There’s no real reason why ESPN The Magazine’s “The Athletes Take Over” issue needs to exist. The same argument could, of course, be made about ESPN The Magazine itself, and if I were in a worse mood or my typin’ muscles hurt less, I might make it. But even by that magazine’s ordinary high standard for inessentiality, the Takeover issues are weird and notably minor. In general, much of ESPN’s more journalistical endeavors are compromised by economic and narrative conflicts of interest — this is how you wind up simply not getting coverage of major NFL stars’ major fuckups, or a yearlong, near-total blackout on news concerning a major college football program’s epic skein of transgressions. When ESPN does produce a larger-scale journalistic endeavor, the results can be impressive — they’ve got the budget to hire good writers and the bandwith to let them air it out if need be — but their targets are notably of the already-softened-up sort.
Which is not to say that ESPN’s pieces on Hall of Fame P.O.S.’s like Len Dykstra or Donald Sterling aren’t impressive — it’s just noting that ESPN stands to lose exactly none of its very lucrative synergies by further disgracing these thoroughly disgraced disgraces. USC and Ben Roethlisberger are arrows in ESPN’s corporate quiver, in other words, while Len Dykstra, by the time Mike Fish did his (very good) piece about him, was someone who had already been revealed as a pantheon a-hole and shameless, moral-free huckster in both The New Yorker and GQ.
So take that general lack of editorial courage, and combine it with the Us Magazine-y fatuity that defines most ESPN The Magazine profiles — generally of the Knucklehead X Is A Changed Man or The Proud Struggle Of Athlete Y variety — and you’ve got 11 of ESPN The Magazine’s 12 issues. The “Athletes Take Over” issue is the 12th, and distinguishable from the other 11 only by its adherence to a goofy pretense — that, finally, the jocks have kicked the pencilneck journos to the curb and taken over what must surely be their favorite magazine. What do readers get from this? Large color photos, as usual, but also something even cornier than the average issue, for the most part. That means all kinds of as-told-to semi-features, unconvincing ghostwritten manifestos from such literary lions as Chad Johnson, and the sort of doofy non-revelations — Maria Sharapova thinks the travel in pro tennis is wearing; Chad Johnson thinks he’s misunderstood (by haters) — that make up the average ESPN The Magazine profile. There is a way in which this idea could be effective or interesting, I guess, but it would have to be a different magazine attempting it and said magazine would have to be trying much harder. And yet…
And yet it is salvageable. What you’d need is an athlete so relentlessly and fearlessly off-message that even a stagy as-told-to piece — let’s say, for the sake of argument and actual accuracy in the case I’m winding up to, that it’s told to Sam Alipour — would deliver all kinds of good stuff. You’d need a subject so simultaneously introspective and oddly unselfconscious that he’d be comfortable Getting Real on the topics of Celine Dion and his own (previously unreported!) alcohol issues and his relationship with his therapist. It would be hard to find such an athlete, and harder still to fit the resulting weird dialogue between self and soul into the “Finally, No More Nerds! Just World-Class Athletes Having Fun” pretense of the Athlete Takeover issue.
Luckily — so, so luckily — there is Ron Artest. To say that Ron-Ron’s mindblowingly crazypants/strikingly frank “interview with himself” (as told to Sam Alipour — the logistics are mind-bending) saves even this dimmest of magazine pretenses is an understatement — if every magazine had stuff this good in it, publishing would be flush right now. Of course, if all athletes were like Ron Artest, ESPN The Magazine would be a lot more fun to read. Here’s an appetizer:
BESIDES BEING A BULLY, DID YOU ENGAGE IN OTHER DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIORS [IN YOUR YOUTH]?
Alcohol was part of the problem. At 15 I started to get twisted, and at 16 I was getting lit up on a regular basis. By the time the Bulls drafted me, I’d drink in the house all day, then go play a game. But I stopped drinking heavily in Sacramento. I’m sure I wouldn’t have made the same mistakes if I hadn’t been drinking. Was I crazy, or was I not sober enough to have a clear mind? That’s the question.
…OPPONENTS DON’T GET UNDER YOUR SKIN?
Nah, I’m much more mellow now. I can control myself on the court. If I get fouled, I say what I gotta say and move on. I don’t mind being punked anymore. If someone gets in my face, I just walk away. Against the Celtics in the Finals, Tony Allen got in my face, but I don’t got the time for Tony Allen. Now, if you’re a star and you’re talking trash, I’ll talk back. All series long, Paul Pierce was talking: “You’re a bum, you can’t score, you can’t guard me, I’m busting your ass.” Everything.
HOW WOULD YOU TRASH-TALK AGAINST YOURSELF?
Well, I guess I would try saying, “You’re crazy,” or “psychopath.” I got called both those things, and worse, in the playoffs. Fans in Utah called me Osama Bin Ron and said, “You need medicine,” but none of that fazed me.
…WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE?
Titanic. When DiCaprio is trying to save the young lady, that was dope. When she tries to save him, and he dies, that was dope too. That whole situation was tragic. When I saw the baby in the water, frozen? I cried a little, but mostly I was pissed. I’d just had my daughter, so when I saw that frozen baby, I was like, “What the f — !? That’s bull — !” And let’s not forget about CÃ©line Dion. That woman is unbelievable. You know how much I love my music? Well, I wouldn’t put out a song for 10 years if that meant I could put out a song with her. Her voice sounds like pure fresh air. It sounds like what it sounded like when the world was created.
WHERE ARE YOU MOST AT PEACE?
At the beach. Man, give me a mango drink, some sand, that water, and it’s all good. I love running in the sand. But sometimes I’m scared as hell of water. Whenever I’m out there, I’m thinking, “Damn, some tidal wave is about to come!” Okay, so maybe I’m not totally at peace at the beach.
NOW THAT YOU’VE WON A TITLE, DO YOU STILL HAVE ANY PERSONAL GOALS IN THE NBA?
I would love to get back to first-team All-Defense. I own defense. It’s like my corporation. I’m the CEO and everyone else is just an employee. The fans and players know I belong. When you need a stop, who you going to call? Not the goddamn Ghostbusters, I’ll tell you that. You call me.