Monday, April 23, 2012

Be Nice About It? Be Nice About It?

Dear Metta,

Here’s a phrase I never hoped to see on the ESPN ticker: “…elbowed in the head by World Peace.” I’d watched the game earlier, witnessed the elbow when it happened, but even a couple hours later, every time I saw that phrase on the ticker it made me sad. It really did. And not just for James Harden and the Thunder and their fans, though I was definitely sad for them. Before you sent him to the floor, Harden was the best part about watching that game. He had fourteen points in less than fourteen minutes, en route to what would’ve surely been another ridiculous game off the bench for the soon-to-be Sixth Man of the Year with the amazing, enigmatic beard that’s half Imam and half baseball Brian Wilson. (In case you didn't know, Metta, Harden had forty off the bench a few days ago against the Suns. Forty. Off the bench.) If he misses any playoff games or struggles with post-concussion symptoms, that’s gonna be bad. Really bad. And not just for him and his team and NBA fans, but for you, too. After I saw the play in slow-mo and realized just how awful it was, how vicious the elbow was despite your protests to the contrary, I was almost as sad for you as I was for James Harden. Because you’re one of my favorite NBA personalities, and because in April you’d finally turned a corner and become an integral part of the team again after struggling miserably for most of the season, and because you’d put so much effort into changing the story of your life—even going so far as to change your name—and now, after a single moment, the Evil Ron Artest narrative is back. You’ve worked so hard to become a lovable comic character after being the villain, and now suddenly you’re threatening to become a tragic figure, unable to escape your biggest flaw. Damn, Metta.

The worst part is that there was no tussle, no hard foul, nothing. You were just a man beating his chest in celebration, pumped to have dunked in traffic against two great players. Maybe you were even overjoyed to feel, for a moment, like the young, dominant, pre-therapy Ron Artest. Then Harden got close to you and the chest-thumping became something else. In my naivete, I truly thought that your new name prevented an event like this, so it would be in my best interest to explain it away as inadvertent, as you did after the game, calling it an “unintentional elbow.” But I can’t. The replay shows you raising your shoulder and rearing back your elbow after the chest-thumping, a crazy look in your eye before you nail him. In fact, the replay makes it look almost overly intentional, if that's possible. I mean, you really rear back. And your yelling after the elbow doesn’t help either; the slow-motion footage makes you look like you’re in The Gladiator or something. As you yourself said about the replay a few hours after the game, via Twitter, “OMG…looks bad.” It really does. In real-time it didn’t look nearly as bad, though. In real-time it actually did look inadvertent. And part of me thinks that replay and slow-motion aren’t entirely accurate. Slow-mo can be a lie, in a way. It exaggerates the tiniest gestures. People won’t think about that when they talk about this incident, though.

And even if the replay exaggerates the malice behind the moment, the fact remains: you were performing a gesture, the chest-thumping, that wouldn’t have hurt anyone if they’d run into you, but then Harden got close and you did something else entirely, something violent, something that gave him a concussion. For the elbow to be called inadvertent, you would’ve had to have been doing the same thing the whole time, and you just weren’t. It wasn’t an accident, Metta. You need to just admit that. But admitting that it wasn’t an accident doesn’t mean it was premeditated. Something can be intentional but only intentional in the moment. A lot of the sports pundits are talking about this situation like you had time to mull it over before you decided to do it. Like it was a failure of logic. That’s BS. It was a terrible decision, obviously, but a decision that was made in a split second, and it’s ridiculous when these people get on TV or the radio after watching the replay a hundred times and talk about it like you had time to consider your actions. “It made no sense for Ron Artest to throw that elbow,” Stephen A. Smith said on ESPN after the game. Apparently Stephen A., in every moment of his life, has only acted in ways that made complete sense. In which case, Stephen A. Smith is a robot. A robot with a very emphatic way of speaking, but still, a robot.

Cards on the table, Metta. Here’s why I’m sympathetic to your situation and why I resent all the people who are criticizing your decision-making: because I got into an altercation at IKEA yesterday. I’d dropped my wife and child off at the entrance of the IKEA and I was idling in my car, looking up the nearest bar on my phone so that I could go watch the second half of El Clasico while my wife looked for a dresser. I realize this doesn’t make me sound like the best husband or father. Also, I was parked in the emergency vehicle zone, but I was unaware of this at the time, and if an emergency vehicle would’ve pulled up, it would’ve been very easy for me to move. Anyway, Metta, I’d been sitting there idling at the entrance for only a couple minutes and then an IKEA employee, an older man, walked up to my door to tell me to leave. I rolled down my window and I was ready to nod my head and back out, but the guy didn’t just tell me to leave. He started shaking his head a lot and said, “You can’t park here. You can’t park here.” Basically he was acting like we’d had this same conversation a bunch of times before and that I kept ignoring him and parking there. But (1) I wasn’t actually parked; I was idling. And (2) I wasn’t blocking any traffic. And (3) I’d never been to this IKEA before. So I said, “I'm leaving, but you can be nice about it.” Now I understand that this was just a lame, obnoxious comment. I’m not proud of it. But it just came out. It was my incredibly weak equivalent of chest-thumping. Then I started backing out and the guy—he had a Caribbean accent—kept saying, “Be nice about it? Be nice about it?” And I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “I could give you a ticket right now!” By this point I’d backed up all the way, with my window still down, and I actually was blocking traffic. I said, “Are you a police officer?” And he said, “What?” I said, “ARE YOU A POLICE OFFICER?” And he said, “AM I A POLICE OFFICER!” People were watching us now, good people who just wanted to buy furniture. And I yelled, “YOU’RE NOT A POLICE OFFICER, RIGHT? HOW ARE YOU GONNA GIVE ME A TICKET?” That was my equivalent of the elbow to the head. The guy yelled, “YOU TELL ME TO BE NICE. WHY DON’T YOU BE NICE?” It was a good question. That was when I realized that I was in front of an IKEA, yelling at an IKEA employee, acting like a complete dick. I mumbled something about how we should both be nice and then I sped off.

I’m not usually a yeller, Metta. Nor am I a guy who gets in fights with old men who are just trying to do their job. In fact, I don’t get in many altercations at all. And when I drove off, I was thinking to myself, “What the hell did I just do? Why did I do that?” And I had no idea. It just happened. Does that excuse it? No way. My behavior was inexcusable. But my point here is this: though my experience at IKEA was a reminder that  I'm capable of becoming an asshole at any moment, that doesn’t mean I’m not usually a nice guy. Maybe that's the excuse all assholes make, but still. If Stephen A. Smith would’ve seen me, he would’ve said it made no sense for me to yell at that IKEA employee, and he would’ve been right. But I would never choose to act that way. It wasn’t a conscious decision. 99 times out of 100 it wouldn't have happened. And I think the same is true for you: Just because you elbowed another player in the back of the head, a terrible thing to do, doesn’t mean that it was a conscious decision, even if it was intentional in the moment. And it doesn’t mean you’re not a nice guy, a good guy, even a changed guy. Bad decisions are bad decisions, whether they're conscious or not, but your record over the last few years shouldn't be ignored. Malice at the Palace was a culmination; this elbow is an aberration. It's not who you are anymore. You’re gonna hear a lot of negative stuff in the next week or so, and I just want you to remember this, Metta. Beyond that, all we can do now is hope that James Harden and the old man at IKEA forgive us, and that the injury doesn't last long for either of them.