Wednesday, I caught up with Ron Artest at a Hollywood dance studio before his practice with "Dancing with the Stars" partner Peta Murgatroyd. (For DWTS fans, here is a clip of them rehearsing.) We talked for about 10 minutes about topics ranging from the show to the perception of being distracted by entertainment industry pursuits to his expectations under new/old coach Mike Brown. The conversation is below, plus I've added a few thoughts at the end.
Andy Kamenetzky: What have these workouts been like and how physically challenging are they compared to basketball?
Ron Artest: It's different because in basketball, you're running and you're getting hit. You gotta perform under a lot of stress and you gotta make baskets when you're fatigued. But with dancing, it's real routine, so it's not like you're getting hit. But it's different because it's all feet and it's all hips, and the dances change. So it's definitely good preparation for when you wanna play ball. I've been playing basketball and I sense a difference in how my feet is moving.
AK: Does it work different muscles than you normally work during an offseason?
RA: Yeah, a lot of hips. When you play basketball, if you don't feel like moving a certain way, you don't have to. But in dancing, if you don't move how you're supposed to, you're gonna look bad. So you actually gotta work your hips and you gotta work your ankles in the right direction. It's excellent.
AK: What's your approach of trying to win "Dancing with the Stars" vs. trying to win an NBA title?
RA: I mean, you're just competitive. The first day you see yourself, if you don't have no idea what you're getting into, you'll come, you'll rehearse, you'll practice, whatever, the next couple days, you practice, you'll look at yourself on tape. If you're having fun, and you see yourself and you see how bad you look, then you get competitive. And now you want to do everything the right way.
AK: You joked with Stephen A. Smith a little while back about your slim odds of winning. Some time has passed. Are you actually now in it to win it?
RA: I'm in it to win it now, because it's fun, first off. That's the best thing about basketball. It's fun. And you get a chance to compete, you know?
AK: Is this more fun than you expected?
RA: Definitely. When I first envisioned myself ever doing "Dancing With The Stars," even before this opportunity, I'm like, "No. Impossible. I'm not doing that. I could never ever move like that because it looks like a female." But now that you're actually doing it, it's not that bad, you know? So I don't know how I look right now. I'm so much into it, I just don't know. I'm sure when my friends see it, they're just gonna kill me.
AK: Can you talk about the importance of the money you're raising through "Dancing With The Stars"?
RA: Yes, yes. It's awesome, because any time you get a chance to do something and have fun, and then be inspirational, that's the perfect combination. Some people just entertain. Some people are inspirational and charitable, but they don't have the name for their mission to get out there. I'm fortunate to have both and to do both. That's the best.
AK: I know you're aware some media have wondered if "Dancing with the Stars" signals you being distracted. I'll admit, I've wondered the same thing, between this and the comedy tour and talk about British soap operas. A) where is your focus right now, and B) even if those people are wrong, do you understand why they might think that?
RA: Well, it's like, back in the days, people was able to tell you what to do with your life. But [now] people can’t tell you what do with your own life. That’s why it’s called your life and not their life. If it was their life, I would do exactly what they want me to do. But Ron Artest is a different breed.
I’ve been playing in the NBA 13 years. I’ve got a Defensive Player of the Year. Game 7 [of the 2010 NBA Finals]. "Mr. Game 7," that’s what people call me sometimes. Lockdown defender. One of the best defenders ever. Not of a decade. Not this year. But ever. [Dennis] Rodman. [Michael] Jordan. Hakeem Olajuwan. One of the best ever. So can’t nobody question who this man in front of you is.
AK: But even you admitted, back when you were with the Pacers, that trying to do music while playing basketball was distracting. Are you in a place now where you can handle it better?
RA: I won  Defensive Player of the Year when I was [doing music]. I was doing music for the last 12 years. I had an album come out in 2005, still averaged 20 points. Every team still wanted me. Went to the Houston Rockets. Dropped singles. I recorded “Champion" a year before we won the championship, you know? And I wanted to do that to build my celebrity up. To entertain.
AK: So you can do both at the same time?
RA: I entertain on the court. You see me on the court. I’m never thinking about basketball. I don’t know when’s the last time I thought about basketball. Even Game 7, I was thinking about my single.
RA: Damn Skippy.
AK: How do you manage to think about something completely different and play basketball?
