I should be conflicted about World Peace. Not the concept—I'm fully on board with that—but the person. When Lakers small forward Ron Artest legally changed his name to Metta World Peace in September, it seemed to be nothing more than a grab for attention, and my rule of thumb on athletes' name changes is simple: If it's for religious reasons, respect it. If it's for look-at-me reasons, reject it.
So why am I in favor of World Peace? Maybe it's because, while he might not have been as spiritually inspired as Cassius Clay--turned--Muhammad Ali, he doesn't appear to have been as self-absorbed as Chad Johnson-turned-Ochocinco. Part of his thinking, he says, was that people might be positively affected by regularly using the term world peace—a sweet, if vague, notion. Granted, the idea seems strange coming from the player who was one of the main combatants in the worst athlete-fan brawl in NBA history (the Malice at the Palace in 2004), was suspended from a playoff game last season for clotheslining 5'6" Mavericks guard J.J. Barea with a forearm shiver, and chose Tru Warier (pronounced Warrior) as the name of his record label. It's not easy to see him as a 6'7", 260-pound Gandhi.
There's little question, though, that World Peace is sincere in his efforts to redeem himself for the transgressions of Ron Artest. He raffled off his 2010 Lakers championship ring to raise more than $650,000 for mental health awareness programs, and he won the NBA's citizenship award last year for his community involvement. But adopting a name more appropriate to someone from a '60s commune hasn't changed his complicated nature. World Peace makes the name change sound at times like a noble experiment and at other times like a grand put-on.
As he sat in front of his locker after the Lakers beat Golden State last Friday night, he alternately gave listeners reasons to admire the switch and reasons to think it's a lark. "I did it mostly for kids, to keep world peace in the front of their minds," he said. "To hear young kids calling out, 'World Peace!' or 'I love you, World Peace!' That's pretty cool, right?" Right. But will he be World Peace for the rest of his life? "Potentially, yeah," he said. "I haven't really thought about it. I don't like to look too far ahead. I just go with the flow." World Peace is just as elusive as world peace.
The forward formerly known as Artest hasn't inspired any countries to lay down their weapons just yet, but give him this: His new name makes people smile, if only for the inevitable puns it triggers. When the Warriors' Dorell Wright tried to draw a charge from him on Friday, the Golden State forward was standing in the way of World Peace. Whenever he is replaced and goes back to the bench during a game, it's tempting to say, Peace out. And while it hasn't fully caught on yet, some fans and media have begun calling Metta and the other Lakers reserves the Peace Corps.
The name also lends itself to dramatic interpretation. When Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers' booming public address announcer, fills Staples Center with a booming "Metta ... World ... Peace," pausing for effect between words, it sounds like a command from the heavens. Similarly, TNT broadcaster Kevin Harlan memorably used just the name to narrate a drive and dunk by the Lakers forward: "Metta" on the first dribble, "World" as he beat his defender and "Peace!" to punctuate the slam. But the season won't be complete until the excitable Harlan combines the new name with one of his best-known catchphrases and describes a dunk with, "Metta World Peace, with no regard for human life!"
The once belligerent Artest is far more mellow as Metta, a Buddhist word meaning "loving-kindness." There was a time when sitting the entire second half might have made him openly angry, but he was calm and accepting about it on Friday, repeatedly responding to postgame questions with some variation on the mantra, "We work together as a team."
And if you don't feel comfortable calling him by his new handle, he has no problem if you stick with Ron. Most of the Lakers' veterans, including Kobe Bryant, do, although coach Mike Brown tries to remember to use the new name. "It's the least I can do," Brown says. "He told me he paid a lot of money to change his name." Actually, a legal name change is not particularly expensive for someone making World Peace's roughly $7 million salary—only a few hundred dollars in filing fees and other expenses—but Artest first had to pay off all of his delinquent parking tickets, which were enough to fill a glove compartment. Still, having waited so long for world peace, a few more weeks didn't seem too bad.
And now that the name is his, World Peace will last as long as ... well, he wants it to last. Meanwhile Lakers jerseys emblazoned with the name that doubles as a planetary plea have begun to pop up around Staples Center, and admit it, thanks to a flaky forward with a silly made-up name, you've thought more about the idea of real world peace than you have since your last political science class. The ex-Artest may still be flighty, but his new name seems to serve its purpose. It's easy to be at peace with that.