Metta World Peace, the former Ron Artest, is joining the New York Knicks, and Knicks fans have reacted with widespread excitement to his arrival. More broadly, there is a general sense of anticipation around the idea of one of the NBA's oddest characters joining one of its most soap-operatic teams. World Peace became infamous for running into the stands during a 2004 game at Detroit's Palace Of Auburn Hills to attack a fan who he thought had thrown a beer at him (he had the wrong guy, it turned out), but today he is treated as a kind of harmless, soulful goof. If there's one word that would describe his reputation these days, it's "zany." Or, as this piece put it, "wacky." At worst, he's tough:
Whither his reputation as a menace? It's disappeared under a pile of zany, wacky tweets and videos. World Peace has rehabilitated himself with social media. His stream-of-consciousness account has 735,000 followers and is a staple of best-of-Twitter compilations.
(Other examples of his work: "How do I dial Dubai?", "I have an old mans ass", "Miami is bringing the lettuce!!!!!!!!".) He went on Jimmy Kimmel in his underwear and later returned to the show to shoot baskets against a two-year-old. He thanked his psychiatrist in an interview after Game 7 of the Finals. He is the master of creating "hey, did you hear about ______?" moments, most notably when he changed his name from Ron Artest. The new name works for the new brand: "metta" is a word with vaguely similar connotations to the phrase "world peace." Put together enough "did you hear?" moments and talk about peace and stability and you can effectively bury a reputation as a violent lunatic.
Aside from the name and the talk, though, evidence is thin on the ground that World Peace does not still have the same anti-socially violent tendencies demonstrated at the Palace. In 2007, he served 10 days in jail in Sacramento after pleading guilty to domestic violence; his wife told police he had shoved her, slapped her, and prevented her from calling 911. It was the fifth time police had been to his house in eight months. Animal control had taken a dog from his home because neighbors had complained that it was starving, though he was not charged with a crime related to the incident. During his four seasons in L.A. he's gotten 25 technical fouls, ranking him among the more combative players in the league, especially for someone who spends little time driving to the basket or playing interior defense and is thus involved in relatively few disputed foul calls. (Look at the list of top technical offenders and you'll see players who are often involved in creating collisions, whether they're scorers going to the basket or big men trying to stop said scorers. World Peace doesn't do either of those things.)
World Peace's play has remained consistently aggressive in a way that goes beyond the shoving and hard fouls of typical physical NBA action, reminiscent of the derangement of players like Bill Laimbeer, Kevin Garnett, or Reggie Evans. Here he is putting his hand around the neck of the Knicks' Shawne Williams:
Those incidents are all from the last three seasons. Three of them are from the World Peace era. And those three all happen to be attacks on much smaller players. This is not to belittle World Peace's comments about mental health or trying to be more tranquil — if he's helped people work on their own problems with his comments about seeking treatment, that's great. But there just isn't any actual evidence that World Peace is significantly less angry or impulsively violent a person than the one who ran into the crowd in Detroit (an incident precipitated by a hard World Peace foul, incidentally). The only thing that's definitely, tangibly changed about Metta World Peace since Detroit is that he got a Twitter account. (Well, also that his skills have declined — another thing that his wobbly online charisma seems to have overwhelmed in re: his reception among Knicks fans.)
Online media, of course, did not create the figure of the sociopath whose abhorrent behavior is excused because they're colorful or amusing. But it definitely helps those people bring their zaniness more directly to the people. If you're in the public eye and you have a tendency to hurt other human beings, just make sure you do it between silly tweets.