Key party for Ron Artest in Vegas

Okay, the actual story isn't nearly as titillating as the headline, but I just couldn't resist.

In reality, Ron Artest is at the center of a wholesome, dignified event in Las Vegas on the eve of Wednesday's preseason contest against the Sacramento Kings. The increasingly civic-minded forward will receive the key to the city in recognition of his recent work as a mental health advocate. Specifically, he's being honored for his work with Xcel University, a program he established to help community centers and schools identify high-risk students and provide incentives for a more positive lifestyle.

This effort comes on the heels of lobbying on behalf of improved mental health facilities in schools. As he explained to us in an ESPNLA.com On Air interview, Artest strongly believes treating issues at a young age is critical towards helping people with various mental health issues. Ron-Ron's persistent work in this area hasn't gone unnoticed, and appears to be gaining steam in making a mark.

Oh, and for those who love to celebrate holidays, Oct. 12 is now Ron Artest Day in Vegas! No word yet whether Sin City's government employees will have this day off in 2011, but if I had a vote, there would be no mail delivered in the 702 on R.A.D.

While clearly proud, Artest was almost sheepish as he explained how he became the man of the hour. "I was totally surprised. I've been doing a lot of charity things, and I think they kind of like it," he noted with a shrug. "Trying to just give back, and it's kind of catching on."

His first instinct upon being gifted the key was to attempt convincing the brain trusts instead honor Derek Fisher or Kobe Bryant, both dudes he felt more worthy of accolades. But these protests fell on deaf ears, and unlike his decision to auction off his championship ring for charity, Artest will in fact hang onto his latest piece of memorabilia.

"No, I don't think I'm gonna auction off that key," explained Artest. "I know I can win another ring, but I don't think I can get another key."

We later asked Artest if he planned to use the key to remind people he's a big shot. Carry it around Vegas at all times. Flash it to a maĆ®tre d’ when he's scoping out a good table at a Sin City eatery. Not so much, as Ron-Ron joked about plans to open other doors for himself:

"I'll probably walk into everybody's homes. I'll go to Floyd Mayweather's house first. Put on some of his jewelry."

(On the other hand, when I asked Artest if he had been given the key to Queensbridge, he explained why such a formality isn't even necessary. "I don't think I need a key. You can just walk into everybody's apartments.")

All kidding aside, this event represents the latest step in what's been an absolutely remarkable transformation for Artest. It really wasn't all that long ago when he was among the least popular people in sports (much less the NBA), written off as a danger to his teams and even himself. These days, his off-kilter energy has been channeled into a relentless desire to become a better professional and person. Ron may still be arguably the NBA's most eccentric player, but that same lack of filter, now harnessed, has made him equally human to fans. Between his honesty and some iconic playoff moments, he now improbably may be one of the more beloved athletes around.

Whether the result of therapy, maturity, a better support system (or all of the above), Artest seems determined to make the most of a second chance, and it's been quite enjoyable to watch.

As for Artest's backup, Matt Barnes is more immediately interested in being handed the proverbial "keys" while on the court. For that to happen, he needs a better handle on the triangle, which he admits is still in the learning stages.

"The offense is coming. I just need to learn the counter. Everyone here is so accustomed to the offense, and when they make a certain move that's not really drawn up, I have kind of a problem recognizing that. So I just need some help sometimes to really get up and feel the offense."

Barnes, to his credit, has been an eager student. As we were taught in kindergarten, there's no such thing as a stupid question except the one we don't ask. Along these lines, Barnes has been asking "anybody" willing to listen for triangular pointers. "I don't want to be any kind of offensive letdown, as far as not knowing the offense," explained the small forward.

Pride will not interfere with mastering ASAP a system he admits is every bit as complicated as reputed.

"There's no comparison," nodded Barnes. "It's very difficult. I told someone this morning, this is the most thinking I've had to do about playing on the offensive end. I kind of feel like a robot at some times, because I really don't want to do something wrong. That's just gonna come with time. That's what practice is for."

On the plus side, Barnes' assessment of his situation was delivered in a pragmatic tone. Frustration wasn't evident, and there was no sense of second-guessing any ability to catch on. Like he reminded, it'll come with time, and the bumps are just part of the deal.