The Turbulent Journey of Metta World Peace

A new documentary about the athlete formerly known as Ron Artest moves beyond his—and the NBA’s—most notorious moment: 2004’s “Malice at the Palace” brawl.

Amanda Westcott / SHOWTIME

Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, is one of those people whose name never evokes a middle-of-the-road reaction. The ex-NBA player, who won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010 and gained notoriety for his role in the infamous “Malice at the Palace” brawl in 2004, might be described as “crazy” or “angry” or “tough.”

But another way to describe him might be “brutally honest,” whether it’s about his mental-health struggles that began in his youth (he thanked his psychiatrist on national television immediately after the Lakers captured the NBA title) or admitting that he applied for a job at an electronics store his rookie season because he wanted a discount. World Peace has always shown the world a surprising sort of candor.

This honesty—which made him one of the most fascinating players to ever wear an NBA uniform—is evident in the new Showtime documentary Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story (directed and produced by the former ESPN feature producer Johnny Sweet). The film is a worthy vessel for the athlete’s turbulent journey, depicting its subject’s efforts—publicly and privately—to change his once-toxic reputation. Despite his forthright nature, World Peace told me recently when he appeared on my podcast, Jemele Hill Is Unbothered, that he was reluctant to participate in a documentary about his life: “I try to be behind the scenes.”

Quiet Storm, of course, gives adequate time to the brawl for which he’s still best known. As a member of the Indiana Pacers, World Peace delivered an unnecessary hard foul to the Detroit Pistons’ Ben Wallace with under a minute left in the game, and the two got into a heated confrontation. A spectator threw a drink on World Peace, who went charging into the stands wildly swinging punches. A full-on melee developed: Nine players were suspended, with World Peace receiving an 86-game suspension—still the longest in NBA history for a non-drug-related offense—and a $5 million fine.

The brawl, arguably the most embarrassing moment in league history, became powerful evidence for those who had long labeled the NBA a thug league, and for those who, because of his lengthy history of suspensions and on-court run-ins, considered World Peace to be a danger. The racial undertones were difficult to miss: The imagery of black players attacking white fans served as a kind of racial pornography that had many openly opining about the NBA’s ruin.
(The lingering hostility between fans and NBA players was explored in an ESPN The Magazine poll four years later: Respondents believed the typical NBA player was less likely than players from the other three major leagues to respect the fans, remain loyal to his team, or love his wife, and more likely to carry a gun, use recreational drugs, or have an entourage.)

Quiet Storm provides a panoramic view of the brawl. As shocking as the incident was when it happened, in 2004, it seems equally surreal 15 years later. The film offers a real sense of how terrified World Peace and his teammates were as cameras follow them from the on-court, in-the-stands fighting to their locker room. Viewers will cringe while watching the Pacers make their way off the court as fans hurl bottles, and even a chair, at them.

The documentary also conveys the totality of the collateral damage. “I watched it and it’s like, Oh boy, I gotta relive these moments,” World Peace told me, referring to his reluctance to even do the film. “The people I was affecting, we never sat down together, so we never actually experienced those moments together. I never knew how they felt. They didn’t know how I was feeling. On a TV screen, you get a chance to see everything.” In Quiet Storm, the former Pacer Jermaine O’Neal’s interview stands out because of the lingering animosity he still appears to harbor toward World Peace. Another highlight is an interview with John Green, the fan who threw the drink. Green, who’s had his own personal demons to deal with, apparently developed a relationship with World Peace after the athlete called him years later and asked him to lunch.

Though it does a deep dive on the Palace fight and the ensuing consequences, the film makes clear that the brawl was a culmination of years of trauma World Peace had experienced, starting with his troubled upbringing in the Queensbridge housing projects in New York. World Peace often witnessed his mother and father physically fighting. As he notes on-screen, he internalized that violence and learned at an early age that the only way to survive and be respected was to fight. He also discusses his 2007 arrest on domestic-violence charges (to which he pleaded no contest) and the help he received from therapy afterward.

The documentary’s main message, in all this, is about growth. World Peace, once considered an enemy of the league, won the NBA’s prestigious J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award seven years after the Palace fight. He auctioned his NBA championship ring and raised $650,000 for mental-health charities. Part of the reason the NBA forward Kevin Love can go public about experiencing a panic attack, and why the league has a mental-health wellness program, is because World Peace began discussing the issue openly years ago.

Quiet Storm rightly positions World Peace’s journey as uplifting, despite the ugliness that he was subjected to in his childhood, and despite the ugly incidents he instigated in both his professional and personal life. In resisting the urge to make the Palace fight its centerpiece, the film gives World Peace, however reluctant, the space to tell a fuller story.