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Ron Artest caught the inbounds pass in the backcourt and froze for a moment, like a linebacker who'd had a fumble bounce into his arms and needed to remind himself to run with it. He dribbled across half-court, haltingly at first, the ball bouncing high enough to hit him in the chin. Then he settled down and made himself comfortable. Really comfortable. The Lakers were down eight points, 1:12 remaining in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the whole team in a hurry except for Artest. Center Andrew Bynum popped out to set a screen at the three-point line, but Artest did not use it. Then Bynum dropped down into the post, but Artest did not feed him. Instead, he took two dribbles backward and glanced at Kobe Bryant, who had a hand raised. But Artest did not pass to him either. He kept dribbling, across the court, through the paint, straight into Celtics forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. With no opening to exploit, Artest turned back toward the three-point line, where Derek Fisher was unguarded and begging for the ball. But Artest had come too far to give it up. He pump-faked three times, and to a chorus of groans from the Staples Center crowd, launched an off-balance heave under Pierce's right arm. The ball smacked the side of the rim. Artest had dribbled 17 times, taken 14 seconds off the clock and produced what Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson called "one of the more unusual sequences I've ever witnessed."
Jackson has plenty of experience with the unusual—he did coach Dennis Rodman, after all, but Rodman generally stuck to his role as rebounder extraordinaire. Equally impactful and unpredictable, the 6'6" Artest has myriad ways he can help the Lakers and hurt them. The 2010 Finals may well rest on his expansive shoulders, a notion either enthralling or terrifying, depending on your point of view. Artest's circuitous dribbling is not the reason L.A. lost Game 2 and headed East with the series tied 1--1; Boston's 103--94 win had more to do with its backcourt of Ray Allen, who made a Finals-record eight three-pointers, and Rajon Rondo, who had his second triple double of the postseason. But Artest's excursion reminded the Lakers once against that they are hitching their championship hopes to the wildest of wild cards. When Artest was asked on Sunday night about his dribbling odyssey, he replied that he would have to watch the tape, which was strange because earlier in the week he claimed never to watch tape. "I'd rather go to a movie," he said.
The Lakers tolerate Artest's inconsistencies, having learned that his most brilliant moments generally follow his most boneheaded ones. In the Western Conference semifinals he lashed out at Jackson on Twitter for admonishing him through the media not to shoot threes, then made four of them the next night at Utah. In the conference finals he was nearly benched by Jackson for taking an unconscionable three with a three-point lead and less than a minute left, only to make a put-back at the buzzer to beat the Suns. The next day he was fined for being late to practice, and the day after that he scored 25 points to earn his first trip to the Finals. So it only figured that the 30-year-old Artest would follow a masterly Game 1 last Thursday—he made three threes, played solid D and showed admirable levelheadedness in telling Lamar Odom to "chill out!" while Odom was arguing a foul call—with a 1 of 10 clunker in Game 2. As Jackson tongue-lashed Artest for a sloppy entry pass late in the fourth quarter and Artest stared into space, it was easy to deduce that he did not care about the wide swings in his performance. But it's actually the opposite. He might care too much.
The season began with a ring ceremony attended by every member of the Lakers but one. Twelve players walked onto the court at Staples Center, in purple warmup jackets festooned with gold stars, and passed a receiving line of legends. They tore open their jewelry boxes and fished out their baubles and looked up at the rafters, where a banner was unveiled. Amid all the excitement, it was hard to notice that somebody was absent. But as the strains of Randy Newman's I Love L.A. started to fade, fans began to ask the question that has confounded so many over the past decade: "Where is Ron?" The Lakers had not made it to the first minute of the first game of Artest's first season in Los Angeles, and already he was missing.
Only his coaches and teammates knew his whereabouts. When they had left the locker room, Artest refused to budge, alone at his stall with the Chinese character for champion shaved into his hair. "He was sick to his stomach," says Artest's agent, David Bauman, which is almost exactly how the Lakers described his condition three months later, when he skipped the team's visit to the White House. In fact, Artest was never nauseated, just envious. It's not that he didn't want to see the rings (he downloaded photos of them onto his phone) or meet the President (he donated money to his campaign). It's that he didn't feel he deserved the privilege. Even in the days leading up to the Finals, when ABC asked the players to pose with the Larry O'Brien Trophy, Artest refused to touch it.
