THE SEASON BEGAN WITH A RING ceremony attended by every member of the Lakers but one. Eleven players walked onto the court at Staples Center in purple warmup jackets festooned with gold stars. They tore open their jewelry boxes and looked up at the rafters, where a banner was unveiled. Amid all the excitement, it was hard to notice that somebody was absent. Where was Ron? The Lakers had not made it to the first minute of the first game of Ron 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. It's not that he didn't want to see the rings; it's that he felt he didn't deserve the privilege.
From the day he arrived from Houston last summer, L.A. seemed the worst possible fit for Artest: the king of distractibility in a city full of distractions. Over the years he has wasted a lot of time and motion—on fighting, on rapping, on saying and doing the damnedest things—leaving people to wonder what he could do if he ever channeled that energy into a meaningful goal. In Los Angeles, come the playoffs, Artest ignored those distractions and immersed himself in basketball with a single-mindedness—sometimes to a fault—that Lakers' general manager Mitch Kupchak compares to Kobe Bryant's. When Artest went on a dribbling frenzy against Boston in Game 2 of the Finals with the Lakers down by eight and 1:12 to play, for example, L.A. coach Phil Jackson believed Artest was overcompensating for a mistake he'd made a few seconds earlier. He could not let it go.
Artest's relationship with the Lakers goes back to the 2008 Finals against Boston. Artest, then with the Kings, approached Bryant after L.A.'s 39-point Game 6 loss and essentially applied for a job as Kobe's bouncer, insisting he would never allow such a humiliation to recur. Last July, two days after Artest became a free agent, he accepted a Lakers offer—five years, $33 million—and began bulking up to 270 pounds, steeling his body to guard LeBron James in the Finals. Instead that matchup wound up as Artest versus Paul Pierce, a rivalry within a rivalry.
Jackson believes the difference between this series and the one in 2008 was "brawn and Ron." In Game 1 Artest held Pierce to 11 points in the first three quarters. In Game 2 he held him to 2-of-11 shooting, reminiscent of earlier meetings when Artest was a Pacer. "Ron gave Paul fits back then," says a former Celtics assistant. "He gets under your chin, chest to chest, belly to belly. Everywhere Paul went, Ron would be in his face."
The Lakers appreciated that Artest was smothering Pierce, but they also needed his outside shooting to beat the double teams on Bryant. Until Game 6, when he made three of six three-pointers, Artest had shot a wobbly 29.1% from three-point range in the postseason.
The problem with his shooting, said the coaches, was his posture. They urged Artest to receive the ball in a crouch so he could rise up into his shot. He worked on that late at night, alone in L.A.'s practice facility, under replicas of the championship banners. When the Lakers hang another banner next fall, Artest will know he deserves to be there.