Reports of a confrontation between Ron Artest, above, and Phil Jackson… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Finally, Ron Artest has shown up.
Sadly, it's that Ron Artest.
To those who have understandably complained that one of last year's Lakers heroes has been invisible this season, be careful what you wish for.
He's back, but, well, he's back.
Not the Artest of cute and funny, but the Artest of anger and confrontation.
Not the Artest you loved, but the one you feared.
Artest's first major contribution of the 2010-11 season occurred Tuesday upon confirmation of a Yahoo report that he engaged Coach Phil Jackson in a shouting match at a recent practice, yelling at Jackson to stop embarrassing him in public.
Jackson admitted the report was true, Artest would not deny it, and the Lakers should be very worried about it.
First, it is becoming increasingly clear that Artest is not getting along with the coach whose patience and prodding last year brought out the best in the famously troubled star.
Second, it is also clear that Artest's strangely distant, almost disengaged play this season has alienated enough people in the organization that somebody in the gym that day would unconscionably rat him out to the Yahoo reporter.
Here's guessing the locker room will not be a fun place until Artest finds that source and confronts him. Here's guessing the Lakers will not win a third consecutive championship unless Artest then finds and recaptures last year's Artest.
Before Tuesday's 108-83 victory over the Detroit Pistons, Artest was as lost in the locker room as he has been on the court, clearly upset that news of his standoff with Jackson was leaked.
"I've worked too hard to have something like this come out," Artest said, shaking his head. "My image is very important to me — whatever image I have left — and this hurts, this really hurts."
He added, "I've tried so hard not to be part of any controversy, not to be part of any conflict, for this to come out now, that's weird, and it's really hard."
He was so upset that, as reporters were leaving the interview, he asked them to enhance his emotions.
"Put tears around those quotes, OK?" he said.
Part of you has to feel for the guy, right? Artest's transformation last season from a malcontent to a model citizen was the most important journey taken by anybody on this team. It was fitting that he led them to a Game 7 victory in the NBA Finals when Kobe Bryant could not, and by the time he was publicly thanking his psychiatrist, he had become many fan's favorite Laker.
But then came a summer of fun, and an autumn of distractions, and an early season of listlessness, and by the time the Lakers took the floor for the Christmas game against the Miami Heat, it was clear that Artest just wasn't the same player.
He wasn't as quick. He wasn't as aggressive. The 31-year-old looked as if he had aged five years in five months. His struggles were epitomized in one moment that Christmas Day when he stole the ball from LeBron James, then kicked the ball down the court, then fell into the stands trying to catch up to it.
A couple of hours after the Lakers' embarrassing loss, Artest raffled off his championship ring for a mental health charity, which was a great idea beset by horrible timing, yet another awkward moment in a season full of them.
At times, it seems as if Artest has been satisfied with his one championship, content to spend this season living off those laurels. His statistics are down in most categories, and his impact is often not only negligible, but sometimes negative. Witness his recent battle with Memphis' Rudy Gay, who scored 27 points to Artest's zero.
Artest had earlier complained about one of Jackson's public floggings, so news of the ensuing practice showdown did not surprise.
"It was not a loud confrontation, it was a man-to-man confrontation," said Jackson on Tuesday. "It was obviously out of character … it wasn't about embarrassing him publicly, it was about some of the issues that had been brought up that focused about him."
Jackson admitted that this season it has been even tougher than normal to figure out his eccentric star, and that perhaps he has been harsher than usual in dealing with him.
"In Ron's defense, I've been trying to motivate him through a variety of activity, starting from the very beginning, talking about his activity level and his sometimes bizarre behavior,'' said Jackson. "He wants it to be in private. I just said, 'Don't act it out in public, then we can keep it private' for both to have that happen in practice."
Jackson said Artest apologized for the confrontation in front of the entire team, which is a good thing. There is indeed still hope that he can turn things around, and even tough-to-please General Mitch Kupchak, who called the Lakers' recent spate of losses "embarrassing," is backing him.
"I have no worries about Ron Artest," Kupchak said Tuesday. "I know at the end of the day, he's going to play well."
He can only hope the end of Ron Artest's best Lakers day hasn't already come and gone, a new dawn bringing a familiar darkness, out with the new, in with the old.