The 2011-2012 NBA season is finally under way after a protracted off-season caused by a dispute over income and an owner-enforced lockout, and I couldn’t be happier. Kevin Durant is hitting game–winning three–pointers at the buzzer, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are flying high and Chris Paul has made the Los Angeles Clippers relevant for the first time since … ever. The reigning champion Dallas Mavericks are struggling, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to find an identity under their new head coach and Shaquille O’Neal is acting a fool with Charles Barkley and crew in the TNT booth. The NBA is back.
However, more compelling than any of those stories, for me at least, is the excitement that comes from a singular name: Metta World Peace. For many, he is better known as L.A. Lakers power forward Ron Artest, but this season marks the first time he will be called by his new name, to which he legally changed over the summer: Metta World Peace. His new jersey, where a player’s last name is displayed, now says, “World Peace.” This is one of the most brilliant moves in sports from one seemingly unlikely source.
At first glance, “Metta World Peace” conjures images of Vince McMahon’s ill-fated XFL, where players could choose their own names to put on the backs of their jerseys. “He Hate Me” was the most popular among them. Artest’s decision rests in a different history.
A professional athlete changing his name isn’t anything new. We don’t trip on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor) or Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) for changing their names, because we recognize that doing so was both a religious and political move. They were embracing Islam and aligning themselves with the black power movement of the time. Artest’s change is more in line with former NBA player World B. Free, otherwise known as Lloyd Bernard Free, who legally changed his first name to “World” in 1981.
More recently, however, the most famous athlete name change came in the form of NFL star Chad Ochocinco, formerly Chad Johnson, who changed his last name to a Spanish translation of his jersey number, though he failed to do so correctly. It’s silly, it’s trite, it’s rather insulting to the Spanish language and it lacks any of the political and social punch of Abdul-Jabbar or Ali. The name change runs the risk of being a self-promotional gimmick at this point.
It would be easy to lump Metta World Peace in with Ochocinco or to dismiss this name change as just another “crazy” Artest stunt in a long history of crazy Artest stunts. He has quite a few. There is rarely a dull moment in an Artest interview, as exemplified recently when he answered a reporter’s question about why the rookies call him Metta while the older players still call him Ron by thanking Jesus Christ for the fact that he doesn’t still have baby teeth.