When the news about Yao broke, "some of the people in Ron's [entourage] were saying, Now the Rockets need him, and we have all the leverage," says Artest's agent, David Bauman. "I said, I think it's the opposite. Are they going to win a championship without Yao and without Tracy—but with Ron? The answer is no. So why would they commit to a deal of $40 million to $50 million for Ron? Once I saw the writing on the wall, I knew we had to work on a Plan B."
After Artest spent one long night coming to grips with the fact that he needed to find a new team in a recessionary market light on big-money suitors, he reset his priorities. He told Bauman he wanted to play for a title contender, even if it meant settling for the midlevel exception, with a starting salary of $5.9 million. With that understanding, says Bauman, "it came down to the Lakers and Cleveland."
The Cavaliers were interested, and Artest says LeBron James had called to recruit him. But L.A. moved more quickly than Cleveland. Kupchak pounced when he realized he could sign Artest for less money than was being demanded by the incumbent small forward, 24-year-old Trevor Ariza. By the night of July 2 the Lakers had reached an agreement with Artest, abandoning Ariza—who ended up signing a contract with the Rockets for about the same money. "I would say that today Ron is a better player," says Kupchak, comparing him with the still-developing Ariza. "And I think potentially we can be a better team."
The Lakers had known of Artest's longing to play for them well before he booked a room at the SLS Hotel. After the Celtics blew out L.A. in Game 6 by 39 points to win the 2008 Finals, Artest, who was watching courtside in Boston, went to the visitors' locker room and told coach Phil Jackson how badly he wanted to join the Lakers. Then he walked into the shower to make the same case to a soaking Bryant. At that time Artest was with the Kings, who did trade him that summer—but to Houston, where last season Artest averaged 17.1 points. It was a redemptive year for Artest, whose only public controversy happened in Game 2 of the second round of the playoffs, after Bryant elbowed him in the chest as they battled under the board. Irked that the foul was ignored by the referees, Artest approached Bryant and mimicked his elbow-throwing action; the referee saw this as Artest making a throat-slash gesture and ejected him. The next day league officials in New York assessed Bryant with a flagrant 1 foul while declining to punish Artest. "Past-history profiling," says Artest of being ejected. Still, the incident was replayed over and over because of Artest's volatile past, most notably his escalation of the November 2004 brawl at Detroit, for which he received a suspension for the remaining 73 games of that season.
But when Kupchak looked at the footage, he saw evidence of Artest's newfound restraint. "Your immediate reaction as a player would be to react with another elbow—and [Ron] didn't do that," says Kupchak. "It didn't look to me like Ron made up his mind to get Kobe later on in that series. I think he just wanted Kobe to know, You got me, I know you got me, and I want everybody else to know."
Artest in fact takes pride in the respectful relationship he has with Bryant because it grew from their on-court rivalry. "I was in my prime defensively when I was younger, and I was major problems for Kobe," says Artest. "And as he got better, he was major problems for me. It's like a heavyweight bout—just fight and fight, and after the fight we embrace each other."
While much has been made of Jackson's handling of difficult players—most famously when he rehabbed Dennis Rodman to help Michael Jordan win his final three championships in Chicago—the key to Artest's success will be his chemistry with Kobe. Artest has always wanted to be seen as Bryant's peer, and he views this partnership as his chance to show that he can be as essential to the Lakers' defense as Kobe is to their offense. The ultimate goal is for Bryant and Artest to nullify the wing matchups like those against Celtics stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. "I'm still pretty good defensively, but I've got to get it back to where I was," says Artest, who has devoted more time to developing his offensive skills in recent years. "Guys are not supposed to score over 15 points on me. That's it. Maximum."
The car stopped, and Artest walked out along the carnival of the Santa Monica pier toward the Mexican restaurant. He stopped and posed among cardboard cutouts of celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Paris Hilton. The woman in charge of the display smiled as he walked away and asked, "Who is he?"
She'll know soon enough. One reason Artest was willing to accept a pay cut to come to L.A. was the prospect of endorsement deals and other entertainment projects as outlined by Magic Johnson, who spent more than an hour on the phone recruiting Artest. Though Artest was raised on the New York playgrounds of Queens, he is simpatico with Hollywood: He is in talks to star in a TV reality show, he has hopes of developing new relationships to rejuvenate his secondary career in music, and he will wear number 37 because of a MySpace suggestion to honor the late Michael Jackson, whose album Thriller spent 37 weeks at No. 1.
It may sound as if Artest is not focused on basketball, but the good news for Lakers fans is that in recent years he has instituted safeguards to help prevent him from straying too far. Bauman, publicist Heidi Buech and Lou Taylor, his female business manager, are all in the uncomfortable business of telling Artest the facts that he doesn't want to hear. "He expects me to tell him the truth and not sugarcoat stuff," says Bauman, who began working with Artest a year ago. "The truth sometimes comes in pieces. But he gets all of the information."