Metta World Peace, the winner of the NBA’s 2011 citizenship award and a player who has done more than any athlete alive to raise the curtain on the taboo sports subject of mental illness, is finding out today that the past is never really past. The player formerly known as Ron Artest delivered a dangerous, ugly and altogether unnecessary elbow to the back of the head of Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden on Sunday. His elbow launched thousands of tweets and blog postings best described as two parts abject horror and one part snark. (After all, the guy changed his name to Metta World Peace—you don’t have to be Oscar Wilde to have fun with that.) But neither abject outrage nor humor feels particularly appropriate for this story.
MWP is probably the most physically strong wing player in the league not named LeBron James. After dunking on two Thunder players, he felt contact on the inbound and swung that elbow. If it was Thunder forward Kevin Durant bodying him up, the elbow hits his chest and this column isn’t written. But the shorter Harden caught it right behind his ear and didn’t move off the ground for a frightening full minute. He has since been diagnosed with a concussion. MWP will be suspended and the Thunder locker room was already referring to him as Ron, same as he ever was.
As upsetting as the endlessly repeated slow-mo elbow replay is, we should recognize several things. The breathless media coverage is not because of the injury to Harden. The commentary has already far outpaced that of similar cheap shots in the NBA. Kobe Bryant had his nose intentionally broken by Dwyane Wade during the NBA All-Star Game. Kevin Love stepped on Luis Scola’s face. Jason Smith and Russell Westbrook in recent weeks committed fouls that could have ended the careers of the NBA’s brightest lights, Blake Griffin and LeBron James. But those stories were one-day spectacles, no more and no less.
But Metta has his history, and with a history comes a narrative that allows the media to use past as prologue. In this case, the prologue unfolded eight seasons ago, at the “Malice in the Palace”, when Ron Artest brought a fistfight into the stands during a game in Auburn Hills, Michigan. For many fans, Metta came to embody the highly racialized symbol of the “NBA thug”. He received the longest suspension in NBA history (seventy-three games), and the question of whether he would even be allowed to return was very real. There was a current of racism—some veiled, some not—in this whole spectacle, as the “thug” Artest was held up for public scorn and ridicule for starting a “riot.”
But instead of falling under the assault on his character, this Ron Artest recognized he had a problem and rebuilt his own sense of self. His problem was depression and mental illness, and he didn’t care who knew it. Artest actually thanked his psychiatrist on national television after leading the Lakers two seasons ago to a victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. This off season, he changed his name to Metta World Peace and has been more open and honest about his psychiatric treatment than any athlete alive and has done a world of good for others by taking his mental health issues out of the closet.
Metta is quirky. He is irreverent. He is also a sweetheart of a person, whom I’ve met and can vouch for as an athlete of uncommon personal kindness. Of all the invective over the Harden incident, the most painful was to hear ABC’s Jon Barry call him “Metta Weird Peace.” It was “Artest the freak show” all over again. It’s what makes me want to point out that the NBA has far less in-game violence than the NHL or NFL, where the elbows are flying at all times and concussions are a daily fact of life for untold numbers. It makes me want to ask the media defenders of James Harden why they don’t get this worked up over the thousands of concussion victims in other sports, particularly the NFL. But MWP is an easy villain.
At the risk of sounding as overblown as those throwing dirt on Metta World Peace today, if that elbow above all else becomes his legacy, it would be a tragedy: a tragedy of someone who spent years finding redemption in his private life, only to lose it in a fraction of a second.