Ron Artest is a changed man

LOS ANGELES -- It's almost 12:15 a.m. at a club near Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The Lakers have just secured an 87-86 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, due in no small part to the crunch-time defense of Ron Artest against rookie Blake Griffin. All the more reason for the 11-year veteran to enjoy himself at a party he has lent his name to in an effort to raise money for improved mental health facilities.

Rap legend Biz Markie is spinning discs and I'm waiting in a private room for Artest, who has agreed to set aside time to talk before mingling. He's supposed to arrive between 10:30 and 11 p.m., but a dinner detour is needed, so the sit-down is pushed to 11:30.

At which time it appears he's gone off the grid.

Phone calls from his publicist go straight to voice mail. Subsequent queries to friends produce no leads. Midnight passes, and while neither of us has yet reached for the panic button, his publicist and I are growing nervous. This is Ron Artest we're talking about, the player with a penchant for flighty quotes and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel's stage in boxer shorts. It's easy to picture him popping by a dodgeball game on a whim and just never showing up for the interview.

After another 15 minutes, I'm able to exhale. He walks in, flashing a playful smile, and what follows is half an hour of introspection.

Ron Artest is making a habit of coming through these days.

"I don't think you have to go deep down in Ron's heart to say he's a good person," says Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person, whose relationship with Artest goes back to his days as a special assistant to the CEO of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers. "He's a good person on the surface … People that actually know Ron will echo those sentiments as well."

Person vouched for Artest when his stock hit rock bottom, and he wasn't alone.

Pacers guard Danny Granger recalls how Artest, despite being mired in a period the Laker labels "selfish," took time to mentor him as a rookie. Artest actively encouraged Granger to fight for any spot on the team (including his own) and stood up for the new kid.

"When you're a rookie, you get picked on a lot," Granger recalls. "I can't remember what it was about, but one time, somebody was outta hand in a practice. Ron said something, and then they got into it."

Lakers teammate Lamar Odom has known Artest since their early teens.

"Once he's down for you, he's one of the most loyal people I know. Point blank," Odom says.

It's been a little over six years since the Palace Brawl in Detroit, as ugly an incident as sports has seen. Combined with other incidents, ranging from on-court blowups (breaking a television monitor on one occasion, a confrontation with Pat Riley on another) to betrayal (demanding a trade from the same Pacers organization that had stood by him in the aftermath of the incident in Detroit), the brawl cemented Artest's reputation as one of the NBA's most volatile players.

"As I got fame and money and things, my personality changed," Artest says of his reckless behavior.

He wanted to believe he hadn't changed at all. His bank account screamed "Upper West Side," but his mentality was still that of a dude raised on the rough streets of Queensbridge in New York. He needed to feel he hadn't lost touch with his roots.

"I didn't really know myself," he says. "I was kind of confused as a person. So I definitely knew I didn't want to lose who I was as a person.

"I felt in control, but I wasn't in control. I was totally not in control. I wasn't able to control [emotions] because I was more into myself, more into being a rebel than being inspirational."

NBA commissioner David Stern remembers his concern, beyond levying a punishment for the Malice at the Palace, for Artest the person.

"We were concerned for Ron because the stresses of the game and the pressures that come from being a star athlete," Stern says. "Being a public performer and meeting the demands of family and others, and other situations, are just quite daunting. And Ron was going to need some help working through all those."

"Coming out of school, I was always into school," Artest recalls. "Always into giving back. Never used to smoke weed. My wife was the first girl I ever met. The first person I've ever been with. I was just kind of a good dude. And then something went wrong. Lifestyle. Ego. A lot of things got in the way."

In the past year or so, Artest hasn't just become a likable fan favorite, he also has turned his image on its ear, becoming an unlikely voice for those in need of therapy and professional assistance.

Artest underwent therapy off-and-on since he was kid, tackling issues of anger management and intense emotions. But even recognizing its value, he didn't stick with the process until he eventually was ordered into sessions by a Sacramento judge after pleading no-contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge in 2007. A trade to the Rockets meant completing the hours in Houston, where he found his now-famous psychologist, Dr. Santhi Periasamy. He felt comfortable working with her. Once the court-mandated requirement was fulfilled, Artest decided of his own free will to continue therapy in an effort, he says, to become a "better person, a better teammate."
"I know myself," Artest explains. "I know I can be pretty self-destructive … I thought it was necessary. I definitely wanted to make sure that I wasn't taking any steps backwards."

The decision was a turning point in his life. After resisting it for years, Artest had grown comfortable with the idea of growing up.

"Five, six years ago, I always told people, 'I'd never change, I'm still the same person,'" he says. "I don't want to go from having a hoodie and saggy jeans to a suit and a tie overnight, because people don't believe you. So you gotta let it happen naturally."

Professionally, the dividends were obvious during his inaugural season with the Lakers. A critical tweet of Phil Jackson here, or a stumble down the stairs there, notwithstanding, Artest's first campaign with the Lakers raised eyebrows mainly because it was so quiet.

