of the season.
With Los Angeles struggling on offense in the first half, it was Artest, not Kobe Bryant, who carried the team, scoring 12 points, all in the second quarter, to keep the Lakers within striking distance of Boston, who controlled play for the first 24 minutes.
The second half saw Artest score 8 points but none bigger than a three-point shot with one minute left to give Los Angeles a six-point cushion on their way to holding on to the slimmest of margins for their second consecutive NBA Title.
More importantly, in the most committed effort to defense and rebounding that has ever been displayed by the Lakers, Artest led the charge once again by limiting Paul Pierce, Boston’s best and most versatile offensive weapon, to only 7 second half points.
‘Ron-Ron’ would finish the game with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 steals while exhibiting championship poise and tenacity on defense whose true value can’t be measured with words alone.
After the game, Kobe Bryant, who shot a horrific 6 for 24 from the field and was admittedly “out of gas”, sang the praises of the man he has dubbed “The Spaniard”; and deservedly so because Pau Gasol came up huge with 19 points and 18 rebounds.
But it was Ron Artest who scored 35% of Los Angeles’ points in the first half, it was Artest who held Paul Pierce to 33% shooting for the game, and it was the ‘Tru Warier’ who hit the three-point shot that gave the Lakers the separation they needed to secure the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
On a final note, it was Artest who saved Kobe Bryant from having to answer a multitude of questions about a sub-par performance, for his standards, in the most significant game of his career and from having the growth of Bryant’s legacy stunted by the team that dealt him the most embarrassing loss of his NBA tenure.
At the same time, Artest established a legacy of his own, for his stellar play on the court this time, and is now a media darling after thanking everybody in his hood and his psychiatrist in a post-game interview.
Bottom line, by being an integral factor in a championship-clinching game, Artest has finally taken a sip of the elixir that is a morality cleansing for professional athletes.
And the 2004 brawl in Detroit will merely be a footnote in Artest’s rise from selfish thug to selfless champion.
Click here to watch video of the 2004 brawl in the Palace at Auburn Hills.
Click here to watch highlights of Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Click here to watch the Los Angeles Lakers’ Game 7 victory celebration.