Ostler: Is Artest the Lakers' bully or just playing ball?

Jan 19 2011 - 6:07pm

Ron Artest seemed puzzled when I asked him about his recent takedown foul on the Knicks' Amare Stoudemire.

"Takedown? I don't remember that," the Lakers' eccentric forward said. "I remember a foul, a flagrant foul, but I don't remember a takedown."

Crowbar forearm to the throat of Stoudemire flying through the lane?

No flicker of recognition.

Same game, Artest briefly wrapped a hand around the throat of another Knick. The question was, are you playing more, uh, on the edge? On Christmas against the Heat, Artest seemed over-hyper, even for him. A man looking for action, maybe dangerously out of control.

He didn't seem to remember any of that.

The conversation was weird. For starters, it took place an hour before last week's Warriors-Lakers game. Many NBA stars go all Garbo before games, they won't talk at all to the media. Cone of silence. Those who do talk make it quick. Artest went close to 20 minutes. As if he was conversing with actual people.

Artest goes by his own rules and makes 'em up as he goes along. A few of the latest snippets: two altercations with coach Phil Jackson, one right after a loss and one at a practice, and Artest's disclosure that he plans to take a stab at the NFL when his current contract is up (he's signed through 2013-14, when he'll be 34).

The Lakers need a tough guy, but sometimes they have to wonder ...

The Stoudemire, uh, foul, sure, Artest said, he remembers a flagrant. Not a takedown. His bad. It was his New York City roots coming back to bite him.

"I was a little bit off-guard," Artest said. "You see that New York uniform, it's just so many pictures being painted. ... It felt like it was street ball, I definitely felt like I was back at 119th (and) Second Avenue. ... The Rucker, Soul-in-the-Hole, Hunter College. It's just New York street ball. ... It got me off my game a little bit."

The Lakers knew exactly what they were getting when they traded for Artest before last season. A gifted athlete and basketball player with muscles and a hard edge -- remember his wrestling matches with Kobe Bryant? -- and a fellow liable at any time to take a detour down Weird Street.

The Lakers' hope was that Jackson's Zen touch and Bryant's leadership would keep the lid on Artest's teapot. Last season: NBA title. Artest scored 20 in the Lakers' Game 7 win over Boston.

This season, a lot of drama. Kobe vs. Phil, Phil vs. Artest, Artest vs. law-and-order.

After one confrontation with Jackson, Artest said, "That hurts, because I just don't want to be a part of any controversy. I've just come too far, worked too hard, pushing my ego aside, to have something like this come out. My image is very, very important to me, whatever I have of it left."

You get the impression he's a guy looking to mature. He said he's much more careful with his tweets, because he knows he'll be held accountable.

Artest either has, or affects, a certain detachment to what's going on around him.

Asked about the Lakers' recent resurgence, he said, "Over the last six, eight games, they say we're doing all right, but I haven't really noticed. I've been hearing we've been playing better."

He said he wasn't aware the Lakers had lost three in a row at one point. "We lost three games?" He didn't know how the Warriors have been doing, nor what kind of season his man for the night, Dorell Wright, was having.

"You should read the papers more," someone suggested.

Artest said this season's Lakers are different, more mature. "I think this year we're more like, 'OK, let's move forward, let's win,' " he said. "We don't worry or panic as much as people outside, fans and people who write stories, the media. Lots of stuff happening around us, we just get it together, go out there and win."

I asked Artest how the Lakers handle the alleged internal strife. Do they hold little team meetings, get together and talk it out?

"Ain't nothing to work out," Artest said. "Just move on. Don't really talk about much like that, just talk about the game. That's all that's important. (Talking about problems) means you panicking. Trying to figure out a problem means you in panic mode."

When the Lakers got Artest, they probably worried about him being the anti-Zen. But other than the occasional jaw-off with his coach, and the odd color-induced playground-flashback vicious flagrant foul, Artest is just playin' ball.


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