Ron Artest pulled the door shut and speed-dialed his new best friend. "Kobe, this is Ron," said Artest from the backseat of the town car that would take him to a beachside lunch in Santa Monica. "Just got out of the press conference. Holler at me when you get a chance."
Artest had just been introduced as the newest and most incendiary member of the world champion Lakers, smiling and cracking jokes even as reporters showered him with questions about his past as a brawler, a rapper and a rival to Bryant. As the car prepared to leave the practice facility, a crowd of fans pressed in. "They want me to sign something," Artest said to the driver. "I'll only sign ..."—he gave this some thought—"... four things."
The driver lowered his window and took in a silver Sharpie and four mint-condition basketballs, one after another. "That's four things, guys," said the driver, but one fan persisted. He thrust forward a pair of vintage Artest trading cards, saying, "You can keep one."
Artest signed one of the cards and handed it back. "There you go, guys," he called out. "I'll see you next time."
Throughout the smooth half-hour ride to the beach Artest held the card between his fingers, glancing at it from time to time. Staring back at him blankly was a rookie for the Bulls, the No. 16 pick in the 1999 draft out of St. John's, broad-shouldered but 20 pounds lighter and with no idea of the troubles that lay ahead. "He played hard," said Artest of his rookie self. "When I look back, when I was younger, I didn't really know how to play. Couldn't shoot really consistent, no off-the-dribble jumper. Just a baller, and some really good defense. Great defense."
"How much smarter are you than this guy on the card?" I asked.
"This guy?" Artest said, raising the card with a chuckle. "This guy was dumb."
By signing the 29-year-old Artest on July 8 to a $33 million contract over five years, the Lakers got more than a bargain. They have provided Bryant with a more aggressive Scottie Pippen: a 6'7", 260-pound stopper who can shoot the three as well as dominate in the post. In this seismic off-season, during which contenders like the Magic (who acquired Vince Carter), the Cavaliers (Shaquille O'Neal), the Celtics (Rasheed Wallace) and the Spurs (Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess) have made major upgrades, Los Angeles's signing of Artest threatens to trump all those moves, taking the league's best team and improving it on both ends of the floor—provided L.A. holds on to sixth man Lamar Odom, a free agent who was unsigned at week's end.
Because Artest is Artest, though, nothing is certain. All his previous employers, the Bulls, Pacers, Kings and Rockets, have dreamed of channeling his abundant talent and energy in a constructive way. And while his behavior has been much steadier of late—he was a rock in the playoffs, leading Houston to its first series win in 12 years—he remains as difficult as ever to predict. For instance, Artest had planned a monthlong family vacation in the Bahamas after the season, but he had to cancel it because he couldn't find his passport. Instead he flew to L.A., checked into the trendy new SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills and spent late May and June telling the bellhops and desk clerks that he hoped to join the Lakers.
Mitch Kupchak is surprised Artest got his wish; the Lakers' general manager didn't expect to be able to afford a free agent who made $7.4 million last season and was looking for a raise. The Rockets were expected to give him one until they learned, shortly before the July 1 launch of free-agent negotiations, that the hairline fracture in Yao Ming's left foot wasn't healing well. That meant that Houston would be without its center as well as Tracy McGrady, who is recovering from microfracture knee surgery, for the first half of next season (or longer).
When the news about Yao broke, "some of the people in Ron's [entourage] were saying, Now the Rockets need him, and we have all the leverage," says Artest's agent, David Bauman. "I said, I think it's the opposite. Are they going to win a championship without Yao and without Tracy—but with Ron? The answer is no. So why would they commit to a deal of $40 million to $50 million for Ron? Once I saw the writing on the wall, I knew we had to work on a Plan B."
After Artest spent one long night coming to grips with the fact that he needed to find a new team in a recessionary market light on big-money suitors, he reset his priorities. He told Bauman he wanted to play for a title contender, even if it meant settling for the midlevel exception, with a starting salary of $5.9 million. With that understanding, says Bauman, "it came down to the Lakers and Cleveland."
The Cavaliers were interested, and Artest says LeBron James had called to recruit him. But L.A. moved more quickly than Cleveland. Kupchak pounced when he realized he could sign Artest for less money than was being demanded by the incumbent small forward, 24-year-old Trevor Ariza. By the night of July 2 the Lakers had reached an agreement with Artest, abandoning Ariza—who ended up signing a contract with the Rockets for about the same money. "I would say that today Ron is a better player," says Kupchak, comparing him with the still-developing Ariza. "And I think potentially we can be a better team."
The Lakers had known of Artest's longing to play for them well before he booked a room at the SLS Hotel. After the Celtics blew out L.A. in Game 6 by 39 points to win the 2008 Finals, Artest, who was watching courtside in Boston, went to the visitors' locker room and told coach Phil Jackson how badly he wanted to join the Lakers. Then he walked into the shower to make the same case to a soaking Bryant. At that time Artest was with the Kings, who did trade him that summer—but to Houston, where last season Artest averaged 17.1 points. It was a redemptive year for Artest, whose only public controversy happened in Game 2 of the second round of the playoffs, after Bryant elbowed him in the chest as they battled under the board. Irked that the foul was ignored by the referees, Artest approached Bryant and mimicked his elbow-throwing action; the referee saw this as Artest making a throat-slash gesture and ejected him. The next day league officials in New York assessed Bryant with a flagrant 1 foul while declining to punish Artest. "Past-history profiling," says Artest of being ejected. Still, the incident was replayed over and over because of Artest's volatile past, most notably his escalation of the November 2004 brawl at Detroit, for which he received a suspension for the remaining 73 games of that season.
