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Known for volatility, Metta World Peace a force for mental health awareness

The Los Angeles Lakers' Metta World Peace is

The Los Angeles Lakers' Metta World Peace is shown during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers. (April 10, 2013) Credit: AP

The last time Metta World Peace played for a basketball team in New York, he had a different name and a different mind-set.

Fran Fraschilla recruited the player formerly known as Ron Artest to St. John's and coached him for one season. Mike Jarvis was World Peace's coach in 1999, when he took the Red Storm to the precipice of a Final Four.

Years later, both speak of World Peace with an affection reserved for someone who has made an indelible impact on their lives. Both believe that by coming home to New York to play for the Knicks, the Queensbridge product has a chance to write a happy final chapter to his tumultuous NBA career.

"Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but Metta left it in New York," Fraschilla said in a phone interview last week. "I'm so happy for him. It should be a happy homecoming. I think at this point in his career, he has the maturity to make this work."

Said Jarvis: "It could be a happy homecoming and I hope it will be. Ron has figured out a lot of things about himself. I think it's a good time for him to come home."

New name, new person

In many ways, World Peace is not the same player or person the Knicks infamously passed on selecting in the 1999 draft because of concerns about whether the then-19-year-old had the maturity to play in his hometown. Now he's 33. His game may be a bit weaker but his psyche is decidedly stronger.

World Peace, who legally changed his name two years ago, never has come out and said he suffers from a specific mental health condition, but he has been a vocal supporter for the cause in recent years.

In an on-court interview after the Lakers won the NBA title in 2010, he thanked his psychiatrist for helping him "relax" during the tough series with the Celtics. He auctioned off his championship ring in 2010, raising more than $500,000 to provide mental health awareness and treatment services for children. He also has made a number of public service announcements and traveled to Washington to speak to lawmakers about the need to provide mental health services to children in schools.

Incident after incident

Before that, his temper tantrums were legendary. The most well-known, of course, was the "Malice at the Palace," for which he was suspended 73 regular-season games plus 13 playoff games without pay for charging into the stands in 2004 to go after a Detroit fan after he was hit with a cup of soda while lying on the scorer's table. (He went after the wrong fan and later reached out to and became friendly with the man who did throw the cup.)

But that was far from the only incident. After a Pacers loss to the Knicks at the Garden in 2003, he threw a video monitor and smashed a camera. He also has been involved in a handful of on-court altercations, most recently elbowing James Harden in the head in 2012. He was suspended seven games.

World Peace's temper also was legendary at St. John's. Jarvis, now the coach at Florida Atlantic, admits to appealing to a higher power to control it.

"When Ron had his moments, I would call a timeout, bring the team to midcourt, and if there was a priest there, I would call him out, too," Jarvis said. "We would all come together and pray. I would ask the Lord to come into the huddle and bring Ron back to the team. As crazy as it sounds, most of the time it worked. Ron listened to God."

Yet as volatile and irrational as World Peace has been on the basketball court, those who know him paint him as a giving and thoughtful man off it.

"There really are two Rons," Fraschilla said. "There's the ultra-competitor, and competitiveness has gotten Ron into trouble on a number of occasions. There's also the guy who goes to Africa to help people. There's the guy who hands a $100 bill to a homeless guy in Indianapolis on a freezing-cold night. There's the guy who is loyal to his family and neighborhood.''

New York state of mind

Both coaches hope New York gets to see this World Peace now that the Knicks have signed him to a one-year contract with a player option for a second year. Jarvis believes the biggest challenge for World Peace will be learning to accept the limitations that come with being a player in the late stages of his career.

"The only thing he has working against him is age," Jarvis said. "I think he's just as passionate about winning, but he's a little older now . . . He's going to have to set some different expectations for himself that he didn't before. But I think this is a good time for him to come home to New York."

When World Peace met with reporters last week, he said he is ready to play whatever role the Knicks need. "I don't care if I'm starting. I don't care if I'm sweeping the floors," he said. "You hear me? I want to win."

And win in the city he loves most. Fraschilla couldn't think of a better way for Artest to finish his career than to do it in a Knicks uniform.

"In a way, he's come full circle as a player and a person,'' Fraschilla said. "Ron has always marched to the beat of his own drum. The music wasn't always pretty early on, but now, at long last, the tune is pretty good."

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