The NBA Star Formerly Known as Ron Artest Has a Message for Today’s Fans
Metta Sandiford-Artest—he recently took his wife’s name—opens up to Marlow Stern about “The Malice at the Palace,” NBA fans, his upcoming rap album, and desire to be a head coach.
It was a $50 bet between two friends. It ended up costing Metta Sandiford-Artest, by his count, at least $50 million.
On the night of Nov. 19, 2004, the defending champion Pistons were down 97-82 to the Pacers at Detroit’s Palace of Auburn Hills when, with only 45.9 seconds left in the game, the Pacers’ Ron Artest (as he was then called) delivered a hard foul to the Pistons’ Ben Wallace. Shoving ensued, benches cleared. Artest chose the path of least resistance, moseying over to the scorer’s table before laying on top of it. Once the refs diffused the fracas, a fan by the name of John Green hurled a giant cup of Diet Coke at the lounging Artest—the result of a $50 bet proposed by his pal—prompting him to enter the stands and shove Green. Artest was subsequently attacked by a number of Pistons fans and struck repeatedly in the back of the head, as his Pacers teammates punched their way through the crowd to rescue him.
By the time Artest made his way back to the hardwood, the rabid Pistons fans had overwhelmed arena security, with many storming the court and confronting Artest and the other Pacers, leading the players to throw a few punches in self-defense. Fans proceeded to pelt Artest and the Pacers with drinks and popcorn as security ushered them out through the tunnel. It came to be known as “The Malice at the Palace,” the scariest melee in NBA history.
The hammer came down the hardest on Artest, who was suspended for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs—a grand total of 86 games (still an NBA record). He lost all his endorsement deals and his pay was slashed. Even though he helped Kobe Bryant lead the Lakers to a 2010 NBA Championship, and received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award the following year, his reputation never recovered.
Recent events, however, have caused the NBA Twitterati to re-evaluate that night in 2004, and the steep price Artest paid for it. First, a ticket-buyer dumped popcorn on the Wizards’ Russell Westbrook. Another spit at the Hawks’ Trae Young. And finally, a Celtics die-hard chucked a water bottle at the Nets’ Kyrie Irving. “Ron Artest was way ahead of his time,” one person tweeted in the aftermath of the Kyrie incident, while another added, “The older I get the more I side with Ron Artest (Metta World Peace).” Artest’s name even climbed to the top of Twitter’s trending topics.
Artest, for his part, agrees that he did not receive a fair shake. And the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year is proud of what he considers his true legacy: being one of the most feared lock-down defenders in league history.
“I’ll be bringing defense till the day I die. I wasn’t playing no games,” he tells me. “I felt bad for people who had to go against me, because I wasn’t letting you score. It’s kind of selfish of me, now that I think about it. I wouldn’t let nobody score.”
In a wide-ranging talk, Artest opened up about “The Malice at the Palace” and NBA of today.
I wanted to start at the beginning if that’s cool with you. So, you were on an AAU team with Lamar Odom and Elton Brand? Talk about a stacked team.
Yup! We had a really good team—me, Lamar, Elton, Reggie Jessie, Erick Barkley. Three Johnnies! It was a good look for us. We knew Lamar was going to the NBA, and Elton was going, and everybody else wanted to go. Lamar for sure was going. He was so talented.
I read that when you were a teenager, a local player you admired was murdered during a game. He was stabbed with the leg of a table that pierced his heart?
I didn’t witness it. He was playing for my neighborhood, and we heard about it. He was an idol of ours and a really good basketball player. We heard about him when we was kids. It’s like being in the pros—you hear about players but don’t really see ‘em—and Lloyd Newton was one of those guys we heard about, and when he died, shit, we didn’t know what to do. It was devastating.
How did that incident affect you? Did you worry about your own safety on the court?
Yeah… Nah. I mean, when you grow up in the hood you just go with the flow and become fearless about certain things. It is what it is. You try not to worry about too much.
There were a lot of guys from my neighborhood, but I grew up on Mobb Deep’s side. On 12th Street was where the basketball court was, and I wasn’t really going to a lot of other blocks at that time. I’d just go to the basketball court, and go back upstairs and go to sleep. Sometimes I’d go to a friend’s house. I tried to stay out of trouble and stay out the way. But it was hard to stay out the way. Every block had its own history. Mobb Deep was on 12th Street, and those guys were just incredible. It was a gift and a curse, because sometimes you felt like them—just being from Queensbridge you felt like you were gangster sometimes. But for the most part, I just wanted to be successful, and a big reference point was their music.