But when Kupchak looked at the footage, he saw evidence of Artest's newfound restraint. "Your immediate reaction as a player would be to react with another elbow—and [Ron] didn't do that," says Kupchak. "It didn't look to me like Ron made up his mind to get Kobe later on in that series. I think he just wanted Kobe to know, You got me, I know you got me, and I want everybody else to know."
Artest in fact takes pride in the respectful relationship he has with Bryant because it grew from their on-court rivalry. "I was in my prime defensively when I was younger, and I was major problems for Kobe," says Artest. "And as he got better, he was major problems for me. It's like a heavyweight bout—just fight and fight, and after the fight we embrace each other."
While much has been made of Jackson's handling of difficult players—most famously when he rehabbed Dennis Rodman to help Michael Jordan win his final three championships in Chicago—the key to Artest's success will be his chemistry with Kobe. Artest has always wanted to be seen as Bryant's peer, and he views this partnership as his chance to show that he can be as essential to the Lakers' defense as Kobe is to their offense. The ultimate goal is for Bryant and Artest to nullify the wing matchups like those against Celtics stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. "I'm still pretty good defensively, but I've got to get it back to where I was," says Artest, who has devoted more time to developing his offensive skills in recent years. "Guys are not supposed to score over 15 points on me. That's it. Maximum."
The car stopped, and Artest walked out along the carnival of the Santa Monica pier toward the Mexican restaurant. He stopped and posed among cardboard cutouts of celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Paris Hilton. The woman in charge of the display smiled as he walked away and asked, "Who is he?"
She'll know soon enough. One reason Artest was willing to accept a pay cut to come to L.A. was the prospect of endorsement deals and other entertainment projects as outlined by Magic Johnson, who spent more than an hour on the phone recruiting Artest. Though Artest was raised on the New York playgrounds of Queens, he is simpatico with Hollywood: He is in talks to star in a TV reality show, he has hopes of developing new relationships to rejuvenate his secondary career in music, and he will wear number 37 because of a MySpace suggestion to honor the late Michael Jackson, whose album Thriller spent 37 weeks at No. 1.
It may sound as if Artest is not focused on basketball, but the good news for Lakers fans is that in recent years he has instituted safeguards to help prevent him from straying too far. Bauman, publicist Heidi Buech and Lou Taylor, his female business manager, are all in the uncomfortable business of telling Artest the facts that he doesn't want to hear. "He expects me to tell him the truth and not sugarcoat stuff," says Bauman, who began working with Artest a year ago. "The truth sometimes comes in pieces. But he gets all of the information."
The dynamics of their relationship became a little too public when Artest made a video of himself taking a call from Bauman the night of July 1, shortly after the agent received an initial recruiting pitch from the Lakers. "I just spoke with Mitch Kupchak for a half hour," says Bauman by speakerphone on the video.
"What he want?" asks Artest.
"What do you think he wants?" answers Bauman. "He wants to get you a championship ring next year."
The conversation continued for several minutes as Bauman detailed a variety of contract options with a number of teams. Afterward Artest posted the video online without telling his agent, which caused Bauman's heart to stop when he first heard about it, as he frantically tried to recall if he had said anything that would embarrass him or the teams he had discussed. (He hadn't, fortunately.)
Artest was finishing lunch in Santa Monica when he brought up the video. "Did you see that thing with me and Dave?" he said with a grin. "I didn't tell him I was recording it."
"You know that's illegal, right?" said Buech, sitting at the far end of the table.
"Yeah," said Artest, lowering his head. "Now I do."
"In California it's illegal to record a phone conversation without letting someone know you're recording it," she said, just so there would be no doubt.
After all these years of finding himself in trouble and wondering why, Artest finally knows how much he doesn't know. Having learned the hard way that he needs guidance and firm borders, he pays for the professional advice he doesn't always like. He also has decided, at his own financial expense, that winning a championship is more important than bringing home the maximum paycheck. Will he find what he came for in L. A.? At the very least, the reality show is going to be terrific.
Now on SI.com
Ian Thomsen on the five key questions of the 2009--10 season, at SI.com/bonus
"This guy?" Artest said, chuckling as he gazed at his rookie card. "This guy was dumb."
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
CALIFORNIA DREAMIN' Weeks before signing with the world champs, Artest had made his summer home in the trendy SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
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BOB ROSATO (WITH BULLS)
MOVING EXPERIENCE Artest suited up for (from top) Chicago, Indiana and Sacramento before going to Houston, where he faced Bryant (right) in the 2009 playoffs.
RON HOSKINS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WITH PACERS)
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ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WITH KINGS)
[See caption above]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]