Commentary: Metta, Malice and Mental Health

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – To be honest, I had a few concerns when we began to discuss bringing in Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, as Coleman Health Services’ keynote speaker for the annual Unmute the Uncomfortable event in May.

I had spent the evening watching “Malice at the Palace” on Netflix and realized this former NBA bad boy could be controversial. But the more I delved into his story, the more I realized just how much Metta World Peace had overcome: poverty, a family and personal history of anxiety and depression, fatherhood at the age of 16, and a damaged image that nearly ended his career.

Ron Artest grew up in New York, where many of his friends and neighbors sold drugs to survive. Artest’s father was tough on him. He had his son spend hours upon hours on the basketball court – in snow, in rain, in the hours when most people are asleep. That’s what got him off those mean streets and into the NBA.

The year was 2004. Artest had been named defensive player of the year. But on Nov. 19, everything came crashing down after what the Associated Press called  “the most infamous brawl in NBA history,” Malice at the Palace.

Artest was playing for the Indiana Pacers who were on the verge of winning an important game against the defending champion Detroit Pistons. With seconds left, Artest fouled a Pistons player.

Tensions flared. A fight broke out. Artest knew he needed to calm down. So he lay down on the scorer’s table.

That’s when a cup of soda came flying down from the upper seats, hitting his chest, Artest leapt into the stands and began to punch a fan, sparking an all-out brawl. Several fans were charged with assault. Several players were suspended – Artest for 72 games – the rest of the season. When he returned, he asked to be traded.

Fast forward six years to June 17, 2010. The Los Angeles Lakers had just defeated the Boston Celtics to win the NBA Championship. As the jubilant hero of the game leaned into the microphone, what he said next stunned fans and players alike.

Ron Artest thanked his psychiatrist!

Yes, long before Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, it was Ron Artest who, with unabashed candor, left his ego behind and helped to remove the stigma that had long been seen among many as a weakness. He bravely demonstrated it was OK for a man, a strong man, a man of color, to seek help. And that by doing so, he could turn his life around.

Artest later auctioned his championship ring, donating the proceeds to mental health charities.

In 2011, the NBA presented him with the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award, given to the player who shows the most outstanding service and dedication to the community. At the ceremony, U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano called him “a hero and trailblazer for mental health.”

Today, Ron Artest goes by Metta World Peace. I had the opportunity to talk to him and his wife, Maya, on a Zoom call recently and found Metta to be soft-spoken, thoughtful and determined to share his message. He’ll do just that when he sits down May 4 for a fireside chat with Warren native and author David Lee Morgan at Unmute the Uncomfortable 2023 – a communitywide symposium on “Racial Equity, Shattering the Stigma and Reshaping our Community.”

Metta World Peace stands with U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, children and their coach. He helped Napolitano with “The Mental Health in Schools Act.”

Today, Metta is a committed advocate for mental health. He details his story in the book, “No Malice: My Life in Basketball or How a Kid from Queensbridge Survived the Streets, the Brawls, and Himself to Become an NBA Champion.” His journey is also recounted in the Emmy-nominated documentary “Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story” airing on Showtime. It features former teammates Lamar Odom and the late Kobe Bryant.

So while Artest may be remembered for “Malice at the Palace,” Metta went on to find redemption by helping Rep. Napolitano launch The Mental Health in Schools Act. He is also an entrepreneur and the chief impact director at OOTify, a social impact technology platform that provides mental health infrastructure such as therapy, coaching, education and other innovative mental health solutions. And he works as a development coach with the Los Angeles South Bay Lakers.

Among the other speakers at the event will be former Youngstown mayor and Obama administration member Jay Williams, now president and CEO of The Hartford Foundation. The foundation’s priorities include reducing persistent disparities in local communities.

Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Carla Baldwin will serve as event moderator. Also speaking: LaToya Logan, founder and CEO of Project LIFT in Cleveland; Jewel Woods, founder and clinical director of Male Behavioral Health in Columbus; and the Rev. Jon Paul Robles, director of the Greater Youngstown Community Dialog on Racism.

While continuing education credits are being offered for social workers, counselors, school counselors, nurses and EMTs, this is a communitywide discussion with the general public and local organizations attending, including United Returning Citizens and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Coleman Health Services is presenting the symposium in partnership with the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board. And thanks to the sponsors of our speaker, Mercy Health, its foundation, and the Cafaro Family Foundation, along with our other generous supporters, we are able to provide free tickets to students, first responders, and this year, barbers, because they have long been the “boots-on-the-ground therapists” in many communities.

I’ve been involved in many fundraisers over the years. Although this one may not match the dollars raised at other high-end events, it is the one of which I’m most proud. It’s raising awareness, helping low-income and homeless clients with mental health issues receive the treatment they need, and addressing difficult topics.

Metta World Peace will, I hope, bring more people to the table for these hard discussions as we continue to work toward racial equity, shattering the stigma and reshaping our community.

Stacia Erdos Littleton is the regional development executive for Coleman Health Services.