Metta, you don’t know me, but I know you. And I’ve known you. You were an Indiana Pacer from the time I was 10 to 14 and children in Indiana grow up knowing the names of Pacers the way they know the Pledge of Allegiance. But then when I was in sixth grade you almost strangled a fan at a Detroit Pistons’ game and got yourself traded. You were a wonderful whirlwind of a player but everyone knew by throwing yourself into the stands you had also thrown yourself straight out of Indiana. I’ve thought about you a lot since then; I was always on your side. When I walked into my science teacher’s classroom later that season and saw a Rasheed Wallace bobblehead on his desk (Mr. Phillips was from Detroit) it felt like I had glimpsed a rip in the moral fabric of the universe: not everyone was so willing to forgive you. You had been wronged, but you had also been wrong, and there were consequences, I learned, for being too much. You taught me the universe craves balance, seeks it out, creates it where there is none. You had self-combusted in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and left behind a pile of smoldering ash.
But I knew you would rise again. My allegiance towards you is and always has been automatic, natural. The way I pause in the gym without thinking to watch the play finish if Indiana basketball is on the screen. But my attraction to you is more than loyalty: of late, it feels stronger. It feels—a little—like love.
Ron (can I call you Ron?), you used to shoot hoops in the Indianapolis jcc while waiting to pick up your daughter from daycare. I was always too afraid to go in and talk to you, because I was twelve and just nervous, especially about interacting with the various beings that made up the world. This was mostly because I was afraid they would reject me and mostly because I knew I deserved to be rejected. I knew that a decision to enter the gym and stand under its hot lights with a basketball in hand and ask to shoot with you would be a risk repaid with reward, as risks usually were for me, then, and it would end with me shaking your hand and seeing your smile. Those would be good things, and I wasn’t sure I deserved them. You were tall and excellent and I was small and without excellence so I refused to even consider the option. But other people approached you with no problem: my dad, family friends. My mom once passed you in the jcc lobby and greeted you, said your muscles were gigantic, a fact that made you even more intimidating, because I was only beginning to realize how scary—and how beautiful—gigantic muscles could be.
Your muscles were—are—gigantic, Ron. They grow from your body like the exact amount of water that can rise over a cup without brimming over. You are incredibly good-looking. Your cheekbones are sharp and smooth like arrowheads. Your smile is wide, white as the moon, shaped like its crescent. Your nose is large and strong with whimsical embellishment at the bottom, like metalwork on an iron trellis. Your skin looks soft. Your laugh burbles. Your eyes are dark and calm like polished stones.
But more striking than your physical attractiveness is the enormous openness of your soul. “Metta” is a Buddhist term that means “loving-kindness” and that is exactly what you are for me. I recently started following you on Twitter and it is not exaggeration to say your tweets carry joy directly into my belly. You are a poet, you are a prophet. You function in metaphor in a way I think is genius, absolute performance but also total honesty. You’ve achieved a self so perfectly modern, so perfectly conceived that it can be anything you want it to be. Everything you tweet manages to be both earnest and totally ironic. You seem both self-aware and blissfully without any conception of what it means to be a self. You tweet directly to me, but you also speak to us all. You tell me what you think. You ask me what I think. It’s a relationship that feels more equal, more balanced, than any I’ve ever had.
I recently watched an interview you gave after the Lakers won the championship in 2010. You appear on the screen as proof of the universe’s tendency towards actualizing the good. You are the conquering hero—the champion of the world—but on screen you are calm, radiant. You are not frenetic: you are attentive. You sit in your jersey next to men in suits who look at you guardedly, anxiously, not knowing what you will do. After all, you were still Ron Artest then, and to play ball like Ron Artest meant to be constantly on the verge of volcanic eruption. Ron Artest once played in a playground basketball game where someone was killed by a torn-off table leg, thrown through his chest. Even on the spotless pine floors of nba courts, Ron Artest could just stick out an axe of an arm and fell members of the opposing team without even noticing what he’d done.
But you sit after your championship win, your smile gentle, like an opening flower. And the sportscasters keep telling you you’ve won, and you keep repeating you’ve won, but your words don’t sound triumphant. Instead they are shimmering, iridescent, filled with awe. There’s a little girl with braids behind you tripping around the court, gathering purple and gold confetti and launching it into the air. “So many emotions go through my body,” you say about the game, “and my therapist tells me to relax, just relax.” You’re not ashamed to be mentioning therapy on national television, and you’re not ashamed to shake with wonder at the fact that Kobe passed you the ball (“Kobe passed the ball!”) and you shot it into the air along its beautiful arc and that then the ball rolled down that arc and into the open arms of the hoop. “It went in!” You’re shocked. “It went in!” You cover your face to think of it. You clench your jubilant fists and you gently lay one of your muscled arms on the leg of the suited sportscaster next to you, and they laugh and beam at you like happy Buddhas. You laugh, too, unbelieving.
What a smile you have, Ron.
Ron, you wrote that smile onto your face when you chose your new name. I doubt anyone calls you Metta except on the basketball court: Metta World Peace is a basketball identity. Googling Ron Artest means googling a history of brawls and threats and mediocre rap while googling World Peace is to google “World Peace.” World Peace is more than you. When you play announcers must say “World Peace has the ball,” “World Peace sinks the shot,” “World Peace draws the foul.” You’ve literally made the basketball court into a dream—perhaps the dream, of pageant contestants and conscientious eight-year-olds alike—where the lie America tells itself about sports (“exercise,” we say, “fun and games”) can’t withstand the hot breath of the truth: the court is a war zone. We need it to be a war zone, a coliseum. You were placed in it, made to face the lions of your own psyche, until you decided: no more. You were only a gladiator until you were a guru.
Metta—can I call you Metta, this time?—somewhere on this campus is a boy who recently made me cry. He doesn’t know. I had the chance to tell him the other day and I couldn’t. And I couldn’t because my conception of my self rests on certain things: cheerfulness, calmness, and self-control. I picked these attributes out for myself around the same age I refused to go to you in the gym; when I was neither cheerful nor calm nor in control of anything that was happening in my mind or body, I forced myself to feel oppositely, with a good amount of success: it’s been—on the whole—a pretty cheerful, calm, and controlled decade. So even though the boy asked me what was wrong I wasn’t going to tell him, because to do so would be like tearing out chunks of my hair, would be like taking off the turtle ring I’ve worn every day for six years. It would be to admit to a self more fluid than I am comfortable with, with interchangeable and unknowable parts, a self I don’t recognize. It would be out of character for me to admit to tears, so I couldn’t tell him, but I can tell you. And I am telling you. Because you’ve dismantled your reactionary terrified angry self, torn off layer after layer of burlap and gauze and rage and fear and uncovered something simple, a non-self, a lantern, a beam in the night.
On January 16, 2014 at 12:45 am, you tweeted: “I bow to you for letting me feel comfortable being me. I look at those who judge and then i eat my cereal.” More than I want to bow to you, Ron, I want to eat cereal with you. Across a breakfast table: you in your Cookie Monster pajamas, me in your jersey. I think we could be happy together. We don’t have to touch. I see us favoriting each other’s tweets and you will tell me how to admit to a boy who’s made me cry that he’s made me cry. You will tell me it’s okay if I decide to rename myself or remake myself into something that may sound ridiculous. We’ll both cry a little, until your wild white-toothed smile spreads its wings across your face. Then you’ll laugh your wonderful laugh. And then we’ll go shoot some hoops.
Eternally, honestly, endlessly yours,