EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Although Ron Artest’s streetball games in New York usually included breaks for water or Gatorade, the Queens teenager knew other players who would recharge with Olde English malt liquor.
Those bad examples stayed in his mind while he went through college at St. John’s and into the NBA, where Artest says he sometimes drank cognac during halftimes early in his career with the Chicago Bulls.
“You’ve got to watch who you look up to,” Artest said Thursday after practice at the Los Angeles Lakers’ training complex. “I’ve got some people who I wish I would not have looked up to, but I still love.”
Artest recently made several provocative admissions in an interview with the Sporting News, most notably saying he sometimes drank during games in Chicago, where he spent his first 2 1/2 seasons. He acknowledged buying alcohol at a liquor store down the street from the United Center and slipping it into his locker.
Artest also said he only made his admissions because he plans to begin a youth program in Los Angeles in which he’ll teach others about managing the dangers and temptations of young adulthood.
“I understand I’m in a situation where I have to be a role model,” said Artest, who has discussed his in-game drinking in speeches to at-risk youth in the past four years. “I’m just in that situation, so that’s something I’m working towards. It’s not something I’m running from, but I have to tell people what I’ve been through, because when it comes up later, I’m not going to want it to be a shock. I tell people what I’ve been through, and I think it’ll help me be more of a role model for the future.”
In his typically engaging yet enigmatic style of discourse, Artest said his drinking was a result of getting “big-headed,” and having too much responsibility too soon in his life as a 19-year-old father. Artest didn’t specify when he stopped drinking during games, but spoke in glowing detail of an internal self-improvement process in his mid-20s that left him much more mature.
“I was living two lifestyles, and they were both going in opposite directions,” the 30-year-old Artest said. “Luckily, my wife took me back.”
Artest said he has grown up considerably after his stints with Chicago and Indiana, where his involvement in perhaps the most infamous brawl in NBA history in late 2004 cemented his mercurial reputation and resulted in a 73-game suspension. Artest eventually demanded a trade from the Pacers, who shipped him to Sacramento, where the self-healing began.
“I was slowly cleansing myself in Sacramento,” Artest said. “I was 98 per cent cleansed in Houston (last season).”
Yet early in his first season with the Lakers, Artest again is attracting attention for his eccentric behaviour and frank admissions — although Kobe Bryant said it’s nothing that’ll concern the Lakers.
“What fallout?” Bryant asked. “He ain’t doing that (stuff) here. It’s got nothing to do with us.”
Indeed, Bryant said Artest gets an “A-plus” as a teammate during his first few months with the Lakers, who signed him as a free agent as the only new addition to last season’s championship-winning roster. Artest has referred to himself as the captain of the Lakers’ defence, and Bryant agrees.
“He takes things off my plate,” Bryant said, noting Artest’s intensity at practice. “(In previous seasons) I’ve had to be the offensive captain, the defensive captain. … He’s another person that’s as extremely intense as I am in practice, goes at it even more.”
Although Lakers coach Phil Jackson hadn’t yet spoken to Artest, the 10-time NBA champion coach said he suspects Artest’s admissions have been “blown out of context.” Although Jackson heard of similar issues when he was a player with the Knicks, he doesn’t believe Artest’s in-game drinking could have been more than an occasional, minor dalliance.
“I just don’t think as a player, you can get away with that type of thing in the NBA,” Jackson said. “Somebody is going to see it. There’s going to be alcohol on your breath. It’s just not going to happen on a day-to-day basis. … Ron was just talking about the struggles that he’s had in his career.”
Artest also criticized NBA referee Joey Crawford, and spoke about his still-simmering dislike for Ben Wallace, the Pistons forward whose conflict with Artest set off the 2004 brawl that went into the stands.
“Joey is a good person,” Artest said. “That was a comment I probably shouldn’t have made.”