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December 8, 2012

OKC villain on the court, work-in-progress off it

OKLAHOMA CITY — To Thunder fans, Metta World Peace is a devil-like villain. He is No. 15 in their game programs but No. 666 in their hearts.

They watched him smash his elbow into the side of James Hardin’s head during the 2012 NBA playoffs — and thought, “Something is not right with this dude”.

They watched him Friday, when the Lakers visited OKC for the first time since that fateful postseason series, and saw him stare down the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka, coiling like a cobra ready to spread violent venom at a moment’s notice — and they thought, “This dude needs help”.

To which, World Peace says: Tell me something I don’t know.

“Seven years ago,” he said. That’s when the Los Angeles Lakers star forward decided to re-enter counseling for anger, marriage, and parenting issues.

World Peace grew up poor in Queensbridge, N.Y., in an unstable home. His parents separated when he was 13, and his dad was diagnosed with bi-polar, an often debilitating mental disorder that can be inherited.

Now, he talks to Santhi Periasamy, a Houston-based psychologist about everything from on-court frustrations to his family life and media scrutiny.

“Counseling is a good chance to express my feelings,” World Peace said Friday. “It helps me to get control of my emotions.”

Thunder fans expressed their emotions Friday and showed that their memories are significantly longer than Peace’s short fuse. His introduction was greeted by the loudest boos of the evening. He drew cat-calls in every period and re-entered the realm of devil villain when he and Ibaka nearly locked horns with 2:56 left in the game. They had to be separated.

Fans are right to boo the on-court behavior of World Peace. But they’re wise to remember that on-court behaviors are only one part of the man.

Fans aren’t booing the whole man. They don’t know the whole man, who realized he needs help and is getting it.

Sources say mental health advocacy has become the biggest part of World Peace’s life. He’s spoken to Congress in Washington as an advocate of mental health. And this summer, he auctioned his 2010 NBA Championship ring for $651,006 and donated the money to mental health charities.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” Lakers teammate Jordan Hill said. “I didn’t know about that, but it doesn’t surprise me. You expect things like that from Metta.

“If he’s at a stoplight and sees a homeless person, he’ll roll down his window, open his pocket, and give him money. I’ve seen him do it. That’s just the way he is.”

Antawn Jamison, who joined the Lakers in July, said World Peace is a caring person. “That’s the thing that surprised me when I came here,” Jamison said. “He was one of the guys who really wanted to get to know me when I got here. It’s dog-eat-dog on the court. You have to be tough and dominate. But he does a good job of turning it off when he’s off the court.

“As intimidating as he is on the court, he’s opposite off of it.”

Patients at the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA found that out this summer. World Peace visited the hospital and spoke to 13 adults who suffer from mental disorders. After visiting with them for half an hour, he spoke to 23 children facing similar challenges.

His message: You and I are not so different. We have the same problems. I make mistakes.

So you don’t have to tell World Peace he needs help. He knows it. And he’s doing something about it.

Boo the bully behavior. It calls for that.

But respect the man who realizes his issues and takes the hard steps toward help. It more than calls for that.

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