Ron Artest, the Lakers forward who may one day be known as Metta World Peace,… (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)
Amid these increasingly difficult times of conflict and strife, I set out Friday night in search of world peace.
On a stage at the Hollywood Improv, I found him.
"I changed my name because I got tired of Ron Artest, he's a [expletive]," said Metta World Peace. "And when fans get mad at me, they can't say, 'I hate World Peace.' "
Wanting to give World Peace a chance, I met the Lakers forward in his first public appearance since he petitioned to legally change his name earlier this summer. We shook hands and I called him Ron. I didn't use his new first name because, frankly, I had no idea which part was his first name.
"World Peace is going on the back of my jersey, so Metta is my first name," he said. "It's Buddhist, but I'm Baptist."
Metta is a state of loving-kindness, but the dude has yet to make it official with the state of California, so until his mid-August hearing, he's still Ron Artest. This is good, because the situation in which I found him Friday night was pure Ron Artest.
He was hosting a four-city comedy tour even though he had never been on a comedy club stage in his life.
"I know two jokes, then I guess I'm going to wing it," he said.
He was stepping under the lights at one of the country's most legendary comedy clubs despite practice sessions that consisted entirely of listening to comedy acts on his Hyundai's satellite radio
"I always embarrass myself, anyway, so what's the big deal?" he said. "So I'll be booed. Awesome. How many people have a chance to get booed. I want to get booed."
After Artest's first two seasons with the Lakers, I find it easy to get frustrated with him, but darn near impossible to boo him. I never wanted him to come here, but now I'm glad he did, if only because no Laker is more consistently fun. He can be infuriatingly distracted, but he's genuinely unique, and always entertaining, and, after he wandered into the starring role in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics two seasons ago, his credit in this town will always be good.
So, yeah, he is hosting Ron Artest's Ultimate Comedy Tour because he can, and not even Friday's opening introductions from Improv founder Budd Friedman could give him second thoughts.
"He is the least respected member of L.A.'s losing basketball team. … He is one of the worst rappers ever," intoned Friedman.
Artest not only expected the rip, he helped write it, saying earlier, "People want to laugh at me, this works, let's pile it on, make it fun."
What other professional athlete not only understands this sort of dynamic, but embraces it? While Artest is actually only onstage for a few minutes each set while introducing the three comedians in his tour, he begins the show by taking uncensored audience questions that end in self-deprecating answers.
Question: Can you teach a white dude to dunk?
Artest: "I can't dunk anymore; I missed a layup in the playoffs."
The rest of his routine was mostly X-rated, sometimes disjointed, occasionally hilarious, and improved as he became more comfortable. True to his word, he never told more than two jokes, but the crowd hooted and hollered as if he were Seinfeld, and that was more than enough for a guy whose basketball season ended in silence.
Artest said he was so upset by the four-game sweep by the Dallas Mavericks, he began practicing immediately.
"I worked out at the practice facility at 4 a.m. after we landed from Dallas," he said in the pre-show interview. "Shot for an hour."
Artest also said he is going overseas to play during the lockout, but not where you might think. Instead of playing for one of the prestigious teams in southern Europe, he plans to play for either the Cheshire Jets or Glasgow Rocks of the British Basketball League.
Um, dude, there's a British Basketball League?
"The teams aren't good, but I'm going there to finish a movie, so why not?" he said.
This is, of course, the Lakers' biggest problem with Artest. Some in the organization think that he lost focus after winning his championship ring, some think he became swallowed up in Hollywood's chaos even as he was winning awards for his citizenship, and I hit him with that question again.
"Too distracted? C'mon, man, I was prepared to be an All-Star, it just didn't work out, but I was there, especially in the playoffs," he said. "People who ask that question should have seen me at the gym at 4 a.m."
One thing that did not miss his attention was the hiring of new Coach Mike Brown over the favored assistant Brian Shaw. Leave it to Artest to give the most honest of Lakers answers.
"I feel like, as a unit, we didn't do what it takes to keep Brian Shaw, and that's real disappointing," he said. "You can't forget where you're from. You can't forget what you've been through. You can't forget who helped you win a ring, who was there for you when you were frustrated or stressed out, and I've got to give credit to Brian Shaw for all of that."
However, he added, "This doesn't mean I won't love Mike Brown. But for the next couple of months, I'm going to be disappointed about Brian Shaw."
Brown helped Artest become a defensive force with the Indiana Pacers, so maybe the new coach can give him a charge? Not that he needed one Friday night, when the toughest Laker let everyone laugh at him, and ended up laughing loudest, no joke.