By JIM LITKE
Just like the real thing, Metta World Peace didn't last very long.
For those who still think the Artest formerly known as Ron delivered an elbow unintentionally to the head of Oklahoma City's James Harden, go back to the video from Sunday's game against the Lakers, then to the dozen or so previous incidents that made MWP the most suspended player in the NBA during the past 15 years. To those who say he's reformed, remember it was only a matter of weeks last season between the time he picked up the pro basketball writers' citizenship award and laid out J.J. Barea in the playoffs with a clothes-line hit.
There's no reforming the guy, because unlike Dennis Rodman, whose number he wore for a while in tribute, MWP isn't playing a character. After years of counseling, he still has precious little impulse control and even less of an idea when his demons are about to grab the upper hand. Teammates love MWP when he arrives, sincere, funny and bursting with energy — until one day he's not. Then he shows up for practice in a bathrobe, or gets into shouting matches or fights with teammates, rivals or opposing coaches. Then the guys who play alongside him have to pretend it wasn't Artest's fault, all the while muttering under their breath how lucky they were to be somewhere else on the court when he went off.
Unless, of course, you're Andrew Bynum, who's already thrown the occasional Artest-like tantrum and would no doubt scribble a touching tribute to his running pal on the side of his sneakers for as long as MWP is suspended.
If I'm commissioner David Stern, the deliberations would have been over long before now. The point is not simply to send a message, it's about protecting the other players. Besides, trying to teach MWP a lesson didn't work the first dozen times, and anything less than a suspension through the playoffs — into next season, if need be — is to invite the same kind of stupid risk-taking the NHL encouraged early in its postseason. However, it appears hockey has effectively tamped down by suspending serial cheap-shot artist Raffi Torres of the Coyotes for 25 games following a hit to the head of Chicago's Marian Hossa.
Like MWP's blow to Harden's head, that hit had nothing to do with the run of play. It wasn't designed to accomplish anything but injure an opponent. Before NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan levied the punishment, his responses to a wide range of infractions left players not just scratching their heads, but wondering what they could get away with. There was no clear logic to the nearly dozen penalties handed out — whether the discipline was matched to the seriousness of the intent or the resulting injury — but every player understood that 25 games meant Torres won't be back this year unless Phoenix plays 7 games in every series through the end of the Stanley Cup. Suddenly, everybody on the ice was a lot more mellow, or at the very least a lot less reckless.
In MWP's case, even that glimmer of hope sends the wrong message. So does trying to fine-tune the suspension based strictly on recent precedents. Throwing an elbow generally falls into the 1- or 2-game category, but this one had nothing do with holding onto the ball or clearing space. If Harden hadn't been already turned to the side, and instead caught the elbow full force in the cheek or eye socket, a concussion would have been far from his only problem. To get 10 games, players usually have to clearly throw punches designed to injure opponents or fans — another infraction MWP already knows plenty about. He got 73 games for his central role in the 2004 "Malice at the Palace" brawl. Only Latrell Sprewell has come close, his 82-game sentence shortened to 68 in the 1997-98 season after an arbitrator decided trying to choke your coach wasn't as scary as it sounded (and there was no video).
Gilbert Arenas and his pal Javaris Crittenton got 50 and 38 games for drawing guns on each other after an argument over a gambling debt got out of hand in the Washington locker room, but at least the weapons weren't loaded at the time.
Artest isn't a bad guy, at least not in the sense that he plays dirty to hang onto a job or even to settle a score. He's generous and generally well-intentioned, giving freely of his off-court time for charitable causes, not to mention going through all that trouble to change his name — "to inspire and bring youth together all around the world." . And who can forget his willingness to advocate for mental-health counseling, even thanking his sports psychologist moments after the Lakers won the title in 2010.
But those counselors have had only limited success curbing the kind of outburst Artest unleashed Sunday night. Now it's up to Stern to decide if he wants to give them a chance to try once more.