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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 11:29 a.m., Wednesday, July 18, 2007

NBA: Artest says he can do better after Kenya trip

By Ailene Voisin
McClatchy Newspapers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The court sentenced him to probation and community service for a domestic dispute that occurred last March, and NBA Commissioner David Stern only last Saturday tacked on a seven-game suspension, beginning the 2007-08 season. But Ron Artest argues that while the punishment might or might not fit the crime and he tends to vacillate it undeniably fails to make amends. Personal amends.

He can do more, he says.

He can be a better person, he says.

"My whole summer has been dedicated to that," the Kings' forward said on a cell phone from Nairobi, Kenya, where he and other NBA players are distributing rice and grain as part of the "Feed the Children" project, "and I've never given a whole summer to charity work. But coming over here makes me want to do something even more special. This is the worst place I've ever been, and it's been one of the best weeks of my life. Amazing."

The current campaign, in fact, is a complete Ron-Ron creation, though with more thought and planning than usual. Geoff Petrie recently hinted at the difference at what he cautiously interprets is an indication of maturation when he revealed that Artest has been volunteering to represent the organization at community and charitable functions and making unsolicited visits to area animal shelters, and that he seemed genuinely excited about the trip to Africa.

Petrie has been even more encouraged by what he has seemingly witnessed: a Ron Artest as devoted to repairing his personal/professional life this summer as he was to promoting his rap music a year ago.

"I can't promise that I'll never make another mistake," Artest admitted, "but I really wanted to do some good. What's going through our minds ... is just unbelievable."

The goal of the joint venture between Larry and Frances Jones' foundation and the National Basketball Players Association was to distribute enough rice for an estimated 44 million meals to residents of the worst slums in and around Nairobi. Artest, accompanied by Theo Ratliff, Etan Thomas, Maurice Evans and union executive director Billy Hunter, was intrigued by the opportunity to "make an impact," as well as learn about his ancestors.

Shaken and inspired by the weeklong experience, he said he intends to build a house in Nairobi and finance a lab to test for the AIDS virus. In a 45-minute conversation that captured a wide range of emotions sorrow, remorse, humility Artest said he caught it all on tape. The filth and feces. The sewage running in the streets. The lack of electricity. The stares of starving children that both haunt and motivate.

"Imagine a bunch of smelly kids running around, with no parks, no place to go," Artest related. "You don't know who has HIV. There is feces everywhere. People are laid out on the street. Is he dead or is he sleeping?

"Then imagine these kids smiling at you, just happy that someone touches them, smiles at them, cares about them. You don't want to cry, because it just makes them feel worse."

With a half-laugh, he mentions that the youngsters who craved hugs and clung to his arms had no clue who he was. They didn't inquire about the brawls and the suspensions. They didn't ask why his dogs were malnourished while he was on that Kings road trip or wonder aloud about his wife, Kimsha, who is enrolled in school and living with the couple's four children in Indianapolis. They didn't need to know his reputation; they simply appreciated his presence and intentions.

"I don't know if I would say that being here changed me," he said, "but it made me think about things. Just knowing the history of slavery, I was happy to see the people ... sort of like relatives.

"We went out to the jungle and stayed with real tribes for a few days, slept in tents and were protected only by the warriors. It's so amazing. They actually drink blood mixed with milk. They eat goat, drink blood, some water. Wait until you see it."

Artest, who plans to give The Bee a copy of the video for the newspaper's Web site, saw his first giraffe when the plane landed on the airstrip. He filmed a cheetah killing a zebra, captured a monkey lingering near his tent, filmed former Kings swingman Mo Evans dancing with the tribesmen. On another occasion, Artest peeked outside his tent and found a hippo lurking.

"Scariest moment of my life," he said. "This was the jungle! I zipped my tent up so fast ... "

Eventually, his mood again became serious, and he asked about the Kings. He is relieved Petrie appears intent on giving him a chance with new coach Reggie Theus, lavishly praised rookie Spencer Hawes and enthusiastically endorsed the signing of free agent Mikki Moore.

"I'll be back in Sac next week," said Artest, "but I'm coming back here in September. I've got a couple of spoiled kids. I have to un-spoil them. They need to see this. And I think I can make a difference. Yeah, I do."