Metta World Peace keeps everyone’s head straight.
The New York Knicks forward, who signed with his hometown team this off-season, is riding on a double-decker tour bus in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, along with 22 fifth-graders from a Bronx public school, their teachers, several Madison Square Garden staff members, and new teammate Andrea Bargnani.
World Peace, who changed his name from Ron Artest in 2011, is participating in a community event run by the team’s philanthropic arm, the Garden of Dreams Foundation. The kids cruise around in a bus with two NBA players for an hour, see some tourist attractions, then get treated to pizza. The problem: this tour bus is pretty tall, and the city’s many traffic lights hang pretty low above the street. “Watch your head,” World Peace says as the bus chugs under a light. “Watch your head.” Whooaaaaa the fifth graders yell, after what feels like a close shave. The bus approaches another light. “This is a dangerous one,” says World Peace, looking a bit freaked out. “Watch this light. Watch your head.”
The tour guide tells some people that a few of his colleagues have ended up in comas, after hitting traffic signs while standing on the bus. World Peace turns to one of the kids sitting him near him. “You’re on light lookout,” he says.
On a beautiful fall afternoon in New York City, everyone stays seated and safe. In theory, World Peace was supposed to help lead the tour. But the microphone wasn’t working. Plus, as a kid who grew up in a Queens public housing project, in an outer borough, places like Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Radio City Music Hall are as foreign to him as they are to these kids from the Bronx. Midwestern tourists have a closer connection to the city.
World Peace has never been to the Statue of Liberty, had never been to the World Trade Center, and went to the Empire State Building just once. “It’s another world, because when you don’t have money, when are you going to go into the city?” says World Peace. So World Peace has more questions for the tour guides than any of the kids do. What are the dimensions of Central Park? Who stayed at the Chelsea Hotel? A staffer gave World Peace cue cards, with factoids about some tourist spots. He eagerly read them, but didn’t get to use them. “It would have been fun,” says World Peace. “Maybe next year.”
No biggie: by not playing tour guide, he had more time to banter. That’s where he’s in his element. As soon as he arrived on the bus, which was parked in front of Madison Square Garden, he gave out souvenir bags to the kids. A crowd gathered on the sidewalk to watch. “Take no prisoners,” yelled one man, who was holding a Double Big Gulp cup, filled with a substance that looked a lot like beer. “Take no prisoners, man. We’re back.” World Peace tossed the guy a gift bag too, from the top of the double decker bus. “Thank you, Metta!” he yelled. “Metta, I’m so happy we’ve got you on our team.”
Once on the bus got rolling, the kids peppered World Peace with questions.
“Can I call you Juan?” says one kid.
“You can call me anything you want to call me,” World Peace says. “Everyone call me a different name. I never respond to the same name. What’s my name?
“Ron,” says another kid.
“What’s my name?,” he asks another.
“Nope, you’ve got to give me a different name.”
“What’s my name?” he asked while turning to the next kid.
“Can I call you Bob The Builder,” a kid asks World Peace.
“You can call me Bob the Builder,” he replies.
The bus passes a Garret Popcorn shop, and World Peace hears the guide mention Oprah Winfrey. “What about Oprah?” he asks.
“Ron, back there is Garrett Popcorn, it stated in Chicago,” says Allan France, the tour guide who works for City Sightseeing New York. “She has her episodes, ‘My Favorite Things,’ and that was one of her favorite things. Oh my — the best popcorn ever right there. My favorite is the caramel popcorn with the mixed nuts. Yum. Yum. Yum.”
“Wow,” says World Peace. “I wish I could have popcorn.”
“Why can’t you?” asks France. “Does it stunt your growth?”
“It stunts my performance,” World Peace says. “I mean, corn is like a lot of starch I think, right? And sugar. No good. No good.”
A staffer hands out foam Statue of Liberty crowns for all the kids. “Pass it back,” World Peace chants. “Pass it back. Pass it back.” World Peace puts on his crown, but instead of putting the back part behind his head — New York Tourism 101 — he straps it under his chin, which also causes his ears to stick out. The kid sitting across from him has a huge Dr. J afro; the foam doesn’t really fit. “Put it on,” World Peace chants at him. “Put it on. You can do it. You can do it.”
At one point, a fifth grader notices a billboard for Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. It’s not subtle. The boy, being around 12, tells the whole bus about it. Soon, everyone is screaming. “We’re going to re-route this bus,” World Peace says. Then, another fifth grader turns to World Peace. “Remember when you were playing, and you went like that to James Harden?” he asked, mimicking an elbow. During the 2012 playoffs, World Peace leveled Harden, and was suspended for seven games. “No,” World Peace replied. “Absolutely not. That never happened.”
“I looked it up on YouTube,” he responded.
“Absolutely not,” said World Peace. “Absolutely not. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In Times Square, the bus rolled passed a gigantic LeBron James billboard. “We’ve got to take that picture down,” World Peace says. “That’s ridiculous.” Soon, World Peace is leading a “Let’s Go Knicks” cheer. “We’ll take our city back!” World Peace says, his voice rising. “Let’s get motivated! Let’s get the Nets out! Let’s dethrone the Heat! Louder, louder, louder.” The Times Square crowd is impressed with the pep rally. “Everybody is looking at us!” a fifth grader yells.
New York hasn’t forgotten that the Knicks passed on World Peace 14 years ago, when the team took French center Frederic Weis in the first round of the NBA draft, one spot ahead of the New York native, who played his college ball in Madison Square Garden, for St. John’s. World Peace grew into an All-Star; Weis never played a game for the Knicks. In 2004, NBA commissioner David Stern suspended World Peace for the season, after he charged into the stands to fight fans during the infamous Malice in the Palace brawl. After he came back, World Peace’s eccentric behavior kept giving teams fits. But he won a championship in 2010 with the Lakers. Now, he’s trying to help bring one to New York, which has gone 40 years without a title.
“Me and my psychologist, we work on not making this a personal thing,” World Peace tells TIME. The group has headed to a mid-town pizzeria for dinner; World Peace is still wearing his foam crown as he talks. “When things get too personal, you forget about the actual goals. You get lost in that emotion.” Controlling this emotion won’t be easy. “It is personal,” says World Peace. “Cause I’m from the city and we don’t have a championship. It can get frustrating at times not having a championship here in New York City.”
How does he cope? “We do a lot of breathing techniques,” World Peace says. “A lot of understanding what I went through as a child, the environment I grew up in. I understand my emotional levels. I understand me. So understanding all of that, I’m able to control most situations, before situations get the best of me.”
World Peace has to talk to a few more people, then go eat with the fifth graders. Any final thoughts he wants to share? “Look out for my new sneakers,” he says. “They’re going to be interesting. We’ve got stages. People will see Metta World Peace on their shoes. We’re going to come out with one pair, a normal pair, and the second and third and the fourth pair are going to become more bold. We’re going to show you my emotion on the shoe.”
How, exactly? Metta says wait and see.