Dwight Howard’s move to Houston was huge. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce’s relocation from Boston to Brooklyn was a franchise changer for both teams. Yet there’s a move that was a bit more quieter in execution that, I believe resonates on the same level. And that’s the Knicks signing of the artist formally known as Ron Artest, which brings home a man who is eccentric, quirky, refreshingly honest and incredibly hilarious often within the same 60-second sound bite.
The world now knows him as Metta World Peace, but to a New Yorker he’s Ron-Ron, or “True Warrior,” or even “The New World Order,” just a couple of his playground nicknames when he was a beast on the New York City playgrounds.
The powerhouse Riverside Church team that he played on was legendary, dominating the AAU circuit playing alongside cats like Elton Brand, Lamar Odom and Erick Barkley. Even his high school team at LaSalle Academy was a must see as he teamed with God Shammgod (then known as Shammgod Wells) and 7-footer Karim Shabazz.
Ron-Ron was a grinder, and played the game like the world’s very existence depended upon every rebound and defensive sequence. And his style was the same whether it was AAU, high school or those hot summer nights at city tournaments like Nike Pro City or at Dyckman Park. Back in the day, there was nothing Peaceful about Ron-Ron’s game.
Ron is as endearing a character that has ever glided across the NBA landscape, a basketball Horatio Alger character if there ever was one. One of my favorite stories is of him playing on the blacktop a few years ago in a summer league game and taking a murderous elbow to the mouth that knocked out a few of his teeth. Without hesitation, he scooped his teeth off the pavement, put them in his sock and hustled back on defense.
Now that is the type of dude anyone would want on their team.
It’s only fitting that he gets to come back to Madison Square Garden and complete his circuitous journey through basketball. I remember his freshman year at St. John’s University, when Felipe Lopez and Zendon Hamilton were seniors, how Ron led the team in steals and impacted the game, with his maniacal defense and heart and grit, in ways that a stat sheet could never measure. He was the most important player on the last St. John’s team to have any national relevance, back in 1998-1999, when he, Lavar Postell, Bootsy Thornton, Erick Barkley and Coach Mike Jarvis got them within a whisker of the Final Four.
When the Knicks drafted Frederic Weis with the 15th pick of the 1999 NBA Draft and left Ron-Ron on the board, I wanted to give the Knicks former Interim President Ed Tapscott a forearm shiver to the throat. To let a homegrown talent of that magnitude slip by to select a guy who’s claim to fame was having Vince Carter use him as a high-jump pole during the 2000 Summer Olympics? That’s exactly why Knicks fans were, for many years, were introduced with the salutation “long suffering.”
Yes, the brawl with fans during the 2004 playoffs (better known as The Malice in the Palace), created an image of an out-of-control thug. But that endeared Ron-Ron to every professional athlete who’d ever had a beer thrown at them. He showed fans that were emboldened by liquid courage and the false bravado of a mob mentality, how such audacity was handled in Queensbridge, the New York City housing project where he grew up.
And somehow, despite receiving the longest suspension for an on-court incident in league history and being labeled a thug and the embodiment of all that was wrong with the NBA, Ron-Ron managed one of the most remarkable public relations transformations ever seen in the years ahead.
Not only did he win the league’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2011, but his incredible play in Game 7 of the NBA Finals that year against Boston and clutch three-pointer in the waning seconds helped deliver the Lakers their 16th franchise championship. And afterwards in the greatest post-game interview in history, who can ever forget him thanking his psychiatrist that led to a collective “WTF” as DVR’s around the world rewound and replayed that interview again and again.
That, my friends, is the true definition of going from ashy to classy.
To say that he is a unique character is like saying that McDonald’s has sold a few hamburgers over the years. But his loveable goofiness is fascinatingly juxtaposed with the strength and intensity that he brings to the basketball court. And finally, his hometown gets to appreciate those skills and personality traits on a nightly basis.
Ron-Ron is going to own the town in ways that will make the billionaire Nets owner, Mikhail Prokhorov infuriated that, despite bringing Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn, his team will still be relegated to B-list status in local media coverage.
In terms of the basketball product on display at Madison Square Garden, I think the Knicks are going to give teams more problems than most people realize, with Andrea Bargnani’s long-range marksmanship being able to spread the floor for Melo, while also allowing to Tyson Chandler room to do his dirty work in the paint.
With Ron bringing his lunch pail every game, and his ability to play rugged defense against quick wings and strong power forwards alike, look for a sense of toughness to permeate the team in ways that haven’t been seen since Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason were patrolling the paint like the NYPD in the ‘90s.
With a second unit that could conceivably be comprised of a healthy J.R. Smith, a healthier Amar’e Stoudemire and the kamikaze mentality of Ron-Ron, things are about to get a little more interesting and lively in New York. Because you can bet your bottom food stamp that LeBron, Paul George and Derrick Rose all sighed at having to deal with Ron’s defense on a consistent basis.
And on top of that, we’ll get the most bizarre interviewee plying his trade in the media capital of the world, which is sure to be its own great show. He might answer a question with prescient basketball insight, or start talking about the brilliance of Jesus’ foresight when it comes to baby teeth.
Either way, the upcoming basketball season, with Ron coming home, just got exponentially more fun.