When your game face features Hennessy breath

December, 2, 2009
12/02/09
1:31
PM ET
By Henry Abbott

Ron Artest has always brought a certain devil-may-care attitude to the court. It's truly admirable.

Almost like someone who has been drinking.

Now he tells us that in his early years as a Bull ... he actually had been drinking, at least some of the time.

Some of the Artest quotes from a story in an upcoming print version of the Sporting News include:
  • "I used to drink Hennessy ... at halftime. I [kept it] in my locker. I'd just walk to the liquor store and get it."
  • "When I was a 19-year-old father, whew. I was a single pimp! I was wild," he told the magazine. "A lot of marijuana and alcohol -- even before [that age]. ... I [still] party and I have fun, but not like I used to. I used to drink every night and party every night."

I'll tell you what: I'm sure it'll be tempting to see these quotes as a sign that Artest is out of control. My thought is that he has always been out of control in some ways. (If you find his partying shocking ... you haven't been paying attention.)

But the fact that he is both identifying this as exceptional behavior, and admitting it, is a sign of growing up. He gets that's the kind of thing you shouldn't do, and he isn't doing it anymore.

His new nickname: Ron "Now Somewhat Less Delusional" Artest. You've got to celebrate progress where you can find it, you know?

If anyone's livid about disprespecting the game and all that, I'd first ask: Before we worry about the abstract notion of protecting the game, can we focus on the practical? How did he get home those nights? With a big sweating guy, a small amount of cognac, and a few hours in-between, perhaps he'd be sober before it was time to take the wheel. Maybe.

But that's surely more important than, what, maybe causing trouble on the court with over-aggression? Over-aggression is his calling card. Acting like a drunk guy almost defines that which makes Artest great.

His college coach, Fran Fraschilla (who now works at ESPN) is quoted in the same Steve Greenberg story saying that he's surprised to hear Artest say he was doing a lot of partying in college. "It's a surprise because every day at practice, he came out in a mood to play. He came out in a basketball rage."

If being in a basketball rage is the height of readiness, how is it again that we know cognac could hurt his game?

And are you telling me he's the first NBA player ever to play intoxicated? I sincerely doubt it.

Honestly, if I were following Artest closely these days, the thing that strikes me as most concerning admission in this interview is not Artest's about past drinking, but his present need to ensure people see him as a superstar.

Don't get me wrong. Ron Artest is an elite basketball player, one of the best of his generation, who has helped every team he has ever played for.

But when he says "On defense, now I have my supporting cast. ... I'm one of the best defenders to ever play basketball, so I'm still the first option on defense."

I have to wonder, do the world champion Lakers, who had the NBA's sixth-best defense last season (it's second right now, by the way), really want to be defined as his supporting cast?

His amazing size, strength, tenacity and talent is sometimes undermined by his head. In Houston, Shane Battier would often outplay Artest on defense, only to have Artest talk like he was in a class of his own. In Sacramento, Artest played hard defense only sometimes, and on offense would break plays to create his own challenged offense.

He has a strong need to make sure he's seen as a star, which can butt up against his ability to do his best to help his team win.

In short, he can be the opposite of the player the Lakers had instead: Trevor Ariza. Ariza ceded the spotlight to players like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, hit open shots, and played hard at every instant. The Lakers won a title playing Ariza long minutes.

What does Artest think of being compared to a winner like that guy?

He can't stand it.

"With what I've done in this league already," he tells the Sporting News. "I mean, seriously?"

Yes, seriously.

Ron Artest could well make people forget he was compared to Ariza. But the more he insists on proving what a superstar he is, and the more he calls his own number on offense and steals glory from his teammates on defense, the more the Lakers are going to wish they still had Trevor "not really delusional at all" Ariza.

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