Ron Artest: Citizen

Back in 1999 my boss gave me courtside seats to a Knicks game as a reward for a job-well-done. I was 22 years old and I was a die-hard Knicks fan. Sitting courtside was a religious experience for me. Having my feet on the hardwood, Donald Trump sitting behind me, being able to talk to the players, it was a surreal experience.

The Knicks were playing the Chicago Bulls early in the regular season. The Knicks had passed up the chance to draft Ron Artest that summer despite being a local hero from St. Johns. I couldn’t believe it. Nobody could. The Knicks made a colossal mistake. But on this night I was sure the fans would show Artest that we were embarrassed, that we loved him, that he was still a star in NYC. Then when they called his name, the place booed him.

Later in the evening I got caught up in it. Sitting under the basket I could hear Artest’s persistent shit-talking all night long. He and Sprewell were jawing at each other hard. And Artest was a physical player, his elbows ratcheting back and forth and side to side like a swirling combine. At one point the ref called a ticky tack foul on Spree away from the ball and Artest was taking it out baseline just a few seats down from where I sat. Some drunk fan standing behind him was going at him. “You suck Ron. I’m glad we didn’t draft you. You sucked at St. Johns and you suck now.”

Ron held the ball. He turned around and stood face to face with the heckler, staring him down with the meanest of mugs. Hypnotized, the fan slowly sat down in his chair. Everyone erupted in laughter. My friend and I were incredulous. We stood up and screamed. “Don’t let him punk you! He can’t do shit! He can’t do shit!” Ron looked over at us with that same icy stare. Slowly he curled up the edges of his mouth in a wry little grin. He turned and inbounded the ball.

Perhaps even in his rookie season Ron Artest knew that one day he was going to have to whip a fan’s ass.
Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble … we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests … And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes not only may, but even must, consists in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous[?]
In Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, the Underground Man resists the determinist notion that his human nature dictates a particular course of action above all others. He so valued his free will that he chose to seek out chaos and anarchy in order to assert it. He believed that in order to be alive, to truly live, one must confront others, one must suffer at his own hand. The Underground Man chose alienation, humiliation, violence, and conflict because so choosing made him feel powerful. He acted against his predetermined nature and exercised his agency, his free will. It was easy to make choices that brought you personal pleasure. The true expression of free will, for the Underground Man, was to make choices that brought you personal pain.

The fight in Auburn Hills didn’t just come out of nowhere. In some ways Ron’s entire life, let alone his career, led him to that point. The year before the fight ESPN had put Ron on their cover of their magazine with the headline “The Scariest Man in Basketball.” He had been accused of assaulting his wife. He broke two of Michael Jordan’s ribs during a pickup game in practice. He yelled at teammates. He broke cameras, gym equipment, even tore holes in the floor of the United Center.

After being traded to Indiana from Chicago, Ron underwent serious heart surgery to repair a hole in his heart that was causing a murmur. Much like the Underground Man, who willingly lived with physical ailments and refused to seek medical treatment, Artest was back at work a day after the surgery despite doctor’s orders. He practiced until his heart was pounding so intensely he had to go home. Then he came back the next day.
I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have...I refuse to consult a doctor from spite...I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite...I know better than anyone that I am only injuring myself and no one else...My liver is bad, well - let it get worse.
There's voluptuous pleasure in all this degredation.
But the story goes back even further for Artest. His father, a Golden Gloves boxer, abused his mother. Violence was forged in to him at such an early age, by the time he was 8 years old he had already knocked kids out at school and was placed in anger management classes. Soon he found basketball as an outlet for his aggression. And make no mistake, it was aggressive. This was the Queensbridge projects in New York City. Basketball there was a particularly violent enterprise. During a tournament at the YMCA, a 16 year old Ron Artest witnessed another player murdered on the court, stabbed in the chest by a broken wooden table leg. Craig Sager has no idea.

