Ron Artest loved recess as a kid. At his elementary school, P.S. 122, after lunch students would either fill the auditorium to watch movies or empty into the yard behind the cafeteria and run wild. It depended on the weather. But rain or shine, the youngster known as Ron-Ron was happy. When indoors, he was entertained by DTV: Pop & Rock, which was a VHS compilation of songs from the 1950s set to Disney cartoons. (His favorite was Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater.”) He preferred, however, playing handball or punchball in the massive schoolyard. And that was where I broke up a fight between Ron and a friend of mine in the fourth grade.

Kosta* was a tough, stocky Greek kid with serious pluck, but this was a mismatch. Ron had him beat on height, reach and sheer aggression. "Ron was bothering my cousin and I went to defend her,” Kosta says today. "Then he punched me.” Basically, Ron hit Kosta and Kosta hit the floor. "Ron dropped him like a sack of potatoes,” remembers John Castellano, a witness to the scrap. Afterward, Ron stood tall breathing heavy, emphasizing his exhale. His lower jaw jutted out and his arms were extended, balled into fists. I stepped between him and Kosta, who was still slumped against a fence. "Thomas,” Ron seethed. "You don't understand. You don't understand.”

Two decades later, I'm recapitulating the story to Artest at the Café, a restaurant in the downtown Houston Hilton Americas. He laughs. In fact, he giggles a lot. "I definitely probably did that,” he says. "That sounds like one of my suspensions. When we were there, I got suspended every year. Every year.”

Before Ron Artest was winning the 1997 city championship at LaSalle Academy; before he led St. John's to within a game of the 1999 Final Four; before he was not selected by the New York Knicks in that year's NBA draft; before he was named 2004 Defensive Player of the Year; before he jumped into the stands and attacked a fan; before he was suspended 73 games for jumping into the stands and attacking a fan, Ron Artest was an angry kid. He fought with Kosta. He fought with Edgar, a snaggletooth, chubby kid he eventually befriended. He smacked a teacher for ending recess. He was intimidating—the flattop made him even taller. He was a frequent guest in the assistant principal's office. He was a living, breathing version of the Gooch.

"Not good,” says his old guidance counselor when reached. That's all he's willing to offer before hanging up. It's a slapdash dismissal. And not so different from how people still think of Artest today.


* Name has been changed.