After initially enjoying NBA playoff basketball, Metta Sandiford-Artest’s emotions shifted abruptly.
The former NBA player not only became upset that a fan dumped popcorn on Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook as he walked underneath the entrance tunnel in Wednesday’s eventual playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Sandiford-Artest admitted his mind wandered back to his involvement in the “Malice at the Palace” nearly 16 ½ years ago.
“I felt like I was going to run into the stands,” Sandiford-Artest told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday night. “It shook me up a little bit.”
Then known as Ron Artest, the former Indiana Pacers forward stormed into the Detroit crowd at The Palace of Auburn Hills and punched a fan that challenged a friend to throw his cup of beer at him while he was on the scorer’s table toward the end of a regular-season game on Nov. 19, 2004. Artest then served an 86-game suspension in what marked the longest non-drug related suspension in NBA history.
Not only did that cost Artest about $6 million in salary. Sandiford-Artest said he lost out on potential earnings for an R&B album, two ESPN commercials and commercials with TNT, Carl’s Jr. and L.A. Gear. Incidentally, that shoe company published an ad before the brawl depicting Artest as a cartoon stomping on fans with its new shoe line.
Though Sandiford-Artest salvaged his NBA career with stops in Sacramento (2005-08), Houston (2008-09), the Los Angeles Lakers (2009-2013), the New York Knicks (2013-14) and the Lakers again (2015-17), he believed he lost additional earnings because of missed All-Star appearances, Defensive Player of the Year awards and statistical milestones stemming from his suspension.
“I took a big hit and everybody did on the team. Now you look at today — didn’t we learn?” Sandiford-Artest said. “Where was that fan 16 ½ years ago? Did he not see the fight? If he didn’t see it, that shows it’s just another day at the office.”
Four years ago, a courtside fan in Philadelphia was ejected after flipping off Westbrook. Two years ago, the Utah Jazz issued a lifetime ban to a fan that had a verbal altercation with Westbrook while he was on the bench. And on Wednesday, a fan at the Wizards-Sixers game in Philadelphia dumped popcorn on Westbrook from the stands above the entrance tunnel shortly after Westbrook injured his right ankle.
“How do you throw popcorn on a player?” Sandiford-Artest said. “Westbrook was pissed, and he had the right to be pissed. But I’m so happy that he was around people. Security was incredible.”
Westbrook became angry and exited the tunnel in hopes of seeing the fan. Wizards team personnel and arena security held Westbrook back, but he pointed at someone in the stands above the tunnel. Other fans also pointed at the alleged perpetrator, and the fan was ejected. Valerie Camillo, the President of Business Operations at Wells Fargo Center, released a statement that said “this was classless, unacceptable behavior and we’re not going to tolerate it at Wells Fargo Center.”
“Popcorn doesn’t hurt, but that’s really disrespectful. The problem is an athlete at that point in time is focused on the game,” Sandiford-Artest said.
“You can’t throw stuff when you’re watching people perform. You can’t throw stuff at anybody. It doesn’t matter where you’re at.”
In Artest’s case, he was on the scorer’s table trying to calm himself down shortly after Pistons forward Ben Wallace shoved him. Then, a fan threw a cup of beer at Artest. After seeing a fan raise his hand, Artest stormed into the stands and pursued him.
“I didn’t go after the person who hit me. I went after the person who made the bet,” Sandiford-Artest said. “That’s incredible. That’s how great of an athlete I was. Who spots the right person that quick? I was quicker than the cameras.”
Since then, Sandiford-Artest has also talked openly about the darkest moment in his NBA career in hopes to help those struggling with mental health.
After he helped the Lakers win the NBA championship in 2010, Sandiford-Artest auctioned off his title ring and raised $651,006 for mental health charities. He testified before Congress on behalf of mental health legislation, and also appeared in various public service announcements for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. For those efforts, Sandiford-Artest won the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for 2010-11 and then legally changed his name to Metta World Peace a year later. He then changed his name after marrying Maya Sandiford last year.
Sandiford-Artest has also reconciled with John Green, the fan who threw his drink at him. Around 2007, Sandiford-Artest tracked down Green’s number and contacted him. The two then apologized and made peace with each other. So much that they have appeared frequently in joint radio interviews and Green appeared on Sandiford-Artest’s Showtime documentary that was released two years ago.
“I’m not going to hate somebody because I had a fight with someone,” Sandiford-Artest said. “I’m not going to hate somebody for the rest of my life because the media made it seem like I was in the wrong and I lost a ton of money. But you don’t need money to breathe. The guy can’t pay me back. But we’ve talked about it, and I speak to him to this day.”
It remains to be seen whether Westbrook will have similar dialogue with the fan that threw popcorn at him.
“That guy needs to go on national TV and apologize to Westbrook,” Sandiford-Artest said. “I wouldn’t take away his tickets, to tell you the truth. Have his ass come to arena. He needs to apologize.”