All eyes were on him again. Two consecutive late-game, near-miss losses had left a young St. John’s basketball team on the brink of unraveling. It was looking for someone to take responsibility, someone to make sure that tonight’s opponent—an under manned St. Francis squad—knew it was playing a top-25 team and not an insecure Big East phantom. And so when Ron Artest confidently called out the Red Storm’s first play, before lacing a pass through the defense to teammate Bootsy Thornton for an uncontested layup, it became clear for all to see—team mates, fans, media—that the 19-year-old sophomore would shoulder that burden.
Artest, as he had done several times al ready in his young college career, had let it be known that he will bow to nothing in leading the Red Storm in word and deed.
There is plenty to bow to. Especially for a local high school star like Artest. There’s the old neighborhood. There’s the newspapers and talk radio. And there’s the city’s long hoops lineage. There’s also the pressure of expectations. And for Artest the expectations are nothing less than that he will be the next messiah at St. John’s.
Most would wilt under that kind of scrutiny and play well below their capabilities—turning from “can’t miss” to “no way.” Others would take to the road and flee the harsh local spotlight—heading to some school in, say, the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the program outweighs any one player.
But for a select few, a lifetime in New York makes the skin thick enough to suffer the critics and their tongues sharp enough to fire back. It has made Ron Artest a leader. Un questionably the star entering this season, Ar test has accepted the responsibility of that role, not just on the stat sheet but by vocally leading the team—cajoling when upset, encouraging when successful. “Ronnie is a natural-born leader,” says Artest’s high school coach, Bill Aberer of Manhattan’s LaSalle Academy. “He’s an emotional kid who wants to win, period. He doesn’t want anybody to give less than 100 percent.”
The former McDonald’s All-American made that clear this season after a 70-69 loss to Purdue, when he reportedly ripped into his team for not practicing hard and joking around. The loss, which came after the Red Storm held a 16-point half-time lead, followed on the heels of another heartbreaker, a 55-53 defeat to then–No. 3 Stanford, a game that saw St. John’s blow another sizable advantage, this one a 10-point lead.
Although some teammates bristled at Ar test’s comments (and asked not to be quoted), the club won its next three games by a combined 74 points, doing so by blowing open close games in the second half.
“It’s important to criticize the team when it needs criticism,” says Artest. “But it’s just as important to lead the team and pick them up.” Against St. Francis last week, Artest chipped in with 17 points, four rebounds, four assists, and a block. But his biggest contribution may have come in practice.
After forward Reggie Jessie made clear he was unhappy about sitting out during the Purdue game, Jessie torched St. Francis with 16 points off the bench on seven-of-nine shooting, a performance the sophomore credited in part to Artest. “Ronnie told me college is no different from high school,” said Jessie. “Just go out and play your game.”
Almost from the moment the heavily recruited Artest arrived on the Jamaica, Queens campus, his influence has marked the team. Early in his freshman season, Artest made a point of defer ring to seniors Felipe Lopez and Zendon Hamilton. With little more than a semester under his belt, though, Artest—frustrated with the string of perplexing losses to teams like Niagara that marked much of the Lopez years—began to speak his mind, blaming himself and his teammates for a lack of focus.
“He’s his worst critic at times,” says Aberer. “He’s the first to point out he did a bad job. But he’s also the first to compliment his teammates.” The infusion of leadership, tellingly endorsed by Lopez and Hamilton, helped get St. John’s into the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in five years. Along the way, the 18-year-old from Queensbridge became the only Johnie to be named to the Big East’s all-tournament team.
“[When I criticize someone] I hope to be building their confidence, showing them what they are doing wrong,” says Artest. “And I expect to be treated the same way.” Bold words from a player who isn’t even the captain of his team. But then Artest has rarely edited himself.
“We played Christ the King against Erick Barkley [in the 1997 city semifinals], and we weren’t getting him the ball,” recalls Aberer. “He said, ‘Coach, get me the ball. I’ll do it.’ He went out and scored 10 of our first 12 points in the second half and we won.” Later, in the city championship, heavily favored LaSalle was down 11-2 early in the game when Artest—who had guaranteed victory—pleaded with his teammates to relax during a timeout. The entreaty worked as Aberer’s team emerged from the break on a tear and won going away to finish the season 27-0. Along the way, with several similar performances, Artest earned his nickname: “True Warrior.”
“It’s hard to encourage vocal leadership,” says Aberer. “If you see it you want to nurture it. Most kids today don’t want the focus to shine on them. They want to blend in. But if you’re going to be a leader, you sometimes have to offend people. Ronnie has no fear of doing that.”
But Jarvis does. While appreciative of Artest’s desire to win, the Red Storm’s new coach has tried to establish an equality of leadership, a structure in which everyone can lead, no matter their ability. “I think it’s important for teams to have leaders, whether they be vocal or otherwise,” Jarvis says. “Ronnie happens to be vocal, and as long as it’s done in a positive way, I think it’s great.
“When it’s time to hop on the team, I’ll do that. That’s my job. I don’t need players nor do I ask players to do that. The coach can be the bad guy.”
So far, Jarvis has been anything but a bad guy. After Fran Fraschilla’s two years of in-your-face stewardship, Jarvis’s fatherlike direction has suited a team with only one senior well, not only allowing freshman point-guard sensation Barkley the comfort level to make mistakes and not lose his starting job, but giving Tyrone Grant the confidence and playing time to become the team’s leading re bounder. Still, the team seems to realize that the words or actions of a peer can break the monotony of listening to one man and one man only.
“It’s good,” junior center Albert Richard son says of Artest’s assertiveness. “For one thing, you’re not just getting help from just the coach. You’re learning from each individual, so it’s always great for other players on the team to be leaders, no matter who it is.”
Artest maintains his goal in verbally prodding the Red Storm is to help the coaching staff. “Coaches can’t keep talking,” says the 19-year-old forward. “They’ll run out of breath eventually, so you just want to be like a second coach and, hopefully, get everybody on the team to do the same.”
While that’s far from a unanimous view in the St. John’s locker room—it’s a philosophy that has made the Red Storm a Top 25 team and made Artest an NBA prospect—all in the cauldron of New York City.
Some players wilt, others run. Ron Artest hasn’t gone anywhere, and yet he may take St. John’s farther than anyone expected.