Who's Zoomin' Who?
(Pre-script: Every single Artest video of note from last night.)
(Pre-P.S.: If you've ever wanted to read my thoughts on liberated fandom and soccer in America...)
I can't get Rachel Zoe's "no words!" catchphrase out of my head today, and that something is Ron Artest. I said it on Twitter, which is like proposing marriage while drunk—I had misgivings about Kevin Garnett's big speech, but also misgivings about those misgivings, and the need to exhaustively backtrack and defend myself. Today, I see why the message felt so clear then. Without shitting on Garnett, whose arrival as an NBA champion was spot-on narrative brilliance, Ron Artest is the one who really bathed himself, and us, in ecstasy. Garnett had been waiting a long, long time. Artest woke up in a burning building, smacked a few timbers, and crawled out with a title. You would be excited, too, and more than a little incoherent.
By most measures of my person, I hate the word "energy". It sucks when it's someone advising me on my health and wellness, and annoying when describing some untalented smurf-monster's on-court contributions. I do, however, still cling to the phrase "energy music," which I think I owe to Amiri Baraka (anti-Semitic kook) from his free jazz days. Here, how about another music cliche to bring the room together: take "between thought and expression," pulp the whole thing, and that's what we got from Artest last night. There was relief in having that ring, that goal accomplished -- and, since Ron Ron is no fool, that sense of legitimacy. But really, this was nothing new. Only the eyes watching had changed the strings upon their fiddles of doom.
The redemption narrative is one of the most hackneyed of sports. We have learned to see through pure ring-chasing, but alas, it persists that a bad guy becomes a good guy if he makes a strong contribution to a championship team. Debates have raged over whether or not Artest-in-LA was a disappointment. Certainly, his presence was a letdown. As a player, he seemed to regress. The defense was still there, and yet still sometimes Kobe would grab the assignment. On offense, he was a mess. The toughness and erratic edge were all there, except unto themselves, they were a destabilizing influence with no ballast to keep them useful. Artest may have been at his most raw and undone, as if the component parts of Ron Artest were seeking to reconstitute a truly positive force. He meant well, but it was a mess.
We wanted so badly for Artest to catch the riding tide of redemption. It got to the point where one bad shot, or fluke-ish make, swung the verdict on his entire season. If a man stands up in the middle of surgery and goes to play a spot of polo, his triumphs and failures are at once exaggerated and trivialized. At some point, all that mattered was whether Artest would complete the story as Garnett had. And in the end, he did. Sure, we got used to praising him solely for toughness and defense, even sheer power of intimidation. To anyone who remembers Artest pre-brawl, or at his best with the Kings, this is an insult to what was once a relentless two-way threat. Whatever the opposite of poetic justice is, there's oodles of that in Ron Artest's story being salvaged by one single game, where everything came together and he played like he should have all season.
Today, everybody loves Ron Artest. All is forgiven. The man won a title, I mean, really won that thing. The Lakers got him for exactly this kind of performance, and like a multi-dimensional Robert Horry, he came through when it counted. Welcome to the club, my son. We are all ART-testians. Let the ink flow, with tales of how far he's come, what a man he is, how he's proof that second and third and fourth chances do come true. And, if you want to stretch some, that there's room for a little personality even as Artest is sized up and down. He's worthy of public support and respect because he's carried out his Zelda-like task. That's the bargain. For fans and media, it's self-serving: he made our dream come true, made himself safe. The NBA's last great hellion has been stuffed into a box and robbed of his fury. Hey, let's all go watch those interviews and have a happy giggle. It's just Ron being Ron. And Ron is a fucking champion.
Except this narrative ignores the obvious: Ron Ron ain't changed a lick. That lens exists entirely for others to change their opinions of QB's finest. You could sense the breaking point during the interviews: Ron isn't screaming with passion and pride like KG, saying all the right things and giving the oddball athlete's equivalent of an acceptance speech (strangely, how the post-game interview was labeled on YouTube). He is frothing, babbling, letting loose more than ever. His shrink? Profuse apologies to every Pacer ever? Crazy visions from the future? If you felt like a real FD fanboy, you could say that Artest has never been more Artest than he was last night. The joke was on everyone else. The man got his title, and suddenly, he got more of a platform, and more attention, than ever for his personality. If anything, this vindicated the Ron Ron that he supposedly grew out of. Dude is still nuts. He's only "new" or "different" for those who need him to be. And they're letting the optics mess with common sense.
Ron Artest is a different basketball player than he was even at the beginning of the season. He's been getting some sort of medical help—it's been unclear all along how much treatment or counseling he had sought during his career–except this time shouted about it, since it had something to do with hitting threes. Shilling for "Champion", his new single, was the same old Artest. However, there was also a sense that Artest was finally free to do him without reservations. His single was a premonition of the very day. His carnival-esque presser totally dispensed with any conventions of athlete, friends, family and press in the same room. This title didn't kill Ron Artest, or usher him into polite society. It only made him more bold. Yes, he's more mature, self-aware, and probably self-possessed than ever. But while others see redemption and a chance to welcome him into the great lobby of champions, Artest sees himself as being legitimated. This proved not that Artest could be someone normal, but that Artest in all his glory had to be taken seriously. That's the crink in the redemption. That's what everyone's missing this morning after.