Ron_Artest

How Ron Artest, the NBA’s Most Volatile Star, Finally Found Peace

Johnny Sweet talks about his new Showtime documentary ‘Quiet Storm,’ which chronicles Metta World Peace’s journey to confront his mental health demons

When the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in a deciding Game 7 in 2010, it was hard to find many feel-good stories in the contest. After all, the Finals were being waged between two of the league’s most vaunted (and despised) franchises, featuring some of the sport’s biggest, most polarizing stars, including Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But within the blockbuster matchup, there was one unlikely underdog who was very easy to root for.

Ron Artest’s career should have been over long before Game 7. A talented kid from New York’s Queensbridge housing project, he came into the NBA like a comet and threatened to burn out just as fast, being labeled as a difficult teammate and a certifiable head case. And that was before 2004, when his Indiana Pacers took on the Detroit Pistons in the Palace of Auburn Hills. Near the end of that game, Artest snapped after a fan threw a cup at him, prompting him to charge into the stands, setting the stage for one of the most embarrassing and dangerous moments in NBA history. Artest was suspended for the rest of the season, his reputation in ruins.

Now, cut back to 2010. With time running down in the deciding game, Bryant hit a wide-open Artest, who drilled a dramatic three-pointer to help clinch the Larry O’Brien Trophy for L.A. In that moment, Artest had, improbably, redeemed himself and found his way back to the pinnacle of his sport. And during his on-court interview afterward, he gave thanks to a most unlikely person: Dr. Santhi Periasamy, his psychiatrist.

Those who had become accustomed to Artest’s scowling face and reckless abandon were taken aback. Here was a positively glowing Ron Artest, a man who had tackled his demons and worked to make peace with the mental health issues that had plagued him since boyhood. Lots of players acknowledge wives, coaches, parents and god. Only Artest gave a shout-out to his shrink.

In the nine years since the championship, Artest has changed his name — he now goes by Metta World Peace — retired from basketball and continued to spread the word about anxiety and depression. His charity, the Artest Foundation, offers programs to underprivileged kids, with a focus on mental health awareness. And he’s the subject of a new documentary, Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story, which offers an overview of his upbringing, basketball years and post-NBA life. More crucially, though, it’s a study of a battle for wellness — one that many assumed he’d never be able to achieve. The Artest we see in Quiet Storm is a happy man, but also a relieved one.

With Quiet Storm premiering on Showtime tonight, I recently spoke to Johnny Sweet, the film’s director. A longtime ESPN veteran who previously made Vick, he’s a guy who knows his hoops and understands why Artest’s story resonates with so many people — and it has little to do with basketball. “Ron is the most important sports story of the last 20 years,” he tells me over the phone. “You can talk about LeBron, Kobe and Kaepernick, but Ron created a ripple effect that actually has led to societal discussion and potential change.” Sweet and I went on to talk about what it’s like to be around the older-and-wiser Artest, whether the stigma against players speaking out about anxiety is lifting and why athletes are still leery of taking medication.

Before Quiet Storm, did you know Artest at all?
He wouldn’t have remembered me. I covered the NBA for 10 years at ESPN, so I had run into him a few times, just gathering locker room sound after the NBA Finals and stuff like that. So I dealt with him before.

How is he different now than back then?
I’ve only personally got to know Ron over the last year and a half, so I can only really speak on that time period. But as far as dealing with him in the media, he was always unselfish and gracious with his time. I also noticed he was always very honest with his answers.

He’s long been candid about his mental-health struggles. But was there anything he was hesitant about discussing in the film?
He was great. We had him for one long four-and-a-half-hour interview session, and he was just an unselfish, open book about his entire life. We basically had no difficulties in talking with him. He was great.

Quiet Storm contains occasional onscreen quotes from Artest’s psychiatrist. A sample quote: “Anxiety and depressive symptoms are often responses to encountering stress and trauma throughout childhood.” I was curious about the decision to include those.
Well, we would love to have had Dr. Santhi Periasamy on camera, but she didn’t feel comfortable being on camera after several requests. And we respected that. It was mostly because she wants to protect her practice with her clients. We had Ron’s permission to speak with her, but she could only talk about certain things, only [about] one patient. She didn’t want to jeopardize her trust with other patients. So that’s why we just quoted [on screen] the answers that she gave us.

