Over the past few days, I have agonized about the behavior of Metta World Peace. He can't seem to figure out who he wants to be.
The tendency for violence that has been a major part of his persona is something that can't be ignored. He has been in scuffles with players on the court a number of times, and then there was the brawl in Detroit that involved fans in 2004. It has the distinction of being the worst altercation ever on an NBA court. Off the court, there was a domestic violence case in 2007.
But recently he made an effort to put those images to rest. If you were to get a chance to encounter Metta, as I did while working for the Lakers his first two seasons with the team, he can be quite calm and unthreatening.
I'm thinking of the effort he made to change his image after being signed by the Lakers. He did his best to be a hard-working, dedicated athlete with a blue-collar approach to the game. He took pride in being a reliable defensive specialist, and during my time working with him, he was never a discipline problem. There were moments when the triangle offense was beyond his grasp, but for the majority of the time, he was about hard work and team play.
He really wanted to present a positive new face to the world as a Laker. During the 2009-10 season, he was a consistent contributor to a successful quest for a world championship. Away from the court, he became a fan favorite. He made himself available to the fans in ways that made people take notice. He gave away tickets. He interacted with the fans on the Internet. He donated his championship ring to be auctioned for charity and took the time to be available to the press.
However, it seems that his dark side couldn't be shut down completely. He slapped Mavericks guard J.J. Barea across the face and was suspended for a game in May 2011. It had been five years since his previous suspension for an incident in a game (and four years since the incident with his wife that resulted in a seven-game suspension to start the 2007-08 season).
Now he's been suspended in consecutive seasons, again, and his history of unpredictable behavior makes it impossible to figure out what person is going to show up when he enters the room.
Will it be the quiet, thoughtful athlete?
Will it be the World Peace who has gone to schools to talk to kids about the importance of education and resolving conflicts without resorting to violence? I don't think he made those visits in an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. I'm sure he wanted the kids to get the message that sportsmanship was what the game was all about.
Will it be the guy who sat with me and discussed the past rivalry between New York high schools Power Memorial Academy (my alma mater, which is now closed) and La Salle Academy (his alma mater)? He looked at my yearbooks and listened to my stories about how his school was our nemesis. La Salle won the city championship in 1962 before my teammates and I beat them en route to the 1963 championship in my sophomore season.
Will it be the person who had the guts and humility to try his hand at stand-up comedy?
When I think of that person and contrast him with the guy who threw the haymaker elbow at James Harden, I'm confused. The blow was thrown with full force and hit Harden on his temple. After watching the replay, I give thanks that Harden was not more seriously injured.
The NBA has done what it can to discipline Metta by suspending him for seven games. However, at this point it seems it is beyond the ability of anyone to really control him. Double-digit NBA suspensions haven't done the job yet. If he loses it again and someone really gets hurt, who will take the blame?
Fan reaction to this latest episode has been intense, to say the least. Some fans, in letters to The Los Angeles Times, are referring to him as Metta World War III or comparing him to Bernie Madoff or suggesting that he should be wearing prison stripes.
What I see is someone who has tried to reform his behavior and his image but suddenly and dramatically has lost control, reverting to the worst type of behavior he was known for. In returning to his old ways, Metta has wasted all the goodwill, including the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, he earned when he was on his best behavior. The Lakers fans who got behind him when he first reformed must be the most disheartened.
In the games leading up to the Oklahoma City game, Metta was probably playing his best basketball since he signed with the Lakers. He was a physical, determined defender and consistent offensive presence that made key contributions to Lakers victories. Now he is probably seen as a bad incident waiting to happen again.
His first chance to start the difficult reputation rebuild will be in the final game of the opening round of the playoffs, if the series against the Denver Nuggets goes seven games. Or, if the Lakers advance, in the second round, against the winner of the Thunder-Mavericks series.
It's a pity that he wasn't able to stay on course. The person he wanted to be was truly an asset to the Lakers. Sadly, he will probably never regain their support.