Lakers’ Artest wins citizenship award

Nearly seven years after Ron Artest was at the center of the most notorious brawl in NBA history, the Los Angeles Lakers forward has been named the league’s best citizen.

Not even Artest saw this twist coming in his thoroughly unique career.

Artest received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award on Tuesday, an honor presented annually by the Professional Basketball Writers Association. The award is named for the former NBA commissioner, honoring a player or coach for outstanding service and dedication to the community.

”There’s been ups and downs, a real roller-coaster ride, but this is one of the times you look back and say it was all worth it,” Artest said before the Lakers’ pivotal Game 5 in their first-round playoff series against New Orleans. ”Everything I’ve been through has made me who I am today.”

Artest won the award for a year of tireless work in promoting mental health awareness, a quest that first gained attention when he thanked his psychiatrist immediately after the Lakers won Game 7 of the NBA finals last June. Artest credited therapy for his ability to help the Lakers through a grueling playoff run, and he hoped to spread acceptance of mental health treatment.

Since then, Artest has testified before Congress to support the Mental Health in Schools Act, spearheaded multiple fundraising efforts and raised awareness with constant public comments seeking to normalize treatment. He even raffled off his Lakers championship ring for the cause, raising more than $650,000 for several charities on Christmas.

”We didn’t know it would help me get an award,” said Artest, who has worked with several advocacy groups and activists. ”We just thought it was important to do the work on mental health awareness.”

Nobody expected Artest’s life to go in such an altruistic direction back in November 2004, when Artest jumped into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit to attack a fan he thought had thrown a drink at him late in a victory for his Indiana Pacers. Artest punched another fan when he returned to the court during the ugly fracas also involving teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal.

Artest was suspended for the rest of the season, missing 73 regular-season games and 13 playoff contests while losing several million dollars in salary. Artest acknowledges the brawl forever branded him as a dangerous hothead, rather than a stellar defensive player whose career was just taking off at the time.

”I was kind of scarred mentally for the next couple of years,” Artest said.

Artest then went through a bitter public split from the Pacers after demanding a trade in early 2005, further sullying his reputation by apparently betraying the franchise that stuck with him through the suspension. Indiana shipped him to Sacramento, and he joined the Lakers as a free agent in 2009 after one season with Houston.

”With everything that’s happened, the brawl, the fight, the suspension, this is the other end of that, the result,” Artest said. ”I don’t think (winning an award) would have happened a couple of years ago, but it was always something I wanted under the covers.”

Artest realizes he hasn’t fully erased his reputation for reckless play and mercurial behavior. He’s still a hard-nosed defensive player who doesn’t mind mixing it up with opponents or delivering a hard foul, although he hasn’t been involved in any misbehavior even approaching the magnitude of the Palace brawl.

After winning his first championship last summer and making another playoff run this spring, Artest feels validated – and he hopes to give even more to the cause.

”I stuck with it and stuck with it, and didn’t give up on myself,” Artest said. ”A weight has been taken off my shoulders now.”

Artest said he’ll display the trophy at his new salad restaurant in Pasadena, saying healthy eating is an important part of mental health. He also hopes the honor changes a few more minds about his character.

”It’s like Ice Cube,” Artest said with a grin. ”From N.W.A. to ‘My Kids Are the Greatest’ type shows.”

Philadelphia’s Samuel Dalembert won the award last season for his charity work for his native Haiti. Other finalists for this year’s award were Portland’s Marcus Camby, Orlando’s Dwight Howard and Chicago’s Kyle Korver.