He was wearing a Los Angeles Lakers jersey when he said it, moments after hitting a game-winning buzzer beater in the Western Conference Finals and a few weeks before winning his first ever NBA Championship. “Queensbridge!” he paid homage the housing projects in New York that raised him. “Say Queensbridge!” he instructed to Craig Sager, and Sager complied.
And after gaining fame as one of the baddest (where bad means good) players to come out of New York, from High School and College and street-ball in his home city, after missing out a chance to be drafted into the NBA by his hometown franchise, after making a career of shutting down the league’s best offensive players, winning a Defensive Player of the Year award, becoming an All-Star, destroying TV cameras, rushing the stands and fighting with fans, elbowing opponents in the head, hitting game-winning shots, making game-changing plays, winning a championship, calling out his psychiatrist, making rap albums, supporting children with special needs, being Ron Artest, and then being Metta World Peace, from Chicago to Indiana to Sacramento to Houston to Los Angeles, the journey finally comes full circle.
Artest, Metta, whatever you want to call him, is back in New York. Soon after getting amnestied by the Lakers, he got picked up by the Knicks. And the man who wore a New York borough on his sleeve is finally representing the city that raised him.
“I’m glad I didn’t go to New York early,” World Peace told reporters as word spread that he’d become a Knick, “Cuz maybe I don’t finish my career in New York… And I’m bringing championship experience to the Garden.”
14 years ago, the New York Knicks, just coming off an unexpected trip to the NBA Finals, had the 15th pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. With hometown hero Ron Artest waiting for his number to be called, the Knicks instead took a shot at 7-footed French centre Frederic Weis. Artest was picked up on the very next pick by the Bulls. The likes of Andrei Kirilenko and Manu Ginobili were picked later in the same draft.
Weis never played for the Knicks; as a matter of fact, his closest encounter with the NBA was becoming the poster-boy beneath Vince Carter’s legs as the recipient of the greatest dunk of All Time. Artest meanwhile, went on to enjoy a long, memorable, notorious and successful NBA career.
And as that career draws to its close, the Knicks, who may have forever regretted picking Weis over a hometown legend, have chosen to make amends for history and bring their prodigal son back home.
Of course, things are different now. Artest isn’t that athletic, quick and devastating player that he was in his prime. He isn’t the same player from the Pacers’ years, who could score 20 points a game and by the league’s best defensive player at the same time. He isn’t an All-Star. He isn’t leaving offensive players shaking in their boots, and as a positive change, isn’t making the same mistakes he made that marred his career and his character as a volatile youngster. He isn’t even officially Ron Artest anymore.
But he’s still one of the hardest working players out there, a tough-nosed hustler on the defensive end who will give the Knicks much-needed character on defence and further help spread the floor in Mike Woodson’s three-pointer-happy offense. He isn’t in his prime, but he isn’t going to let age stop him from giving it his all.
“Prime ain’t nothing but a word…” he told reporters last week, “Heart – that’s what it really is.”
Personally, I was elated. After the Knicks made a questionable decision to add Andrea Bargnani into the ‘Amar’e Stoudemire Club of Forwards Who Are Paid A Lot, Injured A Lot, And Can’t Play Defence’, the signing of World Peace made up for the earlier error. Metta is the anti-Bargnani, and his heart and effort could potentially prove to be the missing link the Knicks’ structure.
Metta, or Artest, has also long been one of my favourite players and personalities in the NBA. Sift through the deplorable mistakes he made earlier in his career (which I of course condemn) and you’re left with an entertaining star who gave it his all on the court and brought his creativity off-the-court too. He was one of the best defenders in the league over the past decade and validated his career with a championship – including a game-changing performance in Game 7 of the NBA Finals – back in 2010.
Perhaps he missed out a golden opportunity to play for the Knicks in his prime, but in his own words, “prime ain’t nothing but a word”. With Metta, you’re never sure about the future. He could end up in Shanghai (as he hinted after the Lakers amnestied him) or elsewhere, but for now, there is a chance that he could end his basketball career in New York, right where it began.
Two years ago, soon after he had officially changed his name from Ron Artest to Metta World Peace, he admitted that he had a second, backup name option, in case the change to Metta didn’t work out. “Queensbridge,” he said. He thought about simply changing his name to “Queensbridge.”
That could still happen (with Metta, you never know). And now, Queensbridge – and the rest of New York City – will be chanting his name, whatever it is. This time, he’ll be in a Knicks jersey when it happens. Back home, back where it all began.