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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Metta World Peace Finds His Way Back Home

Metta World Peace Finds His Way Back Home, Ron Artest is coming home, with a more whimsical name and a more expansive biography, dotted with asterisks and footnotes and curious detours, some glorious and some less so. He returns as an N.B.A. champion and a mental-health advocate, a reformed villain-turned-Mr. Congeniality, but mostly as a proud New Yorker eager to hang a banner at Madison Square Garden.

Fourteen years after bypassing him in the draft — a decision etched in franchise infamy — the Knicks finally signed Artest on Monday. He is 33 and goes by the name Metta World Peace. He is a bit slower, but no less tenacious. He is downright giddy about the possibilities.

“I’m getting more excited to play with the players,” World Peace said by telephone Monday night. “I’m more excited to play with the players than I am to be in New York City, you know? I’m more excited to play with the team. That’s what make me excited.”

That was four uses of “excited” in 12 seconds, as if to erase any lingering ambiguity.

The Knicks signed World Peace to a two-year deal worth up to $3.25 million, the second year a player option, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. He became available when the Los Angeles Lakers waived him under the N.B.A.’s “amnesty” option, removing his $7.7 million salary from the books while still paying him.

World Peace joins a Knicks team that won 54 games last season but wilted against the bigger, tougher Indiana Pacers in the playoffs. Bulking up the frontcourt was a top off-season priority.

A muscular 6 feet 6 inches and 244 pounds, World Peace can play either forward position. He should add defensive grit and locker-room levity to a team that was short on both. Despite his tough-guy reputation — and his role in instigating the player-fan brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 2004 — World Peace is famously warmhearted and playful off the court, and popular with teammates, coaches and fans.

He spent the last several days musing on Twitter about playing in China, or in the Arena Football League, or just about anywhere.

“I’m so happy to be Metta this morning,” he tweeted on Monday, “because at 4 a.m. I turned into the Geico lizard. I was so scared I would be in NY as a Lizard!!”

As his agent Doug Davis — a Knicks season ticket holder — said later, “This is a team that could use a smile.”

Four teams, including the Los Angeles Clippers, pursued World Peace after he cleared waivers on Sunday. But the Knicks were in the lead from the start, and they clinched his commitment Monday morning in Las Vegas, the site of the N.B.A.’s summer league, where Coach Mike Woodson, General Manager Glen Grunwald and the assistant general manager Allan Houston made their pitch.

Woodson laid out his vision for World Peace in detail, highlighting his championship experience and his leadership role, as well as describing how he would fit in with the current roster. The meeting went so well that World Peace and his agents stopped the recruiting process immediately afterward.

“He was sold,” said the agent Marc Cornstein. “It was the appeal of everything — hopefully bringing a title to New York for the first time since 1972-73, about coming home, about playing with this group of players.”

In the phone interview, World Peace mentioned the allure of reuniting with Tyson Chandler, his former teammate with the Chicago Bulls and another defense-first player. He was bursting with praise for Iman Shumpert, the Knicks’ young swingman, a defensive demon who is rapidly evolving into a true two-way player.

“He’s one of my favorite players,” World Peace said, adding that he has been texting encouragement to Shumpert all season. “I can’t wait to be on the floor and watch him every night. I think he has a chance to be whatever he wants to be.”

With World Peace, Chandler and Shumpert, the Knicks could have the core of a solid defensive unit, although it is unclear how Woodson plans to play World Peace — as a starting power forward next to Carmelo Anthony or as Anthony’s primary backup.

“Whether I come off the bench or start, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “Whether I’m a starting player or sixth, seventh man or eighth man. For me, it’s all about how can I help the young guys.”

The Knicks now have 11 players with guaranteed contracts and some still to fill on the bench, primarily at point guard and center. They can offer only minimum contracts at this point, having split their so-called mini-midlevel exception between World Peace and Pablo Prigioni.

The Knicks had been losing ground, both competitively and on the public-relations front, to the rival Nets, who have added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko this summer, seizing the upper hand in the Atlantic Division.

Until Monday, the Knicks’ only significant addition was Andrea Bargnani, a draft bust acquired from Toronto in a trade that had most Knicks fans befuddled or outraged. Adding World Peace at least is a sign of progress after weeks of treading water while the rest of the Eastern Conference improved.

The Knicks could have drafted Artest out of St. John’s with the 15th pick in 1999, but — to the great dismay of their fans — they opted instead for Frederic Weis, a French center who never played a minute for them. The Bulls took Artest with the next pick.

It has been nearly nine years since Artest, then with the Indiana Pacers, rushed into the stands in Auburn Hills after being pelted by a cup of ice, igniting the worst player-fan brawl in N.B.A. history. He was suspended a total of 86 games, a league record.

That incident seems like a distant memory now. In Los Angeles, Artest became something of a folk hero for his eccentric personality and his unlikely clutch shooting, including a 3-pointer that helped seal the championship in Game 7 of the 2010 finals. He used his postgame news conference that night to speak passionately about mental health awareness, and he later auctioned off his championship ring to benefit the cause.

World Peace, who was raised in Queenbridge, said he would continue those efforts in New York, with the same passion he brings to the court.

“You know me, I give 100 percent,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many years I got left in me. It’s about giving 100 percent in everything I’m doing.

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