Con Artest?: Ron Artest’s Imagery and Alchemy in the NBA

It is, I know, a horrible pun. Even amongst the avalanche of dreck that daily washes up on the front pages of sports sites everywhere, there’s barely an excuse for it. If it can be forgiven at all, though, that’s because it’s an apt title to bestow upon a player who attracts nicknames in as prolific a fashion as he attracts controversy: “Thriller”, “Tru Warier” [sic], “The New World Order”, “The Test”, and least intimidating, “Ron-Ron”.

As Los Angeles Laker forward Ron Artest’s monikers go, then, “Con Artest” has a lot of competition. It’s unlikely to catch on for a whole host of reasons, but it is, if nothing else, a useful way to start thinking of the variations of Artest that have existed in the public eye since he came into the NBA. Like all pro basketballers, Artest has found himself in a delicate bind: obliged to honor his roots through the cliché of “keeping it real,” yet needing to maintain an image fluid enough to navigate the tumultuous perils of our modern sports media. A short history of Artest’s incarnations might help illustrate:

Gangsta Artest

The gangsta image, for all black NBA players, is something to be both employed and endured. Among basketball’s conservative fans, it activates widespread anxiety about stereotypical black male aggression and moral turpitude. For those who spend their money on jerseys and sneakers, rather than luxury box tickets, though, the gangsta image acts as a stamp of authenticity, proof that the player (regardless of his new salary) has not forgotten his humble roots (as those roots are universally assumed to be).

In Artest’s case, since being drafted into the league in 1999 by the Chicago Bulls, loyalty to a violent past has been a consistent theme in his dealings with the media. Speaking of his Queensbridge project upbringing (in Queens, NY), Artest once mentioned having as a youth witnessed a murder on a basketball court: “they broke a leg from a table and they threw it. It went right through his heart and he died right on the court. So I’m accustomed to playing basketball really rough.”

The details of this story, it turned out, were only slightly embellished (the player was stabbed fatally in the back by the leg table, not the heart). That Artest volunteered them to the media as a way of underscoring his own toughness on the court highlights the ways in which a gangsta past can make NBA hay for those who rep accordingly. Just ask Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets center, whose team Artest joined in 2008. About the upcoming adjustment, Artest said, “I’m still ghetto. That’s not going to change. I’m never going to change my culture. Yao has played with a lot of black players, but I don’t think he’s ever played with a black player that really represents his culture as much as I represent my culture.”

Clearly then, Gangsta Artest is a persona that he himself has encouraged, both in word and deed. In 2001, just two years after coming into the league, Artest broke two of Michael Jordan’s ribs in a pick-up game — though he claims it was accidental. Such aggression on the court earned him the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year honors. Just a few months later, however, his on-ball hostility spilled into the stands.

Artest, of course, is best known as the infamous central figure in the “Palace Brawl”, a fight that took place when, as an Indiana Pacer, he became involved in a skirmish with Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace. After being separated, Artest lay down on the scorer’s table, where he was hit with a drink (some say beer, others diet soda) thrown by a fan. At that point, Artest leapt up and went into the stands seeking retribution. The image of him wading into the crowd with a cocked fist was a public relations nightmare for the league, one that it continues to inform its player conduct monitoring today.

For his part in the fight, Artest received a season-long ban — the longest non-drug, non-gambling related suspension in league history. Had he walked away from the sport then and there, his gangsta image as just another violent thug from the mean streets would have been cemented. As it turned out, though, Artest would return to the game and wriggle free of that mold, becoming:

Crazy Artest

It’s hard to get mad at an eccentric. Unlike more threatening psycho- and sociopaths, people who are looked upon as just plain “crazy” are often regarded with a kind of indulgent bemusement. Long before he went into the stands in Detroit, Artest was attracting that same sort of attention, cultivating a very different image from the gangsta baller from Queens.

