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Metta World Peace returns to throwback days

By Ailene Voisin, McClatchy Newspapers –

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In the amount of time it takes to say Metta World Peace, the former Ron Artest derailed his rehabilitated career, infuriated his teammates and could have been benched for the duration of the 2011-12 season.

The Thunder’s James Harden is suffering from a concussion. The Lakers are seriously diminished. The NBA is revisiting a nasty issue at the very worst of times — months after the lockout ended — and forced to discipline one of its own entering the playoffs.

But it could have been much worse than seven games.

The bosses at NBA headquarters in Manhattan were extremely kind and benevolent. They gave Artest props for his improved behavior, along with his impassioned and public campaign for mental health awareness. They thought long and hard about this one, debating for an inordinate amount of time before revealing the extent of the punishment late Tuesday afternoon.

And Artest? The former Kings forward who rescued the 2005-06 season and orchestrated Sacramento’s last postseason appearance? Why swing that elbow? Why jeopardize almost three years of progress? What could he possibly have been thinking?

Of course he wasn’t thinking; he was reacting to his dunk and the crowd and the moment. This was Artest in full throwback mode, pounding his chest with his right fist, then in the same motion sending his powerful left elbow into Harden’s skull.

It was inexcusable, it was familiar, and it could have provoked a brawl similar to the 2004 Pacers-Pistons incident that decimated an Indiana franchise, damaged the league’s image and famously introduced Artest – as provocateur – to millions of television viewers.

Now he’s also a YouTube sensation.

“It was worse on the replay,” said Rabbi Reuven Taff, the director of Sacramento’s Mosaic Law Congregation, who contacted The Bee to relate his thoughts. “We were seated in the fifth row at the Staples Center, and all we saw was Artest (swing his elbow). Then you knew Harden was hit really hard, because he went down and he stayed down. But the Lakers never showed a repeat on the JumboTron, probably because they didn’t want to incite the crowd. I flew home Sunday night and saw the replays on ESPN … and it was worse. It was really scary.”

It also was among several troubling incidents in professional sports of late: allegations of headhunting by members of the New Orleans Saints; the violent collision at home plate that destroyed Buster Posey’s 2011 season with the Giants and ignited a conversation about rule changes; and, most recently, the sight of Shea Weber slamming Henrik Zetterberg’s head against the glass during the Nashville-Detroit NHL playoff game, then receiving only a fine instead of a deserved suspension.

At some point, and hopefully before someone suffers a devastating injury, the athletes and their leagues will begin to seriously address the machismo culture in their respective professions. A degree of danger and physical contact is inherent to sports. Bodies collide; players get hurt. That’s a given. But why risk and encourage unnecessary non-incidental contact?

The cost to athletes and their organizations is enormous, at times debilitating. And good luck finding a retired athlete who doesn’t suffer from hip, knee or foot ailments. Further, recent studies continue to substantiate what common sense has long suggested – that concussions are particularly problematic. ESPN’s profile on former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon and his mental impairment from repeated blows to the head should be required viewing for anyone affiliated with sports.

Which brings us back to Ron Artest. Is this a fatal hit to his career or merely a lapse in judgment that can be overcome?

We will say it again and again. He tries. He tries hard. Even teammates and executives who have been burned by his behavior – and Pacers president Larry Bird said he felt “betrayed” by Artest’s behavior with Indiana – maintain a soft spot for the veteran.

Everyone wants Artest to succeed. Everyone hopes Artest, 32, learns to control his impulses. Many folks (Kings execs included) privately applauded when he won a title with the Lakers and appeared closer to finding his emotional peace.

“I feel badly for Ron,” added Rabbi Taff, a transplanted New Yorker and longtime Kings fan. “But you know why I like him? I believe in redemption. I believe everyone has the ability to change for the better and make amends.”

The rabbi certainly knows more about souls than most of us. Another Artest comeback would be wonderful for his family, for his league, for his teammates, and he will have seven games to ponder his response.

But the punishment could have been far more severe. Seven games. He caught a break this time, and probably deservedly so.

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