Growing up in Queensbridge, N.Y., Indiana Pacer Ron Artest had a bully.
As funny as it seems, the NBA All-Star, famous for his brawl in Detroit, would get picked on every day. And even more ironic is the fact that Ron wouldn't fight back.
"Ron was always really different," said Sarah Artest, Ron's mother, who now lives in Carmel, Ind. "He was always very laid-back. He might have gotten into a fight, but it took a lot to make him fight."
Every day, Ron would get picked on at La Salle Academy and every day Ron would ignore it. Finally, the meek high school student decided enough was enough and punched the kid, breaking his nose.
"The only reason the principal didn't suspend him was because the boy kept messing with him," Sarah said. "He said he would have done the same thing."
Years later, Ron found himself in a similar situation, only this time he wouldn't avoid suspension. Ron Artest is forced to sit out the entire NBA season because of the Nov. 19 fight at The Palace of Auburn Hills, in an incident that has been called, "the Throwdown in Motown," "basket brawl" and "the worst day in NBA history."
But Sarah Artest doesn't want you to judge him by what's on TV. She wants you to know her son is not a thug. He is not a villain, a bad guy or whatever some commentator says about him. To her, Ron Artest will always be her little "Ron-Ron." Her little "pac-man" who'd eat everything in the house. Her son who to this day supports his entire family, including his younger brother Isaiah, a sophomore at IU.
OLDEST AND WISEST
Things weren't easy for Ron during his childhood in the projects of Queens, but he always had family on his side. His parents worked extra hours just to provide for their eight children -- two of whom they were taking care of for a relative.
"We had a hard time growing up and we didn't have nothing," Sarah said. "But I raised eight kids and none of them got involved in drugs. They weren't in gangs. Sometimes, I wonder how I did it."
Ron, as the oldest, was always first to pitch in when his family needed it.
When he was 14 years old, Sarah recalls, Ron did what he could to make sure his brother Isaiah, five years younger than him, had new sneakers before school started.
Isaiah's shoes were old and ratty with holes in them. Sarah offered her son the money, but didn't have enough to buy the shoes Isaiah wanted. So, Ron took her $20 and went out with his cousin to buy fireworks in Chinatown. He scoured the city, selling each firework individually until he raised enough money. Later that day, Ron bought Isaiah his sneakers.
Later on in life, Ron would carry over his leadership skills to the court. Ron's future in basketball was clear to some people, but not everybody in his family thought he'd be drafted.
"Growing up in the projects, you kind of see that as a dream," Sarah said. "So when it actually happened, I was shocked."
Ron's father, Ron Sr., said he had a feeling though. He even remembers the game that did it for him: sophomore year of high school against St. Raymond where Ron scored 30 points.
"It never really surprised me because this is what he was supposed to do," said Ron Sr., who still lives in Queens. "He was always the best player and every year he got better and better. So, it fits. I didn't just wake up and one day he was a celebrity. It happened so gradually."
Boxes and boxes of college applications flooded the Artest home until Ron decided the place he wanted to be was St. John's College, a choice he made to be close to home.
After two years with the Red Storm, he was drafted 16th by the Chicago Bulls. His family celebrated. Sarah barbecued for 200 people, cooking Ron's favorites: baked macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. Ron took his brothers on a plane trip to Chicago for a shopping spree, buying Isaiah CDs, DVDs, a stereo and more.
The Ron Artest his family knows and the Ron Artest the nation knows are different people -- and part of that can be explained by his behavior on the court. In his first few years playing for the Indiana Pacers, after they received him in a trade, he was suspended for yelling at then-Miami coach Pat Riley and busting up a camera. But what really marred his image was the fateful Nov. 19 night, where an entrance into the stands turned into a riot.
Most of Ron's family wasn't watching when the incident occurred.
Isaiah received a phone call while driving and later turned on ESPN at home.
"I turned on ESPN and I was completely shocked," said Isaiah, an international studies and Italian major. "Honestly, I was kind of laughing at some of it too because when I saw Ron come after that guy, I saw the fear of God in his face."
Sarah was indulging in her horror-film obsession on the Sci-Fi Channel when she received a call and decided to flip over.
"Earlier that year, Ron was telling me, 'Mama, it's hard when the fans don't like you,' and he was telling me how they throw coins at him," she said. "He's not a bad person, he just reacted."
Ron Sr. feared for his son's safety.
"I got a phone call and I turned on the game and I said, 'Oh, my God,' I felt bad for my son because he was being attacked," he said. "He had to do what he did."
Ron Sr. also appreciated his son's restraint, noting that when Ron was six-years-old, his father broke up a fight with his cousin. He imparted the advice on his son to never hit, but to release his anger through doing push-ups.
The family has different ideas about what led to the incident. Sarah believes it is because of the stress Ron was under, having just lost his grandmother. Ron Sr. puts a lot of blame on Pistons Center Ben Wallace. They all agree though that the media portrayals of Ron weren't fair.
"He's not a thug. He's not a monster. They don't know much about him. They could learn a lot about him," Ron Sr. said. "They saw him in the brawl in Detroit and they make judgments. Ron didn't start any of that. If you judge him on this, then you don't know Ron Artest. He's a good man. He loves his kids. They don't really ask the right people how he is. He's not a thug or a criminal. Growing up in Queens Bridge, he never got into a fight."
Nobody talked about the incident during Thanksgiving dinner, six days later in Carmel.
But hope is still alive for Ron. NBA Commissioner David Stern recently said "never say never" when referring to whether he'd let Artest return this year. Ron's resumed his practices with the Pacers and he's already planning for his NBA return.
THE FAMILY MAN
Now that Ron has plenty of free time, following his season-long suspension, he has been able to dedicate more of his time to what he loves most -- his family.
He signed up his mother for a workout class, got her a personal trainer and even offered to help teach her how to drive. He's had more time to spend with his four kids, something NBA life doesn't always afford him.
"I know he doesn't get to spend enough time with his kids as he wants to since he's always traveling, but he's a good father," Ron Sr. said.
The fatherly role isn't anything new to Ron. When he was drafted by Chicago, he had his brothers Isaiah and Daniel move in with him. He drove down to their high school and enrolled them in school himself. To this day, he's still tough on them.
"To be honest with you, he's like their father," Sarah said. "If the grades drop, they don't get nothing. If Isaiah gets a bad grade he always comes to me and says, 'Don't tell Ron.'"
Under Ron, Sarah said, the house was always clean and the kids never fought. Ron took care of the house and did everything except cook.
"I remember this one time we were living in Chicago and Ron calls me out of nowhere on the weekend and he's like, since you know how to cook I need you to cook for 14 people," Isaiah said.
Two hours later, Isaiah cooked up baked macaroni and grilled chicken for the entire Chicago Bulls, including NBA stars Elton Brand and Brad Miller.
WHO IS RON ARTEST?
Still, it seems like most people don't know the real Ron Artest, the guy outside of the uniform and the brawl in Detroit.
He's the guy with a sense of humor, who applied for a job at Circuit City while playing for the Chicago Bulls -- just for the discounts. He's the guy at Chuck E. Cheese, buying his kids pizza and tokens. He's the guy who has not only worked to give his all to his own children, but to his brothers as well.
"Ron has helped me out so much," Isaiah said. "He has made me strive to do my best. Knowing that he could do something like make it in the NBA, gives me the confidence that I could do anything. I mean, if he can do that, I can at least make it out of IU in four years."
-- Contact Sports Editor Adam Aasen at firstname.lastname@example.org.