On the court, Artest's learning curve may have been steep, but the climb was negotiated in earnest. The playoffs came with highs (a game-winning putback in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns) and lows (enough bad shots in that same series for Jackson to publicly endorse opposing game plans of baiting Artest into gunning) but when the lights were brightest, Artest was a cool customer.

During a grueling Game 7 against the Boston Celtics, he was the calmest Laker, shutting down Paul Pierce and putting up 20 points, including a dagger 3-pointer with one minute remaining.

More importantly, the balance on the hardwood seeped into Artest's personal life.

"Just being able to see every situation clearly," says Artest of the benefits of therapy. "I'm not as quick to judge somebody. I'm not always as quick to say I'm right about something. I criticize myself a lot or just look at things from all angles. If something's going wrong or something I can't deal with, I'm trying to figure out a way where I can deal with it relaxed."

"The most stable person in the world needs someone to talk to," Odom says. "It's really happens a lot more than what people think, probably, as far as someone needing someone to talk to. It's very normal. The everyday person sometimes is not willing to admit it. It was good that he got some help. We all need to know what makes us tick."

That doesn't necessarily make going public any easier.

"I talked about it three years ago," Artest says. "I told people I was going through therapy and some people was like, 'What?' I was weird. It caught people off-guard. But I kinda knew, like, I knew people were gonna call me crazy, but I kind of thought that if I tell people about this, it can have an impact on certain people."

Last season, when he admitted to drinking Hennessy at halftime during his days as a Chicago Bull, most people treated it like another outrageous tale from Ron-Ron and missed his intention, which was to bring his mistake to light.

"I was very upset about that," Artest says. But he kept talking, thanking his therapist during the postgame news conference after the Lakers won the title, and appearing alongside Rep. Grace Napolitano to advocate for H.R. 2531, a measure to "provide access to school-based comprehensive mental health programs."

The more he speaks out for those without a voice, the more people can put a face to their own issues. The solidarity works in reverse, too. The more Artest talks about his own issues, the less self-conscious he becomes about having them.

In his own words, it makes him feel "normal."

"Because I'm not the only one," Artest explains. "The same way I don't want that kid [helped through his advocacy] to feel lonely, I know I'm not lonely in this problem. [Before] I felt like I was the only one going through what I was going through, but I'm not. It's like all those groups, those movements, and they feel like they're not alone. Whether it's race, or whether it's gender, or whether it's sexuality, everybody doesn't want to feel alone, you know?"

The more he gets involved with this movement, the more he resembles a monk shedding worldly possessions for a life of simplicity.

First he decided to raffle off his championship ring (the drawing will be Saturday at halftime of the Lakers-Heat game). Then he announced his intention to donate a significant portion of next season's salary to mental health charities.

It's easy to wonder if Artest is perhaps taking good intentions too far, allowing himself to get caught up in some new kind of emotion. But he actually sounds like a man with a purpose.

A short trip down memory lane illustrates how much he has matured:

"There were a couple of teams I was gonna max out before [coming to the Lakers]," he recalls. "What I wanted to do with the money, I wanted to give some away, but honestly, I wanted to spend half a million dollars at a strip club. If I was gonna re-sign with Houston and get a big contract … that was our plan. I was telling our friends we were gonna do this. We was gonna make it rain the whole night.

"And then it worked out weird. Yao gets hurt. Houston goes back on their talks to my agent.

"And I'm in L.A. and I went for less money. But it humbled me and I didn't know how I would get to this point where I'm at now today. It's a point I love … It's funny how it worked out.

"I think it was good I didn't get those contracts I wanted, because I don't think I would have been here right now."

Looking back on it, how does the $500K "plan" feel to him now?

"It feels ridiculous, like steps backwards."

Especially compared with his plans to give money away now, to charity, for a cause he believes in.

"It's not a thing where I'm saying I don't need money," says Artest, who concedes he likes "stuff" as much as the next guy. "It's a thing where, in there somewhere, whether it's the fourth- or fifth-most important reason I'm doing that next year, in there somewhere is you don't need to flash all the time. Save what you have. You don't need to flash all the time. It's not that important."

Philanthropy isn't new for Artest. Away from the cameras, he has been involved with fundraising for an HIV testing clinic in Kenya and has supported organizations such as Feed the Children. But he insisted his efforts were kept behind the scenes.

"I didn't want to do good things and be a role model for kids when it wasn't an appropriate time. I was doing things on the court, off the court, that's not a role model."

So are we looking at Ron Artest the role model now, as he raffles off his ring and plans to donate part of his salary?

"I'm comfortable sharing my experience, and I'm comfortable with helping and giving advice … An example, yes. Definitely an example. But I don't think I'm comfortable with the title 'role model' yet. I think I got a lot more growing up to do before I can say, I'm an officially a role model," he says.

Are you comfortable with the title "good person," I ask?

"Good person?" he repeats with a laugh. "Yeah, I'm comfortable with that title, but improving person is a better title. Improving person and an example; that's best right now. Because I'm in the transition and I'm a couple years removed from other things, so I'm still in this transition. Still transitioning, you know? Still transitioning."

Andy Kamenetzky is co-author of the Land O'Lakers blog on ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.