- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

I have seen the future, and it is Ron Artest in a television studio waving a table leg.

His makeover gained further credence after his showdown with Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter of Game 2 on Wednesday night.

Bryant delivered an elbow to Artest’s throat and then pretended to be all innocent after Artest rushed him and dispensed a number of choice words at nose-to-cheek range.

The confrontation resulted in one of those crazy, you-have-to-be-kidding moments. All of a sudden, Artest, the erstwhile Auburn Hills nut job, was eliciting these great pangs of sympathy. All of a sudden, the NBA nation was feeling his pain, his rage, his frustration.

The new Artest let it end with words. The old Artest would have decked Bryant, and a number of us would have said, “Well, the pretty boy has had it coming for a long time.”

Bryant used to slap defenders in the face after shooting the ball. His supporters called it a nervous tic. Or perhaps it was a form of Tourette syndrome.

The NBA eventually suspended Bryant and, amazingly enough, his involuntary habit of slapping defenders ceased.

Now Bryant has resorted to the old elbow-to-the-throat maneuver, which, of course, the referees missed.

Worse, they ended up ejecting Artest, who let Bryant know that, yes, he has matured over the years but deep down he still has all these demons tormenting him and maybe, just maybe, the next time Bryant feels an urge to deliver a cheap shot his way, the situation could escalate beyond words, with a table leg going through someone’s heart.

And if Artest is ever armed with a table leg - the deadly one from his days as a youth in Queens - Bryant will be backpedaling faster than Carmelo Anthony at Madison Square Garden after the normally mild-mannered Jared Jeffries went rabid on him.

Not only did Artest engender a wave of support during his testy exchange with Bryant, but he also gave a postgame breakdown of it that was honest and insightful.

The NBA’s former Public Enemy No. 1 went into heartfelt detail about the elbow to the throat. You could imagine the jaws of viewers everywhere dropping in amazement.

Can this really be happening? Artest as a studio analyst in his post-NBA career, with Ernie, Kenny “The Jet” Smith and the Chuckster?

Artest eschewed the typical platitudes bandied about after an especially nasty game. The Lakers apparently were tired of being called wimps and decided to go dirty and mask it as playoff aggression.

That was Bryant’s position, and why not? He is the petulant brat accustomed to getting his way and rarely being called on it.

Artest asked Bryant the obvious question: Don’t you know who you are hitting?

Bryant raised his hands and avoided all eye contact with Artest, which was incredibly difficult to do because Artest was about a centimeter from his face. If Artest had puckered up his lips, he could have kissed Bryant right on the cheek.

No way Bryant was going to challenge Artest. No way was he going to say, “Get out of my face.”

His Smugness later insisted he had heard nothing from Artest, not a word, which could be filed under the yeah-right category.

The NBA saw no reason to suspend Bryant, though a case could be made that the game’s reigning hemorrhoid merited a one-game sit-down.

Conspiracy theorists are obligated to chirp about the NBA’s unequal justice and David Stern manipulating events in order to have the ratings bonanza of a LeBron James-Bryant NBA Finals.

Yet Bryant’s elbow was delivered above Artest’s shoulders, which the NBA deems the line not to cross. Dwight Howard crossed that line with an elbow to the head of the 76ers’ Samuel Dalembert in the first round and received a one-game suspicion.

Game 3 of the Lakers-Rockets series cannot come soon enough. Bryant showed up Artest and Shane Battier as he talked and mugged his way to 40 points.

Bryant would make a shot and then rub it in with a you-can’t-guard-me minishow.

Hey, Kobe, you still missed 17 shots in Game 1 and your team still lost its homecourt edge.

And one other thing: You just might want to stop flirting with Artest’s dark side.

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