Sunday, January 8, 2012

No Joke, No Ochocinco

Dear Mr. World Peace,

Ever since I heard that you once applied for a job at Circuit City while you played for the Bulls, listing Jerry Krause as your reference, I've been a Ron Artest fan. (I didn't hear this story until years after it happened, and years after you punched a fan in the stands in Detroit and became a go-to emblem of everything bad about the NBA.) I've always respected those rare people who do whatever strange things they want to do, despite enormous pressures to do otherwise. Probably because I've never been like that myself, though I wish I could be. If I was an NBA player, I would never apply to work at Circuit City. If I was an NBA player, I would never show up to practice in a bathrobe, as you once did. I would never send a Twitter message asking if anybody wants to play football on the beach, and then actually show up and play football with random people. I would never thank my psychiatrist in the post-game interview immediately after winning the NBA Finals. I would never auction off my championship ring for charity.

I love you for all this, Metta. But I've gotta admit: Even though I've been a Ron Ron fan for years now, I haven't always taken you seriously. And I'm not the only one. Over the last few years, the American basketball-watching public has treated you like our entertaining-but-ultimately-crazy friend. You liven things up, but we wouldn't let you watch our kids. We wouldn't seriously ponder any of your advice. We wouldn't put our reputations on the line by recommending you for a job at Circuit City. And when you changed your name to Metta World Peace, we began to take you even less seriously. We snickered when the Times was obligated to refer to you as "Mr. World Peace." We chuckled during the preseason when we came across sentences like this on "Lakers Coach Mike Brown is moving World Peace to the bench this season to try to make up for the loss of Odom..." The name change seemed to complete your transition from being reviled to being a punch line.

Or at least that's what I thought--until I watched the Rockets/Lakers game last Tuesday and had an epiphany.

During the game you bumped our sharpshooting albino small forward Chase Buddinger a little too hard for his liking, and he tried to start a scuffle with you. But you only walked away, past him and the other players who'd drifted towards the scuffle, with a wide-eyed amused look. As the Rockets' announcer said, "Chase wasn't too happy with World Peace," I realized something about your new name: it works. If you, Metta World Peace, would've engaged in the scuffle with Buddinger and pushed him, I would've actually been surprised. But if your name was still Ron Artest, I wouldn't have been surprised at all. I would've thought, "Well, people change, but they can't ever change completely." (I once heard a priest repeat this depressing line his mother used to tell him: "People rarely change...and never for the better.") I realized that because your name is Metta World Peace now, you're required to walk away from all scuffles. The irony and hypocrisy of a man getting into a fight while wearing a jersey that says World Peace would just be too much. Both you and the idea of world peace would become a cynical joke. And I realized something else: you know this. Your new name is no joke, no Ochocinco. I see now that your new name is a sincere attempt to complete your redemption.

America doesn't so much forgive as it forgets, Metta. We have a short cultural memory, either out of mercy or--more likely--out of necessity. How else could we continue to cheer? So after the statute of limitations is over, we forget that a certain NBA star was accused of rape, or that a certain NFL star was accused of rape twice. Or a different NFL star's involvement in dog fights. Or the marital transgressions of a certain golfer. We forget that a certain president enjoyed oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office. And we've already started to revise our opinion of the president who came after him, forgetting many of the things we despised about him, now that time has passed. We'll forget the ways the current president has disappointed us too, maybe even before next November. This is just how it works. To go back to sports: that reigning National League MVP who just tested positive for steroids? If he bides his time, in a few years this too shall pass. But with you it's different, Metta. Having one's transgressions forgotten is not the same as redemption. Redemption is much, much better. And you've redeemed yourself.

Listen to this: When my brother was in middle school, he was uncommunicative around adults. My dad would introduce him to someone, my brother would hardly even muster a hello, the person would leave, and then my dad would get irritated and rip my brother for having no personality. My dad would actually say, "You have no personality." This happened many times. So at the end of my brother's eighth grade year we went out to eat Mexican food to celebrate the last day of school and the same thing happened--my dad introduced him to someone, he hardly said a word, and my dad said he had no personality. Except this time my brother said, "No personality? Oh yeah?" And then he pulled a crumpled certificate out of his pocket, slammed it on the table, and said, "MR. PERSONALITY." The certificate was an award he'd won that day at school, an award literally called Mr. Personality. True story. He won an award for the very thing he'd been criticized for for years. That's redemption, Metta.

And so it is with you. The guy who in 2004 received the longest suspension for an in-game incident in NBA history was in 2011 the winner of the league's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. That's real redemption. The guy with major anger issues is now the league's biggest advocate for mental health. Real redemption. And the guy whose name was synonymous with uncontrolled aggression is now named World Peace. That, my friend, is real redemption.

You've transformed yourself into a mix of Gandhi and Andy Kaufman, except a Gandhi who says crazy shit and an Andy Kaufman who never makes the audience feel like the joke is on us. We love you when you get pranked by Jimmy Kimmel and refuse to get angry as they bring in more and more threatening-looking animals to film a fake commercial with you. We love you when a reporter asks you about what name your teammates call you now and you answer by going into a monologue about God's foresight regarding teeth: "Not only did He build the world in seven days and seven nights, he also said, 'Okay, let them lose their teeth early, rather than late.'" We love when we read that Mike Brown asked you to be the leader of the Lakers' second unit and that your response was simply, "Obama!" We love you, Metta. You're an object lesson in the possibility of real change. Though this young and compressed season hasn't been too kind to you so far, we salute you. You're eminently worthy of your strange and peaceful new name. The joke is not on you, nor is it on us. It's on nobody. That's nice.



P.S. Did you notice that around New Year's Eve, Kanye made a reference to you on Twitter? "My New Year's DJ name is gone be Yeezy World Peace!" he said. "If you book me you have to put Yeezy World Peace on the E-vite or I ain't spinning!" Like you, Kanye does whatever strange thing he feels like doing, and like you he is frequently, intentionally hilarious ("Ima need a stealth bomber and 2 bottled waters #YEEZYWORLDPEACE'S RIDER"). And like Ron Artest, Kanye's been in need of redemption. (Although what has he really done, anyway? Accuse a president of hating black people? Humiliate a young singer? Okay, but still.) Looking at Kanye's recent Twitter messages--which include his plans to create a summer school with Spike Jonze, among other things--I'm optimistic that, with you as his inspiration, Yeezy World Peace will also soon complete his own redemption.

P.P.S. Please don't get into a fight any time soon and ruin the entire premise of this letter.