Throughout the summer of 2009, beginning shortly after his current team eliminated his old one from the playoffs, Ron Artest lived out of the same swanky Beverly Hills hotel, waiting to become a Laker, wanting to go Hollywood, racking up an insane room bill in the process.
And everyday, without exception, he lost his room key.
"But the staff is real cool about it," he told me at the SLS pool one July afternoon, two hours before Lamar Odom's wedding. "They always have a key waiting for me. No waiting in line, no questions."
Artest went on to explain his absentmindedness.
"I'm worried about my record label, my album. I'm worried about my kids and their schooling. I'm worried about my reality show. I'm worried about becoming a star."
But surely he was worried about delivering on the court, too, I prompted him.
"Naw," he said. "Basketball is the easy part."
Now, any Lakers fans within earshot probably had one dour thought bouncing around their now-fried brains: "Crap! So this is Ron-Ron, the whacky son of the Queensbridge Projects. The man who defies logic, usually, stares directly into the sun, probably, and plays basketball, sometimes. He's all ours now. And we're screwed."
But anyone who might have been listening carefully, anyone who stuck around to hear the rest, heard Artest say this, too: "I'm here in L.A. for one thing and one thing only: to win a championship for the Lakers. I won't let my guys down. I won't screw this up."
Fast-forward to the night of June 17, 2010. The night the defending champion's only new acquisition of the offseason propelled L.A., almost single-handedly, to a Game 7 title-clinching NBA Finals victory over their hated rivals, the Boston Celtics. The night their newcomer hugged the Larry O'Brien trophy at his locker while crying and jabbering and laughing like a loon before authoring the most delightfully oft-kilter postgame press conference anyone can recall.
The night Ron Artest became legend.
Since then, Artest has basked in the spotlight and reveled in the perks that come with a title win in Los Angeles. From a post-win visit to Hollywood hot spot Wonderland while dressed in his game uniform, to a rap performance at Powerhouse in Anaheim on Saturday night, to a hosting gig at his own party at La Cienega's 650 early Sunday morning, the Lakers swingman has made this much clear: Mr. Artest will enjoy this victory, thank you very much.
Now there is cause for even more celebration. On Thursday, Artest's rap single "Champions" -- a year-in-the works ode to the title he'd planned to win -- hits iTunes. He recorded the track in June before he'd even signed with the Lakers, tweaked it recently with help from Dr. Dre, and floated it in the locker room throughout the season, a hip-hopping test balloon turned battle cry and diesel to the Lakers' title run.
But Artest, believe it or not, is more or less done with celebrating. We found that out when he gave us a call -- from the Lakers' weight room.
Alipour: I've known you for a long time now, Ron. You've literally dreamed about this moment. Is this experience everything you'd imagined it to be?
Artest: It feels good. It's everything I thought it'd be. The chance to have a championship in your blood is just amazing. Now, for me, it's just about trying to get more. I'm trying to get more rings. But I have a ring, and that's a great thing. And I played a key part in getting that championship, and that's a blessing. And Kobe's a blessing. I just want to say, Kobe is such a blessing in my life. This is something I've always wanted since I was a kid. Without Kobe, it's not possible.
Despite winning the title last season, the Lakers made a big change. That change was replacing Trevor Ariza with you. How much pressure did you feel this season to deliver a title to L.A.?
I felt pressure. But I put that pressure on myself. I didn't want to go into the season without pressure. I put the pressure on myself, just so I can set expectations and exceed them. And when I exceeded them? It's like, "Wow."
Do you think the Lakers would be the champs today if Ariza, and not you, was their swingman?
Yeah, I think so. I think they still would've beaten Boston with Trevor. I really believe that.
That's pretty humble of you. I mean, not many players can lock down Paul Pierce and, before that, Kevin Durant--
Yeah, that's very true. Very true. But I think Trevor was at a point where he was in such a zone, offensively, especially with his 3-point shooting. That would've offset a lot of problems. They wouldn't have been able to help off him, like they did with me. That would've helped.
So, do you realize that you're responsible for the awesomest press conference many of us can remember?
[Laughs] Yeah, people keep saying that. The thing is, that hardly registered. I was just extremely happy that we won. People are saying, "Yo, Ron, that's the best press conference ever." I'm like, "Wow, I really didn't plan on it being like that." [Laughs] But it was definitely a joyful moment for me and I'm glad people got to enjoy it. Someone just told me, "It's like a sitcom. I keep watching it and watching it."
Have you watched it yourself?
Yeah, it almost seems fake. It's not your ordinary postgame conference. Every time I turn it on, I'm like, Wow, what was I doing? Am I acting? It felt like I'm acting. But I was just having so much fun.
How much of that was the champagne?
I think a lot of that was the champagne. [Laughs] Yeah, a lot of it.
You know, thanks to you, your psychiatrist, Dr. Santhi, is the most famous name in her profession since Sigmund Freud.