Sigmund Freud took quite a bit of interest in Dostoyevsky. He analyzed him posthumously based on his novels and letters. He championed him as an artist whose work was anticipating the modes of psychoanalysis long before Freud or anyone else had made a discipline out of it. Freud saw in the Underground Man someone who exhibited a clear case of transference. The Underground Man’s obsession with free will, and the self-destructive behavior that accompanied it, was representative of a yearning for freedom and independence held over from his childhood, his relationship with Papa. Freud also saw in Dostoyevsky a desire to free the Underground Man from his despair. Freud believed that psychoanalysis was the key to doing just that.

The fight in Auburn Hills was a turning point for Ron Artest. He had pushed back against everyone around him as hard as he could push, and there he was in 2004 with the force of everything he pushed against coming back on him. Suspended for the season, in dutch with the Pacers, $7 million poorer, and as much of a pariah in the world of basketball as someone could likely be. Artest’s exercise of free will had led him to this point, and from this point it would lead him to seek psychological help.

Ron Artest’s career post-brawl can be seen as a steady climb upward, above ground. From Indiana he was traded to Sacramento. While there, Artest was no less “crazy” than ever before. The nature of his irrational acts were fundamentally different, however. When the team was discussing trading Bonzi Wells at the end of his contract, for example, Artest publicly volunteered to give up his own salary to the team to keep Wells on board. Later when Rick Adelman was in contract negotiations with the team, Artest would again volunteer to pony up his own salary in order to keep Adelman around. Still inflicting pain on himself, yet this time in service of others.

Much has been made of Artest’s very public advocacy for mental health issues. He has testified on Capitol Hill in support of access to mental health services in public schools. He has spoken to high schools across the country to tell young people that it is okay to ask for help. And after winning the championship in 2010, he famously thanked his psychiatrist and then auctioned off his championship ring and donated the money to mental health advocacy. This work earned him the J. Walker Kennedy Citizenship Award.

Aristotle believed that citizenship was the responsibility of every member of a polity to both submit to rule and be willing to rule. Everyone participated in deliberation, decision making, and governing. When Aristotle first developed his theory of citizenship, he very much believed that human beings had a human nature that dictated our political relationships. The Aristotelian city-state presupposed that humans were bound to a causal determinism. The public life was in our DNA. Those who acted outside of the greater good were acting against nature.

Centuries have passed since Aristotle lived and Athenians tried to govern themselves through collective self-rule. Still more centuries have passed since Rousseau wrote that “obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself is freedom.” The modern man lives under a different model of citizenship. Passive participation in political life and even apathy and indifference is not only normal but often encouraged. Public spaces are rare and public discourse even rarer. Free will and liberty are ideals that Americans hold dear and see as absolute truths, but are rarely exercised. In the NBA, too, a very modern, passive ideal of citizenship has taken hold. Before Artest's award, the J. Walker Kennedy Citizenship Award was often bestowed upon a player for acts of charity, whoever wrote the biggest check. Rare is the case of an NBA player who is recognized for civic engagement or activism, for active participation in public life.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her own theories of citizenship, rejected determinism. She believed that modern political relationships were artificial constructs, not our human nature. However she also saw in that artificiality something wonderful: the exercise of human free will. She believed that an irrational actor was necessary to preserve liberty. Revolutionaries and rebellions were necessary to remind us that our political relationships were not predetermined and that it was within our power to change the world. Most importantly she believed that this kind of irrational action should not lead us toward violence, but rather towards more cooperation. She showed us a way out of the Underground Man's (and modern life's) dilemma. Free will and our better angels can coexist. It requires of us hard work, humility, and perhaps even a little self-analysis. But it was possible.
I better end my ‘Notes’ here? … Why, to tell long stories, showing how I have spoiled my life through morally rotting in my corner, through lack of fitting environment, through divorce from real life, and rankling spite in my underground world, would certainly not be interesting; a novel needs a hero...
Ron Artest posts his phone number on Twitter. He has met up with fans to play Monopoly. He met his next door neighbor and found out she was a musician and recorded a country music song with her. He asked his fans on twitter one night what they were all doing and then showed up at a random Filipino family’s home to have dinner with them and sing karaoke. And he tracked down John Green, the man who threw the drink on him in Auburn Hills that sparked the fight that nearly derailed his career, and called him up on the phone to apologize and to see if they could work together. He is coming out from underground, reaching out to those he once pushed away. "It's kind of weird," he said. "If you look at my past, everybody knows what happened in the past, with the brawl, fights, suspensions and all that stuff. This is another part of that story. Over the years, I've been telling people, 'You've got to wait for the end result.' They said, 'Where do you see yourself?' I don't know yet. You've got to wait and let it happen. This is a part of the process....”

