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Ron Artest pulled the door shut and speed-dialed his new best friend. "Kobe, this is Ron," said Artest from the backseat of the town car that would take him to a beachside lunch in Santa Monica. "Just got out of the press conference. Holler at me when you get a chance."
Artest had just been introduced as the newest and most incendiary member of the world champion Lakers, smiling and cracking jokes even as reporters showered him with questions about his past as a brawler, a rapper and a rival to Bryant. As the car prepared to leave the practice facility, a crowd of fans pressed in. "They want me to sign something," Artest said to the driver. "I'll only sign ..."—he gave this some thought—"... four things."
The driver lowered his window and took in a silver Sharpie and four mint-condition basketballs, one after another. "That's four things, guys," said the driver, but one fan persisted. He thrust forward a pair of vintage Artest trading cards, saying, "You can keep one."
Artest signed one of the cards and handed it back. "There you go, guys," he called out. "I'll see you next time."
Throughout the smooth half-hour ride to the beach Artest held the card between his fingers, glancing at it from time to time. Staring back at him blankly was a rookie for the Bulls, the No. 16 pick in the 1999 draft out of St. John's, broad-shouldered but 20 pounds lighter and with no idea of the troubles that lay ahead. "He played hard," said Artest of his rookie self. "When I look back, when I was younger, I didn't really know how to play. Couldn't shoot really consistent, no off-the-dribble jumper. Just a baller, and some really good defense. Great defense."
"How much smarter are you than this guy on the card?" I asked.
"This guy?" Artest said, raising the card with a chuckle. "This guy was dumb."
By signing the 29-year-old Artest on July 8 to a $33 million contract over five years, the Lakers got more than a bargain. They have provided Bryant with a more aggressive Scottie Pippen: a 6'7", 260-pound stopper who can shoot the three as well as dominate in the post. In this seismic off-season, during which contenders like the Magic (who acquired Vince Carter), the Cavaliers (Shaquille O'Neal), the Celtics (Rasheed Wallace) and the Spurs (Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess) have made major upgrades, Los Angeles's signing of Artest threatens to trump all those moves, taking the league's best team and improving it on both ends of the floor—provided L.A. holds on to sixth man Lamar Odom, a free agent who was unsigned at week's end.
Because Artest is Artest, though, nothing is certain. All his previous employers, the Bulls, Pacers, Kings and Rockets, have dreamed of channeling his abundant talent and energy in a constructive way. And while his behavior has been much steadier of late—he was a rock in the playoffs, leading Houston to its first series win in 12 years—he remains as difficult as ever to predict. For instance, Artest had planned a monthlong family vacation in the Bahamas after the season, but he had to cancel it because he couldn't find his passport. Instead he flew to L.A., checked into the trendy new SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills and spent late May and June telling the bellhops and desk clerks that he hoped to join the Lakers.
Mitch Kupchak is surprised Artest got his wish; the Lakers' general manager didn't expect to be able to afford a free agent who made $7.4 million last season and was looking for a raise. The Rockets were expected to give him one until they learned, shortly before the July 1 launch of free-agent negotiations, that the hairline fracture in Yao Ming's left foot wasn't healing well. That meant that Houston would be without its center as well as Tracy McGrady, who is recovering from microfracture knee surgery, for the first half of next season (or longer).