“I’m only 19 but my mind is old…,” you know what I’m sayin’?! I might have been 15 and everybody in the hood was so proud of them. That’s Queensbridge—Mobb Deep! They gave us something to be proud about, because living in the hood was kind of rough.
I’m a Knicks fan and we famously passed on drafting you. Is that something you’re still salty about? Because you really wanted to be a Knick.
Yeah. Definitely. That’s what I was trying to do. That was my goal. I still don’t understand it to this day. It still kind of hurts me… but I got over it now. I just root for the Knicks, the Lakers, the Pacers. I’m a big fan of basketball. I love the Kings and the Rockets. Those are the only teams I’ve played for… and the Bulls.
The Knicks drafted Frederic Weis ahead of you. What did it feel like seeing Vince Carter clear that guy in the Olympics?
I didn’t find that out until years later! I didn’t even know that was the guy. I wasn’t proud that he got dunked on. I think I met that guy once, actually? I think we met in passing somewhere…
I wanted to talk with you about some of these recent fan incidents, because it’s been getting pretty out of hand. A fan poured popcorn on Russell Westbrook, a fan spit on Trae Young, a fan threw a water bottle at Kyrie Irving. What’s it been like to watch all this?
I think fans are a little… excited. The fans are not perfect. If what people say is true, and no matter what their truth is or what they believe, that means nobody is gonna change overnight. Let’s just say a fan is racist. If that’s the case, do we want that fan to think about race differently or do we want them to continue to be racist? If we want them to think about things differently, then you give them time to chill out. If someone is mentally unhealthy, do we expect them to get better today, or do we have them do therapy and give them time? With that being said, however we feel about anything, I just hope that people think more about how they think about the athletes. If I go to a concert, I’m not going to throw a water bottle at somebody I don’t like. If I watch a movie and the movie sucks, I’m not going to see the actor and throw a water bottle at the actor—even if it’s the worst movie in man or womankind.
You mentioned the racial element. All of these recent incidents—at least to my knowledge—have been white fans throwing objects or spitting on Black players. We’re not seeing white players getting stuff hurled at them.
I’m not gonna say there’s a racial element. What I would say is, when I got hit and I took the bulk of the fine, that set the tone that it’s OK to hit players. I lost my NBA contract that year, I lost my endorsement deals. I got hit the hardest—and I wasn’t doing nothing. I was just laying on that scorer’s table. I wasn’t doing anything to anybody. I didn’t even try to fight Ben Wallace. I didn’t do anything.
I was in college and was watching the game in my dorm room, so I saw the entire incident unfold in real time. And you were just taking a beat to yourself, trying to cool off, laying down—as you said—on the scorer’s table, and then you got an entire drink thrown on you. Even at the time, I thought it was strange how the league came down on you the hardest. Do you feel you were unfairly treated?
I’m not going to say “unfairly,” but what I’m gonna say is that it wasn’t one hundred percent fair, and I should not have gotten the bulk of the blame. I did not start it. The only thing you saw in Sports Illustrated? Me hitting the fan. They never showed the fan throwing stuff at me or nothing. They didn’t even show the fan hitting me. They only showed me attacking the fan that made the bet. He made a bet for $50 that John Green couldn’t hit me [with a drink], and then he got excited. And they treated those two guys like victims, while I lost $50 million.
That’s how much you think you lost, between the fines, endorsement deals, etc.?
Fines, endorsement deals. A player of my stature, what kind of contract do you think I was going to get? A player at my level? How much you think? A player at my level? What type of money do you think players at my level were receiving?
$15 million a year?
You goddamn right! You goddamn right. And the most I received was $6 million. I’m not complaining, because I’m very grateful, so I’m definitely not saying that. But goddamn.
Do you think there’s a racial element to this, though? In other words, do you think the media covers it differently and the league comes down on you differently if you were a white player who entered the stands after a drink was thrown on you?