From the day he arrived last summer, L.A. seemed the worst possible fit for Artest, the king of distractibility in a city full of distractions. Artest gushed about his recording studio in Hollywood, plans for a reality show, a movie based on his life. He appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live in only his boxers, admitted that he used to drink cognac at halftime and made an appearance in San Diego during which he asked, "Is this Southern California?" But by the time he could smell the playoffs, plans for the movie were shelved. Negotiations for the reality show were pushed into summer. Artest turned off the music on game days and drove to Staples in silence. He urged fans to "point right at me" and "throw tomatoes" if the Lakers did not repeat. He still played football with strangers at Dockweiler Beach and invited Twitter followers to join him for dinner at Katsuya, but late nights were spent at The Sports Club/LA perfecting what he calls "the jail workout" because chin-ups and pull-ups are popular on the inside.
Over the years Artest has wasted a lot of time and motion—on fighting, on rapping, on saying and doing the damnedest things—but you always had to wonder what he was capable of accomplishing if he ever channeled all that energy into a meaningful goal. Los Angeles was actually ideal for Artest, in that it demands nothing less than total immersion from its basketball stars. Before Game 1 of the Finals, Artest was asked how it felt to have his parents in town, and he responded that he had no idea they were coming. He had not spoken to his brother, Daniel, since the playoffs began. "He wants this a lot, and I want it for him," Daniel says. "I'm sure people will still call him crazy, but he'll be a crazy champion." Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak compares Artest's single-mindedness to Bryant's. When Artest went on his dribbling frenzy against the Celtics, just as when he threw up his ill-advised three against Phoenix, Jackson believed he was overcompensating for a mistake he had made a few seconds earlier. He could not let go, and for Artest letting go is what always allows him to come back.
The stakes are high partly because of the history. In Hollywood's most-talked-about shower scene since Psycho, Artest walked in on Bryant as he was scrubbing away a decisive 39-point loss in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. (As Artest told Kimmel, "Steam was coming from his body.") Artest—who was visiting his old friend Lakers forward Lamar Odom—essentially applied for a job that night as Kobe's bouncer, insisting he would never allow such a humiliation to occur again. Also during the '08 Finals, Artest ran into Bauman, whom he later hired to represent him. When Artest became a free agent last summer, Bauman told him what few others would: Because of the brawl at The Palace in 2004, for which Artest was suspended for 73 games, more than half the league had blackballed him. There was no way he could command the five-year, $50 million deal he sought. But Bauman wanted Artest to look at the brawl's fallout another way. If it had never happened, he likely would have settled for a more lucrative contract with a mediocre team. "Ron is playing in the Finals with the Lakers precisely because of the brawl," Bauman says.
Artest accepted the Lakers' midlevel exception—five years, $33 million—assuming that they signed him to guard LeBron James in the Finals. So Artest bulked up to 270 pounds, steeling his body for a human freight train. But the first half of the season he felt as if he were running in slow motion, so he went on a diet, cut back on weight work (he's down to 252) and watched as James was eliminated from the playoffs. It would be Lakers versus Celtics, Artest versus Pierce, a rivalry within a rivalry. Artest's matchups with Pierce, like his encounters with many scorers around the league, contain elements of violence and comedy. There was the time Artest pulled Pierce's shorts down during a game, the time Artest karate-chopped Pierce in the preseason and the time this year that they tussled before the tip-off. In the Finals they were much more cordial, waiting all of 27 seconds to turn the court into an octagon, their brief jujitsu match earning double technical fouls.
Artest could not possibly be in the Finals without using the platform for a little entertainment. During media sessions he talked about the art of taking a charge ("If you flop and call an offensive foul in my neighborhood, somebody can get stabbed"), the importance of sportsmanship ("I don't like playing against guys who are nice to me—then I get vulnerable and weak"), how he perceives himself on the team ("It's like I'm watching TV and jumped into the screen and became Scottie Pippen") and how he wants to be remembered ("for people to say I was ghetto").