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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The Once and Future King James

In T.H. White’s fantasy classic, The Once and Future King, Merlyn lives time backwards – and therefore makes anachronistic comments (like references to the Second World War). Using his vast retrospective knowledge, he mentors Arthur Pendragon, the future king.

Since Tim Duncan's got a Merlin tattoo, it provoked me thinking about what advice this NBA sage might give to some of the league's young stars. Specifically, to the league's once and possibly future King, LeBron James?

So let's imagine Tim Duncan filtering the present through the lens of the future, telescoping time retrospectively, and offering King James a vision of the future. In the following playlet, Negative Dunkalectics continues to pioneer the emerging genre of NBA fan fiction. Enjoy!

Future King James: Well, tell me old man…will ‘LeBron James’ surpass ‘Michael Jordan’ as a brand?

Merlin B. Duncan: No.

James: Hmm. Will I win as many championships as MJ? Or Shaq?

Duncan: No. However, you will win the same number as Wilt Chamberlain. Your critics will say, like they say of Wilt, that you were the most talented player of your era and that you never really understood the "secret" of the game.

James: I…don’t follow...

Duncan: I know.

James: Well, will I be a global icon? I've imagined it will be like Hollywood down here.

Duncan: The league's expansion into China and Europe – completed eventually by the Kazakh and Eurasian D-League – happens too late to benefit you. You lose your large investment in the Shanghai Automotive expansion team during a cyclical global economic crisis brought about by a global bespoke artisanal local food bubble. Populist Chinese anger undermines your brand. And frankly, Europeans never find you that charismatic. The business press uses this opportunity for metaphors about your "royal house" decaying. And peaking of royal houses, in 2023....

James: Hold on, hold on. This sounds bad. I’m going to make my own future. And I'll tell you your own future, which I guess is my past. The Spurs win four titles but are never considered anything but "boring." I bet no one will remember them outside of Texas 20 years from now.

Duncan: Make that boring five titles then. You’d be surprised what even an aging Spurs team (with fresh legs going into the playoffs) can do in a lockout shortened 2011-2012 season. Finally, beware of your own Lancelot: Chris Bosh is a tortured soul as well as an accomplished knight of your roundtable. You must keep him engaged to win. Learn to relate to him but take the lead when you need to. I can say no more but he is an immense talent that you must help unleash.

For exclusive commentary on basketball and culture, check out more Negative Dunkalectics, follow @negativedunks on Twitter, and become our fan on Facebook. [Editor's note: And if you want a real vision of the future, picture LeBron James's hand raising the Larry O'Brien Trophy... forever. Go Heat!]

In the Trees, a Defense of Westbrook

Sometimes, I just can't believe my ears. Just this morning, I was sitting at my desk and gazing out into the canopy of trees outside of my window, when I heard a creaking, creaking sound. This is the city, make no mistake about that, but in my daydream, I imagined that a few gray squirrels had constructed a pulley system to the higher branches of this great oak tree, in order to hoist up their sacred objects (furniture, acorns, record collections) to the tallest limbs. Realizing that this was actually a wheelbarrow being pushed by a nearby human being, likely hoisting piles of mulch to a nearby garden, I zoinked out of it.

When I first heard the first calls describing the follies of Russell Westbrook's jacked up shot attempts as a diversionary tactic, comparing him to the last great "team cancer" of the league, I couldn't believe my ears either. I thought, "What? The friendly neighborhood Russell Westbrook who everybody applauded during the season for his year-to-year improvement is now one of the most epic disappointments that the league has ever seen?"

For all that has become of the Russell Westbrook / Stephon Marbury metaphor, what I can't believe the most is that many media members have decided to frame it as a "Marbury was selfish and turned crazy... so naturally Westbrook will be the same way!" as opposed to not assuming things will always turn out as a pastiche of what we've already been through. Just because they play slightly similarly doesn't indicate a linking of psyches. Although, I guess I can understand it. As I’ve often said, who likes thought when you can just drag out old tropes about the recently deceased? When I wrote a long aside about the two players in “On the Subway, a Defense of Rondo” at the end of March, that’s what it was based in: an analysis of play, versus pure psychoanalytical analogy. Things have undoubtedly gotten a little sloppier, a little more superficial, since then.