It began when, in the summer before being drafted, Artest (a math major while in college) applied for a part-time job at Circuit City, claiming an interest in the employee discount. Of course, at the time, he had yet to get officially paid, but as a projected top-twenty draft pick, he was weeks away from becoming a millionaire. While other prospects were taking meetings with agents and shoe companies, Artest’s attempted stint as an electronics salesman stamped him as an odd man out even before his first professional game.

Tellingly, Artest continued to play up this angle the year of his return from his fight-related suspension. He appeared on the December 2005 cover of Penthouse magazine and, in the interview, said he wanted to stage a pay-per-view boxing match with Ben Wallace. Shortly afterward, Artest told the New York Post that his 2006 New Year’s resolution would be to, “Teach math classes in elementary schools throughout the country. And, of course… to sell 10 million records” (referring to the new hip hop album that he’d recorded).

As Artest’s career has developed, so have his public oddities. While a member of the Houston Rockets, he took to shaving the team logo and other intricate designs into his head. Earlier this year, he surpassed that standard by bleaching his hair Laker yellow (to honor his new team) and then dyeing in purple the word “defense” in three languages: Hebrew, Hindi, and Japanese. The move gained such notoriety that ESPN featured an in-game interview with his barber, a rotund fellow named Boogie, who graciously explained to the sideline reporter the extensive research and preparation that went into the ‘do.

This move sent up a kind of collective association among many commentators, who saw Artest’s hair dye as the clinching parallel with former NBA “bad boy” Dennis Rodman. In fact, the two players had a lot in common. In addition to a predilection for hair dye, both prided themselves on their defensive play. Both played alongside a superstar (Michael Jordan for Rodman, Kobe Bryant for Artest) and under coach Phil Jackson in a quest to win a championship. Both had been involved in skirmishes off the court (Rodman kicked a cameraman once). Most amusingly, both had a knack of launching three-point shots on a whim. (Artest’s seem to be jacked up as a paean to his former scoring abilities, now eclipsed by the likes of Bryant and the Lakers’ other scoring phenom, Pau Gasol; Rodman’s were due seemingly to boredom.)

What’s intriguing about these similarities is that they perhaps offer a glimpse of Artest’s future. Rodman left the NBA to pursue a tabloid life of drunken shenanigans and stints on VH-1’s “Celebrity Rehab”. Artest, certainly, has shown a willingness to court attention in similar ways, appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in just his boxers and, last month, announcing the production of his own reality show: “They Call Me Crazy”. Just such a title, finally, leads us back to the beginning.

Con Artest

When dealing with public image in sports, the true facts of a player’s personality are neither available nor relevant. At heart, is Artest a true gangsta or a trite goofball? It’s likely a bit of both. A more important question to ask, though, focuses on the way in which his crazy persona has allowed him to overcome his gangsta-related marginalization.

If Artest didn’t realize that “keeping it real” could be a problem for a young, black player before that fight in Detroit, this season-long suspension (and five million-dollar pay cut) certainly must have impressed that upon him. Is it an accident that he played up his prior eccentricities when he returned? Possibly. What’s clear, though, is that the image of Artest in today’s media — a harmless, goofy sideshow — is far different from the one of six years ago — an angry, out of control menace. It might be reading too much into the phenomenon to say that Artest is consciously evoking Dennis Rodman’s antics as a way to rehabilitate his own image, but it would likewise be simplistic to think that, as we watch professional athletes, they don’t also watch each other and take note of how they’re publically portrayed.

They could also be taking notes from other parts of the entertainment world. For, much in the same way that Flavor Flav (who also went on to tabloid infamy) projected the persona of a jester to undercut the stern and booming condemnation of Chuck D. in order to make Public Enemy a more palatable, consumable music act, it seems that Artest has mixed enough zaniness into his persona to escape, for the time being, the more menacing image of his past. Such manipulation, whether it indicates a true “con” of the public or not, is not a fine science. It represents instead a sort of alchemy, combining stereotypes, personal background, the randomness of circumstance, and the all-powerful gaze of the sports media. After all, the most important part of Artest’s upcoming reality show title is the first three words, not the fourth. Wherever the truth lies, it would seem that the main thing is to call him, whatever the adjective to follow.