Wednesday’s meeting with the Lakers beckons forth reminiscence upon one of the most surreal experiences in Houston Rockets history.
When he etched the logo into his hair, Ron Artest instantly became iconic of this team’s ethos.
From heart to sheer tenacity, he represented an accentuation of the Houston Rockets’ core essence.
The Rockets, in their unrelenting perseverance in the face of adversity, had come to symbolize the spirit of toughness. Ron was the toughest player in the league.
The Rockets were tormented by a too cruel destiny and demons of playoffs past. Artest carried the burden of infamy; the catalyst for the most shocking scene in league history.
The Rockets earned accolade for a stingy, smothering team defense. Artest was lauded as the game’s most menacing defender.
Ron Artest was the physical embodiment of The Houston Rockets on steroids.
Early on, when the team was still a favorite, Artest exuded an aura that seemingly intensified every game into a playoff atmosphere.
Most exemplary of this was the loss at Cleveland. With the outcome already decided, Artest maniacally hounded Lebron James for the final meaningless few minutes of the game, even sending him to the floor on one encounter. One could almost sense the hope to deliver a message for a June matchup he most likely had already deemed inevitable. No, Ron Artest never laid down nor let his team give off the appearance of doing such.
When it came to his actual play, the ride was tumultuous.
To euphemize, Artest’s offense was not exactly graceful.
Ron quite possibly has the ugliest game in the entire league (out of those players actually looking to score.) He easily had the worst shot selection in Rockets history. (Note: This is a rich history inclusive of both Vernon Maxwell and Cuttino Mobley’s 1999-2000 sophomore campaign.)
He would prance along the circle, bulling his way into the paint; the sheer absurdity of the sight a source of great humor. Ron looked like a bodybuilder handling the ball, in danger of tipping over at any point.
We gasped as Artest rolled to his right and hung jumpers off of one foot, and were baffled by his refusal/inability to use his size in the post.
Yet nothing came as more dreadful than ‘The Tick’.
There is really no other appropriate term to describe that horrid phenomenon.
All waters would lay calm until Ron would suddenly spasm, foraying on a 4th quarter shooting frenzy.
This was one of those rare episodes in sports in which one can merely watch in utter disbelief and hopelessness, too numbed by its reoccurrence to feel any real anger.
But the greatest irony lay in Artest’s defense.
With old age and added bulk, the legend had become more myth than reality.
Ron’s performance against the likes of Brandon Roy, O.J Mayo, and Kobe Bryant was bewildering. He wasn’t just torched. He didn’t even seem to have a chance.
It seemed Pavlovian the way he would lunge for every slight fake and jab step. Watching Ron swipe as Bryant dangled the ball before him evoked a newfound empathy for David Robinson’s so very public 1995 humiliation.
On the contrary, Artest was easily the best big wing defender in the game. He did a better job guarding Lebron James than anyone I personally saw all of last year.
When the news of Yao’s injury first broke, it immediately became clear that extending Artest would not be in the best interests of prudence.
I still contest that had Tracy McGrady not been lost for the season, Ron would have provided the rare, exuberant swagger to propel this team to the title.
He was one of the most polarizing figures in Houston sports history. Yet despite his warts, we can all agree that he put his heart and soul into this team and was instrumental in its success.
He entertained us with his frankness and captured our attention with his every word.
It was truly a strange season, and a surreal experience.
Such was inevitably to be the case with basketball’s most flamboyant superstar in tow.