David Hill is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. His analyst has never heard of Arendt but she loves Ron Artest. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Anonymous said...

Dave, your Ron Artest courtside seats story reminds me of my dad's story about going to an ABA game in Pittsburgh around 1972.

They had some uncoordinated caucasian center who lost the handle under the hoop. Dan Issell and Rick Barry both had something like 60 point games against the Condors that year, and they were just a bad team.

Anyway, my dad screams out "you big white stiff, what are you doing?" to the center...who then immediately turns to my dad, points a finger at him and says "you!", with all that implies. He claims he kinda slunk down in his seat and most of the 85 people there had a laugh (if they were awake.)

Anyway, it didn't turn out like Auburn Hills and the league folded a year or so later.

Willy said...

Great article. Thank you for this. Whenever I heard about one of his antics, I thought they were exactly that--antics. This article really contextualized everything for me, and I've gained a newfound respect for Mr. Artest.

Fluke Fanzine said...

Thank you for this.

boleroid said...

That was fantastic, Dave. Bravo!

Jason Lancaster said...

Strong, strong article. Referencing Dostoyevsky and Aristotle in a basketball post is a credit to you and, indirectly, a gesture towards the reader. It's a compliment that you believe enough in our intelligence to take us there. I think a lot of sports bloggers would have felt compelled to dumb it down, and I thank you.

I think your article speaks to a larger point than Artest, by the way. In modern America, it seems that *everyone* has an opinion about how some young athlete (be it Artest or Allen Iverson or Tim Tebow or Mendenhal) should or shouldn't have done something, said something, should know better, should be smarter, etc.

HOWEVER, how many of these people with opinions grew up in many had abusive parents? How many had agents and corrupt AAU coaches and greedy relatives in their ears from the time they were 14? How many have never heard the word "No"? Pro athletes are often the product of otherworldly talent and incredibly poor examples. They are often walking contradictions.

You quoted Dostoyevsky: "if [man] were enlightened...[he] would at once become good and noble." If more people (myself included) took the time to put themselves in someone else's shoes before passing judgment, the world would be a better place.

It's articles like this that help move things forward - nicely done.

Unknown said...

Great article. I really enjoyed reading it.
Insightful, intelligent, lucid, and touching. Before, I had a naive one-sided opinion of Ron Artest, and only saw him as a basketball player. But, now I see him as a good-hearted philanthropist that is attempting to make up for some of his past demons. This really puts a good story behind Artest.
Great read.

Anonymous said...

good stuff. didn't know the good stuff artest was was doing these days.

Manale said...

I curated an art show dedicated to the incredible man called Ron Artest last December.

Ron showed up for the opening. Amazing!

Manale said...

Check it out:

Kelly said...

I remember reading about that art show. Awesome that he showed up and thanks for posting that link!

Anonymous said...

dave. nice post. i remember that game well. rob

Tara said...

loved this!

Jake said...

Great stuff man, I really enjoyed it. Still bummed the Knicks passed on Artest.

Yago Colás said...

Great post, Dave. I missed this way back when you first put it up. A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching Notes from Underground in an Intro to Comp Lit class at the same time as my Cultures of Basketball class was watching and discussing the Fab Five documentary. I was seeing lots of parallels between the Underground Man's anarchic, but very thoughtful and sensitive, rant on the dullards he called "Men of Action" and the way that the Fab Five (as portrayed or self-portrayed in the documentary) were a kind of hardwood molotov cocktail tossed among the Men of Action who ran College Basketball at the time. I didn't get around to writing it up and if I had, I doubt I would have done as thorough or thoughtful job as you. Thanks for this one.

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