In late August, after a review by the Los Angeles Superior Court, Ron Artest will legally change his name to Metta World Peace. His basketball jersey will say "WORLD PEACE." "With a space and everything," his publicist said.
"Metta" signifies kindness and compassion in Buddhism. Before settling on that, Artest said, he considered "Queensbridge World Peace."
"‘World Peace' was in my head for a long time," he said. "And I had a bunch of different first names. I had One Love, Queensbridge, Defense. Mr. Defense. Mr. New York. Metta was a more global message."
Artest was sitting in a mirrored green room on Friday night at Carolines in Manhattan during the second show in his Ultimate Comedy Tour. On the tour, Artest warms up the room, introduces local comedians, and works the crowd between acts. It started in Los Angeles last week, and he said it will take him to the Virgin Islands, the United Kingdom, and "somewhere in Asia."
Onstage, Artest had a different take on his name change. "I musta been on crack," Artest told the crowd when he first came out, shaking his head. "Changed my name to Metta World Peace — what the fuck was I thinking, yo?" But backstage, Artest said that he'd considered doing it for a few years, ever since Chad Johnson became Chad Ochocinco.
Artest is Baptist, not Buddhist. And compassion (and nonviolence) didn't come to mind seven years ago, in Auburn Hills. Since then, Artest has won an NBA title, thanked his therapist, released a mixtape, worked on some charities, and, this past season, he collected the league's Citizenship Award. Now, he said, he's thinking about acting, which he anticipates he'll pick up in earnest after his pro basketball career. He's also thinking about "the youth."
"The mission is to stay positive," Artest said backstage, as he waited out another comedian's set. "The mission is to, you know, try to be a good influence on the youth and try to guide the youth. Sometimes we make jokes, but most of the time, the mission is really to make a change."
During the show, Artest wasn't so earnest — open and candid, and happy to implicate himself and his past in his routine. Most of his bit involved responding to handwritten questions submitted by the audience, which wanted to give him a hard time but which also knew very well who it was dealing with. The crowd asked him about Detroit. They brought up the Lakers' loss in the playoffs this year. And they made fun of his new name. The understanding about Artest, after all, is that provocation will be rewarded. ("If they throw tomatoes," he joked before the show, "I'll throw tomatoes right back").
But the only point at which Artest really raised his voice was when he was parodying his former image: "I'm from Queens, son! Son! What!" he yelled, when someone in the audience hollered at him as the evening wound down. "Come over here right now and we'll get it poppin'."
"World peace!" someone shouted.
Artest smiled and shook his head. "I apologize," he said, quietly.
As Artest explained it, the mission at the club was simple: He was going to have a good time, and he was going to make some money. He mentioned repeatedly that he'd been surprised by how good the pay was for the comedy shows. The NBA lockout was on, and Artest had money on his mind.
When an audience member asked if she could pitch him his own reality show, Artest paused for a long time and said, almost wincing, that he didn't know why he didn't yet have one, and promised that they could talk after the show.
"I don't know, man, fuck! Let's talk! Let's talk after the show," he promised. "But I wanna do like, I think I'm gonna own a porno show. I wanna educate. I wanna educate people on … I just wanna get deeper. So let's talk about that. OK?"
The crowd at Carolines seemed, very distinctly, to be rooting for him, willing to forgive a hasty and shapeless routine. When he wasn't responding to questions from the audience during his time onstage, Artest told absurd stories with no transition and no warning. He mentioned accidentally peeing on his son ("Yeah, I R. Kelly'd him") and craving his mother's breast milk at age 6 ("Is anybody pregnant?" he said later in the show. "I'm fuckin' thirsty!"). He brought onstage a woman who'd had asked why it was that lesbians always hit on her. He said, growling: "I can see why. I can see why."
On three separate occasions, he asked if there were any out-of-towners in the room. There were, and everyone knew it by the third time, but they still laughed — Artest was willing to laugh along with them.
He referred to his infamous repose on the Palace's scorer's table as "reverse-planking" and admitted that Celine Dion was his celebrity crush (more accurately: "If I wasn't married… I'd fuckin' get it!"). He's distanced himself enough from that 2004 season that he's willing to laugh about it now — even if, as he told the crowd, he'd still fight Ben Wallace "for free" because "I hate his guts."
It takes a new Ron Artest — or World Peace — to joke about it. "I couldn't have talked about [the brawl] like I do now," Artest said back in the green room. "I was pissed off about it. First, I lost a lot of money, and it wasn't my fault, totally. I took all the blame. That's a lot, you know? When that's your whole job, and you're playing for your job, playing for your future, and boom, they take your money from you. And now they got the lockout and they take more money. You don't prepare to lose damn near 14 million dollars, you know what I'm saying?"
Back out in front of the crowd, Artest wrapped up the show with a few final questions, including one submitted by a Tammy from Brooklyn: "Have you ever paid for sex, and if so, how much?" Ron read aloud. He paused, and called out for Tammy. He found her in the first few rows and said, bewildered, "How old are you? 18? Have you ever thought about paying for sex? Huh? While you doing your social studies class, are you thinking about paying for sex?" Tammy shook her head and laughed.
"Well, we're watching you," Ron said, mock stern. "You're the future! You are the future, OK? So don't ever pay for sex. OK? Pinky promise?"
He reached out and hooked his pinky to hers. Everyone laughed.