Ron Artest, 'Sheed Wallace: Vindication

"Ron Artest was the most valuable player tonight. He brought life to our team; he brought life to the crowd."

-- Phil Jackson

"He was a warrior. You know, I don't know if Rasheed will ever play again. You know, he's one of them. I think he took that out on the floor with him. I think he's thinking about retiring, and I thought you could see that in his play."

-- Doc Rivers

LOS ANGELES -- One of them was on the stage at center court, the only Laker not wearing a championship T-shirt over his game uniform. As if the game wasn't over. He was caught up in the moment, unconcerned that he appeared to be in a totally different zone than his teammates.

He'd been that way up until this point. So why stop now?

The other, after Game 7 had ended, stood outside the locker room where the game officials dressed. He, too, still wore his game uniform. Green sneaks on his feet, white towel around his neck, bag in hand, wearing sunglasses. He just stood there, staring at the door. And waited. And waited.

After minutes of nothing, he turned and walked away. All alone. Saying nothing to anyone. Leaving the arena, possibly for the last time as an NBA player.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics took chances on Ron Artest and Rasheed Wallace this season. Most would say the risks were huge. Last summer, Danny Ainge and Mitch Kupchak looked at their respective rosters and decided independently to play a general manager's game of Russian roulette. Each signed one of the most misunderstood athletes of this generation to play a role in their teams reaching this point.

They signed them for this game.

Both teams might already have been good enough to get here without them; but for Kupchak and Ainge, Artest and Wallace were trump cards. When the season came down to one game, the decision had to make sense.

It happened in the third quarter Thursday night. Ask Artest, and he'll tell you. A storm raged around him and he felt it in his chest, his arms, his body and soul. The game called out to him as it always had, asking him to join the storm. To lose control. To become emotional, elemental, and strike out with rage, points, rebounds, whatever he could wrestle from the mouth of victory, or defeat. The game was asking him to do what he is infamous for doing: Lose control.

Instead, he got calm.

He did what his sports therapist had trained him to do: Ignore the storm's rage and channel its power.

This is a different Ron Artest. He's still the most honest NBA interview you'll get, but you'll never be asking him questions about running into the stands again.

Instead, you'll be asking him how it felt to let the game come to him in the third quarter of Game 7 of the Finals, with his team down 13 and his teammate, the world's best player, having his worst performance of the postseason. In Game 7!.

He blew kisses to the crowd after he hit the 3 with 1:01 left that is now the biggest shot of his career, and he mouthed "I love you" to anyone and everyone. And after the game, Artest thanked his psychiatrist and his 'hood for this moment in his life, for all of the moments in his life that led him to this moment.

Why start Rasheed Wallace in Game 7, someone asked Doc Rivers, instead of Glen Davis in place of the injured Kendrick Perkins?

"He's old," Rivers said.

And Roscoe did what he promised to all along: Show up and be ready and give it his all when they needed him.

Ahhhh, Sheed.

It all came out during a timeout in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers closed the Celtics' lead to two. Wallace was in the huddle, screaming at his teammates in a beautiful, by-any-means-necessary way. Trying to get them in the moment. Trying to get them where he was.

Unfortunately, injury and age caught up with him. Unfortunately, Wallace was winded in the end, as many Boston fans, who suspected him of "coasting" all season, feared. Two days ago, he was not expecting to be the starting center in his team's 113th game of the season, but Wallace dug deep on Thursday. Probably deeper than he ever has in his career.

Thursday night, we saw a player who, if he's done, might not ever have lived up to his potential. We saw a player, though, who is unquestionably proud of the path he followed. And really, isn't it all about living up to a standard that you can be proud of?

As he lay on the floor under the Lakers' basket after picking up his sixth and final foul, I looked at Mo Brooks from ESPN's Daily Dime and said what many were saying as they watched the Celtics lose this title: "Roscoe went out like a champ."

Through the first six games in the Finals, Wallace averaged 4.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks; Artest averaged 9.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 0.8 steals. In Game 7, they had separate out-of-body-experience games. The 11 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks that Wallace provided tell less than half of the story; the 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 steals that Artest provided tell the whole story.

The story, if we are to be honest with ourselves, is about who these two really are.

After the game ended, while confetti fell from the top of the Staples Center, they hugged. It was a long one. Longer than any other exchanged between two players in opposite uniforms.

The moment was all theirs. Neither need ever share it with anyone else. An Us-Against-The-World moment for the Me-Against-The World's best.

Only they know what they've each gone through this season. Only they know how it feels to have been written off, not just this season but at times throughout their careers. Only they knew, as they hugged, that both of them, not just one, were walking off the court as a champion. No matter who won the game, no matter who held the trophy.

It was, of course, Artest holding on to it. And he had his whole family around the trophy like it was a winning lottery ticket.

After what he'd just done for the Lakers, after saving them in Game 7 and making Kupchak look like a genius for taking that chance on him 11 months ago, his in-the-moment post-championship actions, rambling off about anything and everything, having his own Scalabrine moment, bringing what seemed like all of Queensbridge with him during his interviews, were earned.

Ron Artest, the brotha America loved to hate, earned the right Thursday night to be loved. Which is all he's ever really wanted.

As Artest was in his own world, holding up a championship Wheaties box and promoting his next musical venture in the postgame media session, a writer friend showed me an image on his phone of Wallace leaving the building. Backlit, foreground dark. His wait to speak to the refs over, his piece unheard. It seemed only fitting that he'd leave the game that way. Waiting to be heard.

Which is all he's ever really wanted.

If this was his last game, so be it. A part of me hopes it was. The image he left on that Staples Center court is what he forced us to remember. A warrior. Blood on the floor. The meaning of Roscoe. Everything that everyone said he wasn't and couldn't be. For him, the perfect ending. As perfect as Artest's was.

For them, this Game 7 wasn't just about who won and who lost. It was also about proving to the world that the world has been wrong about who it thinks they are. Excuse me, thought they were.

And the difference between the two in the end was the end. How they went their separate ways. One alone, the other surrounded by those who love -- and understand -- him most. Everything in common, nothing in common. Both discovering what it's like to finally find forever.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.