Peace on Earth

How Metta World Peace's mental health advocacy helped one Lakers fan come to terms with his own condition.
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Before he became a victim of the NBA’s amnesty provision in July, Metta World Peace and the Los Angeles Lakers became forever intertwined. During Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, World Peace—then known by his given name, Ron Artest—played some of the best basketball of his career: twenty points, five steals, lockdown defense, and a dagger three-pointer to leave the Boston Celtics beyond hope or prayer. Few had bothered to think about the idea of “Ron Artest, World Champion” before—seemingly unhinged personalities were rarely considered stable enough to be part of a winning team. Artest’s quick jumps to aggression and penchant for throwing elbows or running into the stands meant that he would be known as a thug at even the best moments of his career. He wasn’t supposed to achieve moments of glory. So, in the immediate aftermath of that greatest moment, with Doris Burke putting a microphone in his face and asking him how it felt to be a Champion of the World, the man Phil Jackson anointed the “MVP of Game 7” knew he needed to thank his psychiatrist on national television.

It’s easy for kids to see athletes as inhuman: sometimes they are too big, like gods fit for worship; at other times they’re too small, commodities to be bought and sold in fantasy leagues. If you have Asperger’s syndrome, like I do, then that’s just the natural way you see most people, and the hype around a public figure can actually be very helpful. As a child, I would frequently have trouble understanding people's facial expressions and vocal tones. An onslaught of therapy helped some—reading the Los Angeles Times helped some more.

The paper and its columnists told me which people were good and which were bad. Seeing it written down made more sense then hearing the words, and the Opinion, Arts, and Sports sections were always judging people and the things they did. As an Angeleno, I had the likes of the legendary Jim Murray and the not-so-legendary Bill Plackshe to tell me what to make of the people who shot, ran, and hit. They trained me to think of Shaq as a cartoon-sized giant and Kobe as the ultimate in aspirational cool. I learned pretty early on that Ron Artest was a somewhat evil—maybe crazy—motherfucker.

I knew vaguely of his acting bizarrely in his earliest Chicago days, like the time he applied for a job at Circuit City to get a discount on a stereo. When he walked into the stands during the Malice at the Palace brawl in 2004, it was my first time ever noticing the lines between observer and the observed and the divisions between black athletes and white fans. I didn't have all the language yet to understand those ideas, so they made me feel scared and angry. I hated him when he went to the Sacramento Kings in the 2005-06 season, because all good Laker fans hate when the Kings win, and he helped them do that.

My first strongly developed memory of World Peace came from his time with the Houston Rockets during the Western Conference Semifinals in 2009. It was an all-time classic series, in my mind worthy of standing with the Lakers-Blazers and Knicks-Pacers series of yore. Artest, the feared enforcer, always seemed to find himself in the center of the storm.

Except he wasn’t an expert in the art of purposeful agitation, like Gary Payton or Scottie Pippen. Artest didn’t have planned explosions—they were just spontaneous enough to actually feel dangerous. In Game 2, after a foul committed by Kobe was ignored, Artestcharged towards Bryant exchanging harsh words. After the game, he nonchalantly described why he didn’t think anything he had done was that bad: “I remember back home when I used to play in the neighborhood [Queensbridge, New York], there were always games like that. I remember one time one of my friends was playing basketball, they was so competitive that they broke a piece of leg from a table and they threw it and it went through his heart and he died. Right on the court.”

How are you supposed to react to that? Disbelief was the most common reaction—there was a surprising amount suspicion that someonewho grew up in poverty could be exposed to horrifying violence. It's pretty clear watching the video, though, that he's telling the truth. There's a calm intensity there, with the vocal cadence not of a braggart but of guy who just wants to get something off his chest.

The video soon factored into my own developing sense of self a few weeks later, when I discovered that I had Asperger's. I'd always suspected something more serious then the ADHD that I had been told about, but snooping through my childhood medical forms in my parents’ shelves confirmed it. Learning that you've lived with a different disease than the one you've thought you've been living with is a surreal, painful experience. It's hard to judge your own experiences when the lens changes without warning. I withdrew further into my own head and found myself overwhelmed again, like when I was a kid and needed the L.A. Times.

I found myself watching Artest's interview again and again, drawn to his bluntness. When my self-perceptions were crashing around me it helped to look at someone who wasn't bullshitting. I've never known anything close to the violence World Peace described, but what got to me was not just what he was saying, but how he was saying it: the quick mixture of combativeness and shyness, the direct, passionless approach to a very shocking story. He was a real human being, not a newspaper god or a series of numbers on a fantasy roster.

Maybe I was just trying to find solidarity with anyone, but I felt very deeply that our reactions to people had similarities. I had gone through spats of physical violence and intimidation myself without fully realizing what had happened. It didn't make sense for me to identify with World Peace on a lot of levels—we came from vastly different backgrounds and cultures and had lived lives that contrasted in a thousand different ways. There was nothing solid, but a gut feeling told me that we had more similarities than I had previously thought.