I don’t blame everything on race. Other people do, but I don’t. I understand it, but what I’m saying is, I’m not going to sit here and blame that on race. That was one guy. And we’re cool. But maybe he was out of touch. I think it was just business, if I’m being real with you, and I was expendable. They didn’t need me in the league at the time. They had LeBron coming up, they had Shaq, they had Kobe, and so I was expendable at that time.
All your endorsement deals dried up after, right?
Shit, every single one of ‘em. Every one. And no more. I never got another one. Nope.
And referees started treating you differently after the incident.
I was gettin’ flagrant fouls that weren’t even fouls, man. To the referees’ credit, they were trying to protect the game. I’m not going to blame the refs.
The guy who chucked the drink at you and the guys who threw punches at you in the stands—did they ever apologize to you?
Those two guys who attacked me? They didn’t apologize. They tried to sue me. Those guys literally tried to sue me. Are you kidding me? These two guys, they jumped me. I mean, I punched him in his face, but they jumped me. They attacked me on the floor. I was punched in my face from behind by John Green. Not only did he hit me with the cup, but he punched me in my face! But I’m cool with him. And I was treated like an animal. It’s like, hey, let’s throw a banana and see if the gorilla is gonna get it. He said, “Hey, I bet you fifty dollars that you can’t hit Ron Artest.” What the fuck is that? And I got hit with another beverage in my face in the stands! We don’t even see that guy. Who the fuck is that? They forgot about that one. And then there were the guys on the court. And I got hit in my pockets. All my endorsements hit me. But I’m a strong guy. I can take a lot of punishment, you know? I can take a lot of punishment.
It reminds me of recent statements by Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, who basically said that these fans would not—under any circumstances—go up to an NBA player in the street and throw a drink at them or spit on them or do any of this dumb stuff.
I don’t even care if they would. I just want my money back! I understand what they’re saying, but I have a different perspective on it. It’s not just those guys—everybody laid the hammer down on me after it. I was scapegoated, no question. They had to pick somebody, and they transparently—and openly—did it.
Do you think the NBA is doing enough to protect its players? And if not, what should they be doing?
Hmm… it’s hard to say. The fans, I just think they need to stop. It’s that simple. I don’t want to take the fire from the fans, but they sometimes get out of hand. You shouldn’t be spitting or throwing water bottles or popcorn. It’s super immature. And the spitting? It’s super degrading. And the water bottle? It’s violent.
I’m reminded of an incident a couple of years ago, where the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry dove into the stands for a loose ball and a Warriors co-owner, Mark Stevens, shoved him. For no reason.
I mean, woof, lucky that was Kyle Lowry!
There’s something missing here, right? These fans don’t seem to be seeing the players as people. Kyrie Irving recently said fans are treating players like “they’re in a human zoo.”
Yeah, I agree. People individually have to change. You can’t really try to change them. They have to change on their own.
And a few years after the incident at the Palace you changed your name to Metta World Peace. Did that have to do in part with the reputation you’d been saddled with?
I was focused on meditation. I started getting really into Buddhism, so “Metta” is a Buddhist name.
And what about the recent decision to take your wife’s name, and now be known as Metta Sandiford-Artest?
She wanted me to do it! She said that she wanted me to do it, so that was basically that. [Laughs] I still go by Metta World Peace, but it’s no longer my legal name. It’s cool to get Artest back, because everybody’s name is Artest—the whole family, you know?
You were advocating for athletes’ mental health and spoke openly about your own mental health struggles early on. Now, we’re seeing pro athletes like DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love, and recently Naomi Osaka share their own struggles with mental health. And the French Open has had a very strange response to Naomi Osaka, threatening to oust her just for saying that the post-match press conferences triggered her anxiety.
I want to thank my psychologist. When I came out and raffled off my championship ring for mental health awareness, I thought that people needed some support. At the time I wanted to take it a step further, but I wasn’t getting any support to do programming. I actually started speaking out about it in 2005, but nobody wanted to support my vision to do programming based off mental health, and promote empowerment based on mental health. Now people are saying, oh, it’s OK to support this now in the mainstream. Now they’re putting out programming and people are asking me for ideas, and I’m like, “Just let me do my own programming.” But it wasn’t just me, although maybe it helped start something. There were a lot of athletes I know of who were having issues but never came out and said something. It’s OK to have issues because we’re only human, you know? But it’s also OK to give support.
