Even when he is not driving his elbow into the undefended dome-pieces of his opponents—which was the last thing that the beefy fury-furnace and defective rap impresario formerly known as Ron Artest did before being ejected from Sunday's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder—Lakers forward Metta World Peace engenders strong reactions. For fans, this is because Artest is one of the NBA's most unusual players: a defensive ace built more like the Thing than an NBA wing. Artest has the jagged and grace-free offensive game of a playground tryhard, and is also probably the most free-associative athlete in any sport. These are compliments, and they aren’t.
He’s won (and deserved) an NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award and hit the winning shot in a playoff game during Los Angeles Lakers championship run. He also earned the longest suspension in NBA history after he chased a bunch of beer-battered bully-boy fans around the expensive seats during a wild brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills back in 2004; that charge into the stands turned an NBA game into a heavily tattooed and extravagantly fraught Straw Dogs sequel that has been giving Sean Hannity pee-pants nightmares that will last him the rest of his life. Artest has been accused of animal cruelty and won the NBA's citizenship award. He has been open about his mental illness, and has also spent a decent portion of his career acting like a dangerous mentally ill person. Artest has changed his uniform number six times in a dozen seasons, and while he only changed his name once, dude inarguably made it count, insofar that the guy who famously took swings at patrons now has the last name World Peace.
In short, if anyone in the NBA were going to take a Tiger Woods wind-up before elbowing a defenseless and unsuspecting opponent in the head, that person would be Ron Artest. And if anyone in the NBA were to do that and somehow seem less than culpable for it—because he generally seems to have only a faint idea what he's doing, because he could legitimately be trying to start some sort of dance craze, whatever—that person would also be Ron Artest. That is where we are now, with the playoffs looming and Harden still concussed and out of action and Artest still crazy-facing by way of scandal management, half-apologizing on Twitter, and generally 'Doing Ron." It's a weird place to be, which is generally true of anyplace Artest finds himself—whether it's playing basketball, performing his baffling Tony Robbins meets Infamous Mobb hip-hop, or doing odd, everyone-might-get-punched stand-up comedy. Many fans know this, and while mileage may vary on how amusing or interesting or charming they find it, they know that this is Ron Artest/Metta World Peace and that things just kind of happen around him and occasionally because of him.
As both a basketball player and a human being who everyone pays attention to for whatever reason, Artest is interesting, if not necessarily a joy to watch. But as a political flashpoint—which is the role that Artest has held among non-fan residents of Fox Nation and some NBA fans since the 2004 brawl—and a magnet for the weird, daddish anger of a certain type of NBA fan, he's excruciating.
Artest's powerful and perverse anti-appeal for judge-y right wing types is obvious, at least insofar as he is a large, unbalanced, famous black guy who chased rich, heckling white fans around with the obvious intent to smash. The Fox Nation story on Artest's elbow has the comments section you'd expect—people grumping that they only watch NASCAR in their home, Paultards Paultarding, anonymous racist cheesedick office drones scratching a noxious itch by writing things like "NBA and NFL are chock full of useless filth" and "Always the same. You can take the 'homeboy' outta 'da 'hood,' but you can't take 'da 'hood' outa the 'homeboy.'" That the story was covered at all on the right wing's ulcerous answer to Buzzfeed—"Fox Nation Thinks This Post Is OBNOXIOUS"—is telling.
Even among those Americans who do not spend their thwarted lives looking for anonymous forums in which to speak out about The Blacks, Artest poses a rhetorical problem. Most everything that goes into the macro-scale sporting discourse comes out stupid on the other end, and this entire affair—from ABC's endless loop of the elbow and studio analyst Jon Barry calling the offender "Metta Weird Peace" during halftime, down to the bellowed, useless "debate" over the elbow's intent and/or suitable punishment—has not been an exception. Unsurprisingly, the concerned moralizing and enough-is-enough posturing wind up in the same get-tough place: demanding a lifetime ban, if not a decade in a Supermax prison.
This impulse to play Stern Father to a muscular millionaire with a borderline personality is weird. But, unlike the usual Fox-ish racist mad-libs thing, at least this has something to do with Ron Artest and his particular infraction. Mostly, though, it's about us: what and how Artest makes us feel, what we would like to see done to him. It says something, and not something good, that even a player this talented, this relentlessly weird and interesting, can't get fans' minds off themselves.
Previously - A Confederacy of Assholes