When he joined the Lakers the next season, it became startlingly clear what we shared. The team had opted for the high-risk, high-reward veteran over the young and soon-to-be-overpaid Trevor Ariza. The triangle offense was a great fit, and being on a team with Kobe let him find comfort in being a supporting player. More importantly, World Peace found that the work he had been putting in on his mental health was finally starting to pay off. He had been arrested in Sacramento on misdemeanor domestic violence charges in 2007, and the court had mandated marriage counseling. His court-mandated psychology sessions weren’t finished when he was traded to Houston, so he found a new doctor there, Dr. Santhi Periasamy, whom he liked so much that he continued seeing her both after the court order was up and after he left Houston. She also occasionally traveled with him during road trips.

In retrospect, his commitment was surprising. World Peace had been familiar with psychologists’ offices his whole life, beginning with his childhood in Queensbridge. But like a lot of people he never stuck with it, failing to give therapy the same credence he would a physical workout. Clearly, he had reached a point in his life at which he could face his problems more directly. Based off World Peace’s descriptions of his sessions with Dr. Periasamy, it’s a fair assumption that they have worked on handling pressure, on anger management, and on how self-improvement doesn’t mean self-perfection.

Yet talking about that process in public is a very different step, and it’s here that his post-Finals comments represent something important. The best thing about World Peace’s message of thanks is that it’s so short, a little over half a sentence. It’s part of the giant rush of joy that came when World Peace reached a goal he’d dreamed of his entire life. It’s easy to tell his hesitation at first—he initially refers to Dr. Periasamy as his “doctor” and then decides to go for it by calling her “my psychiatrist,” thanking her for helping him relax. It’s a minor statement, but that’s part of what makes it so major. Their relationship can be spoken of as just another part of his life.

Being an advocate for mental health can be tricky—those who are most severely stricken can rarely argue for themselves for extended amounts of time, and those with less severe conditions often find it easier not to mention them. I’d never tell a potential employer or landlord, for example, that I have Asperger’s or am on the autism spectrum. Only one-fourth of people with mental health symptoms believe that people without symptoms are truly sympathetic to their problems.  Maybe that's because if we're being honest about who we are, it's harder for us to get jobs. There’s not just shame surrounding the personal effects of mental health, but worries that there is little space in public life to discuss these issues sensibly.

World Peace has never referenced his specific syndromes, but those with mental health issues know he doesn’t have to. Simply by mentioning that he, the toughest son of a bitch out of Queensbridge, wasn’t just required by a court to see a therapist but actually loved doing it, I felt stronger. I saw a psychiatrist for ten years as a kid and have seen people’s reactions when I tell them so. After nearly every setback in life, I’ve wondered if my mental health was somehow the reason behind it, and that maybe it’d be easier to accept my sad lot in life and lower my expectations to avoid disappointment.

Articles about autism-geniuses notwithstanding, people on the spectrum are fifty percent more likely to be unemployed than their non-spectrum equals. I also saw the snickering pieces that came out after World Peace thanked his doctor for helping save his life, the ones that gave each line of his interview a “sanity rating.” For a minute, none of that mattered. People could say whatever they wanted, but World Peace was a champion. Seeing a psychiatrist didn't stop him from getting a ring.

Ironically, his therapy also inspired him to get rid of that very expensive souvenir. Using the message of thanks as a springboard, World Peace raffled off his sole championship ring to raise over half a million dollars for mental health advocacy across the country, focusing on young people who have likely never gotten the chance to see a psychiatrist.

He’s gone on TV and participated in roundtables at conferences, but he’s also talked to middle schoolers in East LAabout growing up in chaos. He sat for an hour-long interview with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, talking about how going to therapy makes him feel strong. "That doesn't mean you're crazy, it just means you have some issues in your life," he said. Breaking down these stereotypes and taboos is the first step toward getting others to realize when they need help.

World Peace has come home, signing with and now playing for the Knicks. He's not back in New York completely transformed—his hard elbow on James Harden in 2011 shows how easy it can be for World Peace's emotions to control his actions. As a Lakers fan, I know I’ll miss him. But the silver lining in Metta World Peace’s leaving Los Angeles is that he has a chance to make an impact somewhere else. He can convince more confused and angry kids that talking is the best thing they can do, that they don’t have to give up the parts of their personality they do like in order to make substantive improvements in their lives (World Peace’s Twitter feed is proof of that), and that they’re not crazy.

He's a big enough name to get recognized anywhere in the country, but all of his local charity work in Los Angeles could signal towards that same sort of personal attention in New York. Old St. John's coaches now think he's got the “maturity” to thrive under the withering New York media. The five boroughs are as different from Los Angeles as can be, and the Knicks are currently in some serious-seeming disarray, but kids are kids everywhere. There are young New Yorkers who need now what I needed years ago: an NBA champion who isn't afraid to admit that shit can be fucked in your heads sometimes, and that's okay.

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I remember one time one of my friends was playing basketball, they was so competitive that they broke a piece of leg from a table and they threw it and it went through his heart and he died. Right on the court.”
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