RA: Basketball is easy. It’s easy. See, for people that don’t play, it’s hard. Because they go to the gym, old white guys and over the hill black guys that go to the gym, and they suck. Right? They suck. I go to these gyms. I see them play. For me, it’s easy.
They gotta concentrate on basketball. Basketball is the least of my worries because I work too hard. I don’t have to worry about basketball. It’s easy.
AK: By doing "Dancing With The Stars," you're putting Lamar Odom in a pretty tough position. He's gotta choose between his close childhood friend and his brother-in-law. What does he do?
RA: I mean, he has to root for me. He has no choice. We're both gonna put him in a tough position. If he roots for Rob [Kardashian], I'm not talking to him. If he roots for me, Rob's not talking to him. So LO's in a tough spot.
AK: Can you talk a little bit about last season and how it ended? Looking back with some time passed, is there anything where you think, "I wish we had done this differently," or "I wish I had done this differently?"
RA: It was just we didn’t click. People can count on their hands, on both hands, how many of us played pretty bad during the playoffs. I don’t think you can count on your hand how many people played well. I can’t count on my hand how many people played like themselves with the Los Angeles Lakers. And if I could count on my hands how many people played well, then we probably would be champions this year.
Just give us two more people to step up, whether it’s me, whether it was Steve [Blake], whether it was Kobe [Bryant], whether it was Pau [Gasol]. It doesn’t matter who the combination was. Matt [Barnes]. Just give us two more people to step and we’re winning. But it didn’t click for any of us. Everybody was in the tank. It was crazy.
AK: Why do you think that happened?
RA: I'm not sure. It was crazy. I’ve never seen, I’ve never been a part of anything like that.
AK: You're the only guy on the team with an established relationship with Mike Brown, having worked together in Indiana. What should the guys expect?
RA: He’s a great coach. Great defensive coach. He’s amazing. I know he’s gonna push us in practice. I already know. And I can’t wait. I know the system already. I pretty much know the system. So I’m ready. I wouldn’t be surprised if he brings me off the bench.
AK: Would you be OK with that?
RA: Yeah, of course. We're here to win.
AK: Who do you think would play in your place?
RA: I mean, I'm just saying, he wants to win. So I won't be surprised. He’s a great mind and he has great plans. Even when I came here, it was all about sacrifice. That’s what people forget. I could have went somewhere else and made more money. I took almost a $20-, 30-million dollar pay cut to come play for a team just to win a championship. ...
AK: You've talked a lot about why you're changing your name, but I was curious about your family's reaction. You're a "junior" and your son is a "third." So this isn't just changing a name, it's changing a family name.
RA: They're just like, "regular old Ron." They know. They're not surprised by anything. My kids. My mom. Dad. I've been different forever. They take it right in stride.
AK: Does this affect your son? Does he have to change his name, too?
RA: He might change his name to something else. (Smiles) My kids are different. I won't be surprised if I don't know where they're at because they changed their name. I won't be surprised.
A few additional thoughts
As someone who's expressed concerns about Ron viewing basketball as a means of celebrity (rather than celebrity being the byproduct of basketball), this conversation didn't put matters to bed for good. However, the pride Ron expressed in his career and defensive skills was palpable. It's still important to him to be regarded as a formidable NBA presence. Did Artest's 2011 play match the level of his prime? No, but we're also not far removed from what I felt was a good 2010 campaign, particularly on the defensive end where Artest often changed games. It remains to be seen if Ron can consistently return to that form in 2012, but based on our conversation, it seems like he wants to. And he's definitely aware he didn't come through in the playoffs. Hopefully, these are good signs for next season. And it's certainly not a bad thing that he views DWTS as a competitive venture, rather than just one raising his profile.
As for Ron's claim to never think while playing, it will undoubtedly strike many as the joke that writes itself. But in his own Artest-ian way, these comments remind me about the acting adage about learning your lines so you can forget them. You work hard to get the words down cold, which allows the freedom to layer the character or even improvise without losing your foundation. If an offensive system were an actor's lines, Ron doesn't always look like someone with the "script" memorized. But in Artest's mind, he's comfortable because of the work put in, even if the results don't always match. Say what you want about Artest's play, but I wouldn't question his effort. The guy is a gym rat. Period.
Speaking of which, dude looks in very good shape right now. In a vacuum, Artest maintaining his offseason fitness isn't particularly shocking, but this is his also first summer with as much dance workouts as basketball. My eyes spotted no discernible difference.