Drawing an correspondence between the “2011 playoff version” of Westbrook and Minnesota Timberwolves-era Marbury hearkens us back into what's been regarded as a bleaker age of pro basketball for various reasons. The latter period has been claimed as an irrelevant era in the league, as it was largely framed by very good players that were framed by their own “thuggishness” (at least, public personas based partially in having racial identity rooted in the hegemonic perception of blackness in the early-mid 1990s), at least in comparison to Jordan, Karl Malone, and the stars of the golden age, who were of course, great guys. Whereas now we are living in the brand new condominiums of a sparkling, shining revival in telvision ratings and press coverage, Marbury is a bulletpoint on the list of where things went wrong in the post-Jordan era.

When we criticize Westbrook’s “selfishness,” what we’re implicitly doing is referring back to this push for social and class equality that these players helped represent through their coming of age, a progression into a just society that was never realized (e.g. in basketball, Stern’s dress code; in politics, the Bush tax cuts; in music, all of the good rappers getting dead). No matter what Mos Def has said, this idealistic society of individual agency was rejected by its time, which is sort of horrible because we are likely behind the kind of socioeconomic equality that was alluded to by artists, poets and athletes of that time. Even 2Pac.

And through this needless farce of recollecting the young, god-in-training Garnett and his erratic sidekick, we are damning the culture that this era of pro basketball represents, without giving much thought to the context behind it – the time in our history in which those players grew and matured. We couldn't handle it, so we pushed back.

In retrospect, only Marbury played his card wrong, and clearly represented himself as a person way harder than his skills afforded him at the time, by pushing too soon to become a focal part of the Timberwolves’ offense (or to make as much as KG, whichever). It would have been just as simple to draw the conclusion that Garnett, amazing teammate at the time in the same way that Durant is considered now, had the same sort of questions about his role compared to his own burgeoning dynamo. If all shoot-first point guards are compared to "selfish thugs" of the late 1990s like Iverson or Francis, how did Rose become the heroic Jordan and Westbrook become... Marbury? How do we decide who becomes the hero and who becomes a villain? Is it based on who wears a backpack in post-game press conferences?

Westbrook still has that kind of possibility, that kind of virtue, that kind of purity. Beyond looking at usage statistics to prove his “selfishness” compared to his comrade, we know that this wondrous element of promise remains, and it is why we should still hold out hope.

There should have been a balance, but essentially I think the argument in the mainstream press has become, “Westbrook is selfish like Marbury,” and not an underlying reasoning to why he even appears that way. Just because we witnessed Marbury become a classic “team cancer” and flame out until his name was synonymous with selfish pigheadedness, it doesn’t indicate the eventual fate of our blossoming star in Oklahoma. The present provides us with a perspective that will not be so kind to us someday. It is not too late for young Russell. Dude can figure it out if we leave him alone and let him learn. But yo, as far as tropes go, “eventual tragedy” is a good one to keep pushing an impressionable man into.

Russell Westbrook has the ability and knowhow to work beyond what Marbury did as a young scoring PG and compliment Durant in a lot of ways (aka, by passing him the ball, as well as picking up the slack when his shot is off, which he did during the season and through the playoffs and nobody gave a crap). He doesn't need "his own team" to succeed. His whole team is young and maturing, there aren't many scoring options (like, besides Durant, Harden and Westbrook, exactly whom would you expect to average over 10 PPG?) and their most prevalent offensive option are a guy that comes off the bench – and even still, is fairly inconsistent – or somebody constantly being double-teamed because he can score anywhere on the court.

In Friday night’s game, the transference of Westbrook’s shots and attempts to a muffled Durant wouldn’t have done any good. In this series against Memphis, the defensive prowess of Shane Battier, Tony Allen and Marc Gasol have forced Durant into a secondary offensive role on his own team. Westbrook has allowed them, especially of late, to maintain competitiveness. If Durant misses an open jumper after he finally gets free from that powerful wing defense, that isn't on Westbrook. They remain the best young duo in the league. The unnecessarily large margin of Game 6, in particular, is more indicative of Scott Brooks’ coaching style than anything else. If anything, we are seeing the limits to Brooks’ talent, and if anything, that needs to be evaluated in the off-season more than whether Russell shot too much during the playoffs.

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