In recent years, the NBA has had more stories about players and coaches discussing their battles with depression and anxiety, like Kevin Love. While talking to Artest, did you get a sense that these battles are more widespread in the league than fans realize?
No, Ron didn’t talk about other players — he wanted to keep the focus just on him. Obviously, this is a subjective opinion, but Ron is the most important sports story of the last 20 years. You can talk about LeBron, Kobe, Kaepernick, but Ron created a ripple effect that actually has led to societal discussion and potential change. So that’s why we wanted the focus just on him — his condition from the age of eight and what led up to him being very guileless in that moment when he said those words toward Doris Burke after winning the title in 2010.

Quiet Storm does a good job of suggesting that mental issues are exacerbated by lots of circumstances — it’s not just a chemical imbalance.
Yeah, environmental and genetic disposition as well. He has several family members who have been in and out of institutions, or who are on medication. But he just wanted to keep it on him and the factors that led to him figuring out how to treat himself.

He also had to learn how to speak a language that allowed for an acknowledgement of mental issues. Which is impressive, considering that we’re still in a culture where men are scared to show any sort of weakness.
Keep in mind that, about six years before Ron came into the league, there was Kendall Gill, who was the first NBA athlete — maybe the first professional athlete — to come out and admit that he was diagnosed and suffered from depression. He got ridiculed and chased out of Seattle, basically, over that. So the stigma was always there.

But I don’t think Ron was afraid of ever talking about it. Obviously, the perfect moment was 2010 when he was able — in a very, very public format — to melt some of that stigma away. People knew that Ron was seeing a psychiatrist in Chicago [when he played for the Bulls] and Indianapolis — that was in publications. But I think the [NBA Finals] platform — where there’s millions and millions of people around the world watching — and him thanking his psychiatrist in front of that audience, that helps. I think that helped people, who were afraid to come out of the shadows and discuss this topic, feel a little more confident in discussing what they were going through. He definitely helped kick-start that conversation.

Of course, anger was always a key motivating factor for Artest on the court. In a sense, he needed that anger to become one of the league’s best.
I mean, he’s a very competitive player, and that competitive fire is what you need in order to reach the top of your profession. One thing that gets lost with Ron’s career: He was an MVP candidate. For about a three-year stretch there, he was arguably the best two-way player in the league.

When you have the conditions that he’s also battling through — many [people] pushed him to take medication. Well, some of this medication can make you drowsy and slow, and that impacts how you make a living. I mean, that’s what happened with Mike Tyson at the end of his career: He stayed on his medication, and he just didn’t have the will to finish those fights.

So with Ron, he had to figure out how to do it without taking medication. That took a while for him to figure out the math there, and when he got to Houston and met Dr. Santhi Periasamy, the combination was figured out.

Do you think that the impression that Ron Artest was “crazy” helped him on the court? That’s a great intimidation factor — you didn’t know what he was capable of.
Ron had a relentless style of play — if people were scared of that, then it was what it was. His relentless style of play he learned from an early age, and he kept that with him. He just felt that was the only way he was going to be able to survive in the league — he wasn’t going to adjust that on the fly for anybody.

Artest is really open about the “Malice at the Palace” —
Yeah, there were no reservations with him talking about that. It seems like he’s moved past that for years. It doesn’t seem like it’s something that holds him back. He’s not thinking about that on a day-to-day basis.

But you also got the fan who threw the cup, John Green, to talk on camera about it. How easy was that?
I had a fantastic co-producer on this film named Omar Michaud, and he helped us track down John Green. We were able to convince him why it was important for him to be a part of this film. All credit has to go to Omar for that.

But was John hesitant? I can see a lot of reasons why he wouldn’t want to talk.
Initially, he was kind of like “Why now?” But we told him, “Well, the fact that you two became friends is an important bow on top of the story arc. We think [our viewers] would find that therapeutic for the two of you to discuss how you two became friends.” And then John was great from the second he sat in the chair [and started talking].

