INDIANAPOLIS -- A couple summers ago, during a trip to town, Metta World Peace joined Indiana Pacers media relations director David Benner for lunch. The two had remained close long after the Pacers traded World Peace -- then Ron Artest -- to Sacramento in 2006 after his infamous role in the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills. World Peace had even joked that his tumultuous Pacers stint was responsible for not some but all the gray whiskers in Benner’s beard.
“David, I put him through a lot,” World Peace said Tuesday. “And he helped me out a lot.”
But as the two sat down to talk, World Peace didn’t crack any jokes. Instead, he apologized. He expressed remorse for the headaches that he caused when he played with the Pacers from 2002-06. He talked about the fans that he let down. He talked about people in the organization that he let down. He talked about how good those pre-brawl Pacers were -- they were capable of winning an NBA title, he said -- but that he had screwed it up.
“I feel awful about it,” World Peace told Benner.
Benner was taken aback.
“That’s kind of when I went, ‘You know, this is not the same Ron that I dealt with,’” Benner said.
In Indianapolis, World Peace is still known as Ron, and on Tuesday the 36-year-old, now in his 17th season, made what will likely be his final visit as an NBA player, a 115-108 loss for his Los Angeles Lakers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. World Peace played 2 minutes, 36 seconds and scored two points, both from the free throw line.
Even if World Peace’s career moves on, ever closer to his overall goal of playing for 20 seasons, he said he won't ever recover from how his Pacers tenure ended, especially because he believed so many people in and around the franchise truly liked him, cared for him, tried to help him at every turn, but he didn’t do right by them.
“That’s what I feel most bad about to this day,” World Peace told ESPN. “That’s something that I can never, ever forgive myself for. I don’t regret it, but I definitely can’t forgive myself for that.”
He didn’t always feel that way. It took time for World Peace to realize the magnitude of his actions, even beyond the brawl, which earned him a 73-game suspension -- the longest in NBA history. He had also demanded a trade after being upset about a trade rumor, which led to the Pacers deactivating the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He had also kicked a ball into the stands, broke a TV camera and verbally sparred with Miami Heat coach Pat Riley during games.
When World Peace was dealt to Sacramento, he played for coach Rick Adelman, whom World Peace called a “basketball father figure” and said taught him how to be a teammate.
“Rick, that really changed my life,” World Peace said. “That’s when my turning point was.”
And as he started to look back on his time with the Pacers, World Peace said he realized, “I was there, but I had no control. It was like now I realized, ‘Oh, wow, what a f---ing d---head.’”
Then in 2010, when World Peace won a championship with the Lakers, he immediately thanked his former Indiana teammates during a postgame news conference.
“It’s the first thing I did when I got on that podium, because for me, we wanted to win a ring,” he said. “And when I set my mind to something, that’s what I want to do. And we didn’t do it and I had an attachment to that team. We were supposed to win a ring together, and I really wanted that, but at that time, I wasn’t able to follow through, because every little thing bothered me. I was unstable. I didn’t know how to get along with others. I didn’t even know how to be in the same room with other people.
“Then after a while, you learn. Like [then-Pacers CEO and president] Donnie Walsh helped me. He supported me when I was seeing a psychologist. We didn’t talk about it back then because I was afraid to let people I know that I was seeing a psychologist, but they would take me after every practice. The team would go to the locker room and I was doing my sessions right here, right back here. Donnie Walsh, man. He started me down that path and that’s why I respect him. I just feel so much for that man. He was taking care of me when I wasn’t stable.”
In 2004-05, World Peace called the Pacers serious title contenders.
Walsh had constructed “a hell of a team,” World Peace said. And World Peace was playing alongside Pacers legend Reggie Miller, who was chasing a title during the twilight of a storied career. “I just feel like we were on our way,” said World Peace, who was coming off an All-Star season and was averaging 24.6 points in seven games leading up to the brawl.
Yet he said he was at his most “unstable” point, and he blames himself for the team’s decline.
“So for me, that’s really, really f----d up,” World Peace said.
Regardless of the regret and remorse that World Peace still feels, the feeling isn’t exactly mutual. Benner said many in and around the Pacers still care for World Peace just as much as they did when he played for them, despite whatever issues he caused that greatly altered his reputation.
“It’s a shame because most people on the outside didn’t get to know Ron like a lot of us on the inside,” Benner said, “and know that underneath whatever problems may have been there, there was a genuine, nice, likable guy, too. Again, that’s why I’m always glad to see him. When he was here, I never saw him refuse to sign an autograph. Never. Ron was always great, and he was always great with kids. This is the stuff you saw from Ron that a lot of people didn’t see, and what everyone remembers him for, mostly, is what happened in Detroit.”
Benner noted that what the brawl weighs heavily on all the players involved in it, but especially World Peace, who was at its center. It certainly didn't help World Peace that the game itself was being nationally televised, either.
World Peace doesn’t believe this particular wound will ever completely heal, but there is something that can help -- if the Pacers can finish what he believes his Pacers could and should have achieved, had he not gotten in the way.
“Honestly, for me, when the Pacers win a championship, I’ll feel a little bit better,” he said. “That will make me feel a little bit better.”