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Queens Chronicle

Ron Artest back on his home court in Queens

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Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2010 12:00 am

Ron Artest grew up in Queensbridge and has a record for stealing. During his first two seasons with the NBA he took the ball 271 times, breaking a record previously held by Michael Jordan.

Even if you aren’t a basketball fan, you’ve probably heard of the Los Angeles Lakers star.

If he isn’t winning games, and now, championships, he’s making headlines with his occasionally eccentric behavior.

Long before winning the NBA Finals this June, Artest received notoriety when he jumped into the stands during a Pacers-Pistons game in Detroit, starting one of the most infamous sports brawls in recent history.

Much soda was thrown and spilled during the 2004 incident, and Artest received the longest suspension of any player for a non-drug related incident in NBA history.

Needless to say, Artest keeps it real. He called the brawl a “culture issue,” and said it happened after someone disrespected him. “… I represent my culture,” he reportedly told the Sacramento Bee, calling himself “ghetto.” “People that know me know that Ron Artest never changed,” he told the California publication.

Artest represents the nation’s largest housing project, and in many senses, his success belongs as much to his community as it is does to him.

After winning the finals, Artest made sure to give a shout out to Queensbridge but also to his psychologist, who is, in fact, helping Artest change. Upon returning to his birthplace, Artest delivered this message: “If I can ask for help, you can.”

Addressing a crowd of Queensbridge residents gathered to greet him in front of the Jacob Riis Settlement House on Friday, Artest talked about the struggles he faced growing up there.

Years ago, Artest was playing basketball on 12th Street in Long Island City when “All of the sudden people started shooting out of nowhere. It was crazy,” he said.

In interviews, Artest said a friend of his from Queens died in 1991 after being struck through the heart with a table leg during a tournament at the Niagara Falls Boys and Girls Club. During his most recent return to Queensbridge, Artest said he doesn’t think violence in the area has abated, but “Little do you know, there’s a lot of support in this neighborhood,” he said.

Artest stood flanked by friends, family members and neighbors who grew up in the same area and have followed his career religiously. The positive impact he has had on his community was apparent, if only by the virtue of his exemplary success.

As he stood beneath a sign that said “Hood to Hollywood,” Artest offered this advice to each member of the audience: “You are the most important person in your life.” He encouraged young people who may be straying from their goals to remain on track.

Artest said that during the playoffs, he was so “straight focused” that he didn’t even accept phone calls from his father and checked into a hotel while working on his game. Still, Artest was not always on top. He has struggled throughout the years, switching from team to team, and when he was playing for the Houston Rockets, he said, he wasn’t always starting. “People counted me out” he said, “If it was easy, you’d see the whole world would be successful.”

Artest, whose first goal was to be a junior high school math teacher, attended the LaSalle Academy and went on to play basketball at St. John’s University. He has since tried to provide students in need with educational opportunities through his nonprofit, Xcel University.

Bishop Mitchell Taylor, President and CEO of the East River Development Alliance, said he was inspired to organize Artest’s visit when he saw the Lakers win the championship. “I was thinking man, we should do a ticker tape parade,” he said.

Taylor wants to encourage successful people who grew up in housing projects to return to give talks to inspire the community. “Everything that we do is tailored to break cycles of poverty in public housing communities,” he said regarding this mission of his organization.

Contrary to popular belief, Taylor said the cycle is most often broken through education, not careers in sports or entertainment. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor grew up in public housing projects in the Bronx, Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-Queens and Nassau) grew up in the Pomonok Houses in Flushing and City schools Chancellor Joel Klein grew up in the Woodside Houses.

Like Artest, Taylor had the opportunity to leave the housing projects. He has been offered several jobs in the suburbs, but said it is his calling to stay and help his community. Though Artest has moved away, “Ron understands that his celebrity status does a lot for the community that he came from, not just to have waves and drive bys,” Taylor said, “but to use that status to attract funding and awareness and connect with great organizations in any way he could.”

“He’s at the place now both economically and socially where he can do things for the kids in New York,” and from the looks of it, Artest is giving back to his community.

“I’m proud of him, he inspires a lot of people to move on,” said Lacona Davis, a 23-year-old lifelong resident of the Queensbridge Houses who carried her goddaughter to watch Artest speak, “if he could make it, everyone else could make it too.”

Welcome to the discussion.