On the other side of the spectrum, though, you include Artest’s old Indiana Pacers teammate Jermaine O’Neal, who’s clearly still dealing with some anger about Ron’s behavior from when they used to play together.
We thought Jermaine O’Neal was insanely important — and not only because of the events that happened in Detroit. Jermaine O’Neal was the captain of a team that, arguably, should have won two titles with Ron. Jermaine O’Neal and Ron were kind of the 1A and 1B best players on the team. The relationship between them had to be explained, and Jermaine had never really talked about it before, outside of things that he said during the season when they were playing together.

We really felt that that perspective was important, and we were lucky that he said yes and are very, very grateful and thankful that he did, because he was able to really show some of the negative impact that Ron’s condition created. He was able to elaborate on that in full detail.

I’m assuming Artest has seen the film. What does he have to say about the O’Neal segments?
Ron has seen the film. He hasn’t commented on the O’Neal parts. He told me that he loved [Quiet Storm] and even said he cried at a couple moments. He hasn’t said anything about the O’Neal parts of the film, but him and Jermaine have actually patched up their relationship. They’re friends now. They speak more consistently now than they ever did when they were teammates in Indiana.

It feels like there was almost a sibling rivalry thing going on between them.
Yeah, but the interesting thing was their games blended together perfectly — that’s why they won so many games when they played together.

But that seems like a familiar dynamic in the NBA, kinda like with Kobe and Shaq. When you’ve got a 1A and 1B, both of them want to be the alpha.
And it wasn’t just the two of them: As Jermaine O’Neal explains, there was a lot of aggression on that [Pacers] team with the players that were on that roster. I don’t think it was just limited to Jermaine and Ron. The entire team was built and designed on aggression, which (A) helped them win a lot of games, but (B) caused a lot of stress within the team dynamic.

A lot of players, in every sport, have a tough time saying goodbye to the game. How did Artest manage after retirement?
He actually had initial issues with it. He talked a little bit about going through post-traumatic syndrome when his basketball career was over. There was an adjustment he had to make. He just had to figure out that transition, and once he figured it out, he was able to figure out his second career — or, I would say, careers that he is now invested in.

Football players talk about missing the outlet to be violent. Artest was such a physical defender. Was that part of what was hard in that transition?
No, it was the day-to-day routine — that’s what he missed. It wasn’t the physical aspect. It was knowing what you’re going to be doing every day.

For people who see Quiet Storm, what aspect of Artest doesn’t come through in the film that you know about him?
I can say this as an objective journalist: He seemed very, very authentically selfless. I always felt like he was definitely a good person deep down in his inner core, but I didn’t really realize how selfless he was with his time and the endeavors that he’s involved in. I was pretty impressed with that.

Also, he has interests in other areas that we couldn’t invest much time with in terms of the story arc of this film. He’s insanely tech-savvy. He loves math. He loves architecture. These are interests that I didn’t know about, but he’s able to explain at a very high level.

Because he was such a tenacious, hard-nosed basketball player, we probably haven’t given him enough credit for how smart he is.
I mean, you got to have a high IQ in order to operate the triangle offense at an efficient level.

Artest talks about the fact that a lot of people with mental health issues can’t afford the help they need. It’s a socioeconomic issue as much as it is a public health issue.
That was an important thing we wanted to highlight. Either finding a good psychiatrist and/or a good psychologist can be monetarily taxing, and for those who don’t come from a background with those kind of resources, yeah, it can be challenging.

Ron didn’t have that early on, growing up. There was a free service in Queensbridge that helped, but he never started getting consistent, quality help until he got to St. John’s and the NBA.

In Quiet Storm, journalist Mark Kriegel mentions that we, as a society, need to stop using the word “crazy” to describe people like Artest — that it’s a damaging term. Do you feel like your movie’s job is to help banish that word?
I don’t know if I’m out to banish the word. But I hope it’s not used anymore.