A couple of years after the brawl you had a domestic violence incident. Do you think you were suffering from anger issues at the time?
That was something that happened internally, so I can’t really speak on that one. But that was something that was… internal.
Did therapy help you gain more control over yourself?
Therapy helped me with depression, anxiety, confidence, and so many different things. Marriage, parenting… there’s so much I was really appreciative for. I’ve been doing therapy since I was 13 years old.
Did you seek out therapy at 13?
My mom did. She thought it could help me, and that’s why I became so comfortable with it. I was getting into a lot of trouble, fighting in my neighborhood and stuff. There were fights, and I was a little stressed out, so she decided to switch it up and have me see a therapist.
On a lighter note, you not only released a rap album but started a hip-hop label while you were in the NBA. And you recruited Diddy and a bunch of other big names to be on your album.
The album was very poorly done, honestly. I had a great time doing it, but it was very poorly done. I’m working on a new album that I’m hoping will be a redemption, because I’m very competitive and don’t like losing. But that first go-around with hip-hop, it was something that I wanted to do but I was telling the wrong story. So, I’ve been taking my time and working on a new one.
Who are you working with on the new album?
I’m working on it with some local L.A. producers—and both of my sons are producers, so both of my sons are helping me out with the production. They’re both really, really good producers, so we’re having a little fun.
I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Kobe Bryant. Was Kobe the one who recruited you to the Lakers after that tough playoff series between your Rockets and the Lakers?
I don’t know what was going on in the front office. I tried to sign back to the Rockets, and then something went wrong. I was told that I was signing back for $12-15 million, and I was only offered $8 million, so something went crazy. And then I tried to go back to Indiana, but that wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to go to the Knicks, but Donnie Walsh got that job so that didn’t happen. And then I tried to go to the Detroit Pistons, but none of those teams wanted me at the time. LeBron James actually called me to try to get me to Cleveland, but I wasn’t trying to play with any All-Stars. And then I tried to go to Greece, but then they thought I didn’t want to play there, and I was like, “Why would I be calling if I didn’t wanna go?”
The only real two options I had were the Cavs and the Lakers, and when the Lakers called me, I just didn’t want to wait anymore, and I had all this anxiety. I didn’t want to play with any superstars—I only wanted to play against superstars—but I just thought, “I’ll play for the Lakers.” I was going to call back LeBron in Cleveland, but I was already partying and living in L.A., which was really fun, and so then I partied, like, all summer, and I actually came to training camp out of shape that year. I was in really bad shape.
What was it like being teammates with Kobe, and how did you learn about his passing?
It was great being teammates with Kobe. I’m a big fan of Kobe, and I loved the way he played. I knew he was a tough guy, but I didn’t know how tough he was until we practiced together. When I saw him practice, I thought, “Oh, wow. He really is a killer. He really is a beast.” It was like a brotherhood right away, and we spent so much time on the court together. I played with Kobe for, like, five years. That’s crazy to even think about. I learned [about Kobe’s death] when my friend texted me about it, and then I turned on the TV. I kept going to different news networks to try and see if maybe it was a glitch, and maybe it was wrong, but every news network I went to it was “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.” I just thought, “This is the worst thing ever.” Unbelievable. Unreal.
I couldn’t believe it when I heard it either. You know, I’m curious if you think the NBA’s gotten a bit soft. I grew up with the ’90s Knicks, and it seems like if you put a hand on someone these days they’ll hit you with a flagrant.
I think the NBA got a little soft in 2012, and it went all the way through 2017, until the league started to get tough again. Some people say it’s soft, but now, it doesn’t seem that soft to me. Not right now.
Lastly, in addition to the rap album, what else do you want to do? Do you want to one day coach in the NBA? I know you were coaching the Lakers’ G-League team for a bit.
I’m coaching a lot of local pros right now, teaching a lot of players how to play. In my last two seasons with the Lakers, after practice I’d go to Palisades High School to coach the girls’ team, and then coached the boys as an assistant coach and got two titles. My last year in the NBA I coached the G-League, and then after I left the G-League I coached the Cal State girls. And I’ve coached every summer, so I have a lot of experience. I want to be an NBA head coach. When the Knicks one was available, I tried to get a meeting—but I couldn’t get a meeting there. I’m just waiting to see what’s available. Coaching, to me, is not difficult. It’s fun.