I just love her. She helped me relax in the storm -- in a huge storm. I was in the eye of the storm, and I was able to control the storm, and it was beautiful.
Midway through the second quarter, one of my colleagues said to me: "If Ron keeps shooting, the Lakers are done."
[Laughs] Yeah, I know.
I told him, "Ron's the only dude on the court who could treat a Game 7 like it's a playground game. Keep shooting." What was going through your head at the time?
In my head I'm thinking, just play, and keep shooting. If that's the only way I know how to play, what else I supposed to do? I'm in the NBA for a reason. I know how I need to play. I don't know how to play the way others want me to play. I can only play the way I know how to play. And what happens? Game 7, biggest game, I got it done.
Phil Jackson has ridden you about your quick trigger. What was his feedback during the game?
Phil's a great coach. He said, "Make sure you stay focused, don't worry about anything, and don't get down on yourself." He gave me a lot of confidence. He was one of the major reasons I was so comfortable and able to play well in that game. In the fourth quarter, we just decided to play basketball and stop worrying about the score. Boston at the time had a major chance. But what happened was, Fisher gave a big speech in the fourth quarter, and it turned us around. He told us, basically, "Play relaxed and don't look at the score." We did exactly that.
I don't know many people who would go to a club wearing a Ron Artest jersey. But then, after Game 7, Ron Artest goes to a club wearing a Ron Artest jersey. Full uniform, actually. You must've stunk up the joint. No time for a shower and change of clothes?
I didn't shower for two-and-a-half days! Not since that game, for two-and-a-half days. I had my jersey on, my spandex and everything. I just wanted to keep everything on. I just felt so good.
Why did you finally decide to take the uniform off?
Well, that was all Chris Brown. He said, "Yo, Ron, lemme get that jersey!" Everybody now is like, "Man, why did you give Chris Brown your jersey, Ron?" Well, what can I say? He asked me first. [Laughs] Nobody thought to ask me for my jersey.
Since then, you've been on Jimmy Kimmel, performed your new single "Champions" at Powerhouse in Anaheim, threw your own party in L.A. and rocked the parade while rocking a top hat. What was your highlight?
Just being able to perform "Champions" and having people scream and having people like the record and want the record. I'm so happy I have this record. It's a good record. You know how much I love the music. I'm going to go all over L.A. performing this song.
Yeah, until now, the only humans to hear "Champions" were your musical collaborators and the boys in your locker room. You started floating the song around the team midseason. It has since become the team's unofficial anthem. What inspired you to record it?
Well, when I decided I was going to be in L.A., a guy I was working with said, "You're going to be a champion." So I wrote a song called "Champions." But it's a song for everybody. It's not just about basketball. It's not about sports. It's for anyone who wants to be a champion -- a champion father, a champion mother. Anybody can be a champion.
After your first album, "My World," hit in 2006, you admitted to me that you weren't very good, but you've been putting in the time and you've been working with heavy hitters like Polow da Don (50 Cent, Usher) and Swizz Beatz (T.I., Eve). I think "Champions" reflects that.
Yeah, my problem was I had no coach. I really needed a coach. Now that I have coaching, it's going to be a much better album. I'm able to tell a story with good melody now. Before, I didn't have melody. But you need melody so people will hear the story. It's like having pictures and colors in the song. Now that I have color, people can hear what I want to say. I'm dropping my next album at the end of the summer. You'll see.
Let's look ahead to the offseason. What can the Lakers do this summer to make sure you all stay atop the mountain?
I think, if anything, we need a mentality -- we need to know that we're in war. And we're in this war together, until somebody retires or gets traded. We're in a war right now. We need to stick together, from now until the war is over.
Any indication as to whether Phil Jackson will return to coach the Lakers?
I'm not sure. I think he's just enjoying his rings right now. The man is truly a gift. He's a gift to this planet, so to speak. He's unbelievable. Everybody loves Phil. I really hope he comes back. I love Phil.
At one point does your summer game plan become, aight, time to get back to work?
Oh, it's happened already. I started working out already. I'm not taking no time off. At all.
That's cool, but I think you're allowed to celebrate just a little while longer. As a champion in L.A., you can write your own ticket this summer. What's on your to-do list?
Well, I just want to make sure my single goes well. I'm going to perform for George Lopez tonight. I'm going on TMZ. I'm just going on different networks. That's pretty much it. I'm going to chill with my kids, too. And just get prepared for basketball. And I'm going to get back into music and record, record, record.
So, aren't champions supposed to hit up Disney World, too?
Naw, I'm actually going to Compton.
What on earth are you going to do in Compton?
Not sure. But that's going to be my championship victory trip.
Final question, two parts: When will you take the celebration back home to Queensbridge? And what will happen to that place when you do?
[Laughs] It's going to be crazy. They're ready for me to come home. So I gotta hurry up and get there. They want to throw a little parade or something. It's going to be unbelievable, unreal. I can't wait to get home.