LOS ANGELES When Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace last summer, it was in some ways a metaphor for a more profound transformation the one from pariah to the NBA's citizen of the year. Many steps of the jagged journey, through his own therapy, his advocacy for mental health issues and his fight to participate in a game within the mores of society, let alone the league, were taken in a starkly real way.
There was often whimsy and surely a few signs of churlishness, but even as his influence as a player declined, there was poignancy in the metamorphosis of World Peace and, for him, an immense amount of pride.
But through each incarnation, as World Peace moved farther and farther from the dark places that tormented him, he also knew that going into those recesses had served to mold him into the player he had become.
And so, as he sat at his stall in a near empty locker room, dressing before Sunday's 114-106, double-overtime victory against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, World Peace had to know that what was building inside him was combustible.
He had been playing his best basketball in the three years since he joined the Lakers, scoring, defending and playing within the team construct, and yet it seemed to be fueled by rage.
"I'm foaming at the mouth," he said as he changed into his uniform. "I've got a controlled passion and determination. It's controlled, but the fire is lit. It's boiling as hot as the sun. I'm just furious that people have forgotten how I play, that people are disrespecting. I want to get to the level where I'm supposed to be right now. ... I have a lot more years to do this and I'm just furious that people forgot. People think I really can't do it no more."
At the moment, it was hard to tell whether World Peace was just playing a ruminating poet, Metta being Metta, as it were. But not long after, when he leveled Oklahoma City's James Harden with a vicious elbow to the head, it was easy to wonder just how controlled the fire inside World Peace was.
The Lakers rallied from an 18-point deficit for the stirring double-OT victory over the Thunder, but much of days ahead will be spent focusing on World Peace.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, as he exited the locker room afterward, said he had not seen a replay of the incident, which earned World Peace an automatic ejection, but the GM expected to hear from the league by Monday afternoon.
If New Orleans' Jason Smith was suspended two games for leveling the Clippers' Blake Griffin last month, then the Lakers, who have one regular-season game remaining, may be without World Peace for some time in the playoffs.
Many variables could be in play the severity of Harden's injury (he did not return and was reported to have suffered a concussion by The Oklahoman). The interest the NBA has in setting a strong deterrent as the playoffs begin. And, of course, there is Artest's history of setting off the free-for-all known as the Malice at the Palace.
Afterward, the Lakers seemed to be taking steps to mitigate the damage. For such an extraordinary incident, an extraordinary number of players, coaches and management professed not to have seen the play even though Pau Gasol said it played at halftime on the large television in the Lakers locker room.
Kobe Bryant, asked if the violent play would wipe away the good that World Peace had done, scoffed.
"What, one play in the heat of a battle all of a sudden changes his perception as a man, as a person?" Bryant said. "All you guys know what a sweet guy he is."
World Peace, after conferring with a team spokesman, entered the locker room from the players' lounge and addressed reporters for 40 seconds without taking questions. He said the elbow was accidental and apologized to Harden, the Thunder and for losing control of his emotions.
"Such a great game, it's unfortunate that so much emotion was going on at that time," World Peace said. "That's it for today."
World Peace then left the arena, followed by a team official, presumably to keep reporters from talking with him. On the quote sheets distributed to reporters, none had answers to questions about World Peace.
The incident appeared to be unprovoked, though play was stopped earlier in the game for World Peace to use a towel to wipe blood from his mouth. Nevertheless, it came amid some excellent play by World Peace who had just dunked over Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka to draw the Lakers within 48-47 with 1:39 left in the half.
It was World Peace's 12th point, leading the Lakers at the time, and he also had three steals, five rebounds and an assist.
As World Peace turned to head up court, he pounded his chest with his right fist, and then when he brushed against Harden, one of the NBA's strongest players, World Peace threw his left elbow at him, catching him flush in the side of the head.
As Harden lay prone, several Thunder players confronted World Peace, who talked back to them. Referee Gary Zielinski stood between World Peace and the Thunder players, shouting at him, "Stop. Stop," and Lakers assistant Chuck Person, who has known Artest since they played together in Indiana, came out to ensure the scene did not deteriorate further.
"Obviously, I'm not in his skin," Gasol said. "I saw the replay at halftime and he was just so excited about the play that he made and saw somebody in his way and reacted. I don't think he tried to elbow him or hurt him in anyway. He was just so hyped up after the play and so emotional.
"It happens sometime and I would have liked for it to not happen."
Given the timing of the suspension, on the eve of the playoffs, it is hard not to see parallels between Sunday and last spring, when in the waning moments of a Game 2 loss to Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals, World Peace leveled J.J. Barea, the diminutive point guard, earning an ejection and one-game suspension. The Lakers blew a late lead in Game 3 and then were swept when World Peace returned for Game 4.
World Peace shook his head when asked Sunday morning if the residue of that incident would motivate him in the playoffs.
"There's nothing to learn from that moment," World Peace said. "Oh my goodness, I don't know what to say about it. I've been in that situation in the playoffs where I was hit and nobody got suspended and then you have a guy that was 4-foot-8, I'm trying to foul him at the end of the game. He's standing up full length and I still catch him in the face. I don't know what to say?"
So you did nothing wrong?
"He's 4-foot-8," World Peace said. "There's only so much reaching down I can do. It's ridiculous. But anyway. ..."
As unrepentant as World Peace was about that incident, he said there were others that he did learn from. He has apologized for abandoning his teammates in Indiana and to Phil Jackson last year after the two had a heated argument in practice. But he also showed up out of shape for training camp this year and dismissed new coach Mike Brown for getting his start as a video coordinator.
"For me, it's real simple," World Peace said. "Look at my opportunities in Indiana, how many times we could have been to the Finals. But there was the suspension, all the years I had flagrant fouls, the years I was immature. I know I was a different person.
"They were not missed opportunities. I look at it as if I had been successful in those situations, I probably wouldn't be the person I am today. Because if I had been successful with the same attitude that I had, I would have the same attitude.
"I like the attitude I have now. It's more responsible, more mature. I just like the attitude I have today. I don't think I was ready for stardom back then because my attitude."
He paused before continuing.
"I'm glad about how it worked out for me," he said. "I didn't want to be the type of person that's comfortable doing the wrong thing because it's working for him."
The man, who a few moments before said he was foaming at the mouth, now seemed serene and reflective, a man not just in control of his emotions but in charge of where he was going. That man never made it onto the court.