(This story originally appeared on www.nba.com)
Ron Artest is promoting mental-health awareness.
There is no punch line.
No big finish, no rim shot, no laugh track. Just the starting small forward of the two-time defending champions visiting a middle school Thursday in the Los Angeles suburb of Montebello to call for passage of federal legislation and encourage students to reach out to a health-care worker if they need.
Artest is telling others to get help. Yeah, he knows. He knows he’s asking for it. He knows every Internet comedian will jump on this with some crack, mostly behind the anonymity of a screen-name handle, of course. But he doesn’t care because shining a light on an urgent topic is more important to him.
Here’s how more important:
Artest finally won a title in June after 11 regular seasons of trying … and now he’s planning to sell the championship ring as a fundraiser to put more psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists in schools.
“I’m never going to put it on,” he said.
Artest plans to soon announce details of what he hopes will become a worldwide auction, and he takes possession of the jewelry in an Oct. 26 pre-game ceremony before the Lakers open against the Rockets. It’s an incredible gesture. But it’s even more meaningful as a statement.
“You work so hard to get a ring, and now you have a chance to help more people than just yourself, instead of just satisfying yourself,” he said. “What’s better than that? For me, this is very important.”
Artest will save lives. Maybe not directly from funds generated by the ring auction and maybe not specifically because of the appearance Thursday with Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, the co-chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus and author of the Mental Health in Schools Act the pair hopes will become federal legislation. But a public figure of Artest’s stature stepping forward and addressing his success with counseling will undoubtedly encourage others, of any age group, to seek help to avert a crisis.
Mental health is the most under-covered issue in college sports, and now Artest will be raising awareness for parents and students at an earlier age. (A prominent sports psychologist once estimated 20 to 25 athletes in Division I attempt suicide each year, an assessment others in the field have backed. Again: Just athletes, just Division I, each year.) Experts who have studied the crisis have long said any attention on the topic will remove the stigma associated with emotional issues. To have a prominent person at the forefront, that would be too perfect.
At the podium in the interview room after the Lakers won the title, Artest thanked his psychologist, a shocking detour even by the considerable Ron-Ron standards. He plans to sell his championship ring as a fundraiser. He is going to schools. He is lending his support to promote work on the Hill.
Hello, prominent person.
“I’m older now, so I think it’s about that time that I stop complaining about what people think about me, because it’s more important than me, you know?” Artest said. “That whole thing (after the championship), I was thinking about it, in my brain I’m like, ‘Am I really about to say this? On national TV?’ But then the other part of me was like, ‘It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than you. It’s more about people that really need to hear this.’
“For five years, I’ve been wanting to do this psychology-type of assistance, but I never had an outlet where I could make a big impact, as far as where the most people could see it. It was always like maybe 10 or 20 people seeing what we were doing. The idea came from when I was in Sacramento. I had marriage counseling. I also had anger management. It just made me think that counseling is not something generic. …
“You can’t just say, ‘This guy needs help’ and make it general or lose hope in that individual or just give them medicine and say, ‘That will help the problem.’ It takes a while to reach the problem. I’ve been through this first-hand. A lot of people made jokes about it on the Internet. It was kind of funny, though. A lot of people made jokes. ‘Wow, Ron Artest is speaking on a mental-health act.’ I’m like, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. At first, I was a little bit nervous when I first heard it. I was like, ‘OK, here comes some backlash’ and I was going to go hide and say I don’t want to do it. But I’m like, ‘Of course Ron Artest is doing it.’ I’ve been through it first-hand. Who else better than Ron Artest to actually talk about his experiences and how therapy has helped him?”
Hundreds of conversations with Artest, and he’s never sounded better. As with anything Artest, there is the requirement to leave open the possibility the moment will pass and things will turn not of this planet again, but something feels different about this time. There is a focus and a guy talking about being able to do a lot of good. There is a ring about to go on the auction block. Just no punch line.
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