Gilbert Arenas turns 30 today, and who knows how scary this is for the artist formerly known as Gazo the Prankster. He now sits at home and waits for a chance to play basketball again, his quietness magnified by its deviation from his known personality. The video below of Washington fans reacting to the Arenas trade from Washington was shot around 50 hours after he was sent to the Orlando Magic in mid-December 2010.
Gilbert Arenas once called himself the Black President, but the way he governed the basketball court and his world around it after injuring his knee in 2007 was far from diplomatic. The former star’s fall from grace in the nation’s capital is, however, fitting of political scandal.
Many have painted Arenas a complicated person, from fans to media to teammates to team personnel. But he’s not as dense as a mortgage-backed security. No, it’s the digestion of Arenas that was always complicated. One story one day, another the next. His antics were often a disruptive force, pardoned by organizational higher-ups and accepted in the best “boys will be boys” way possible. What former coach Eddie Jordan once dubbed as “Gilbertology” often spilled into the headlines. The NBA has had characters galore, but Arenas’ idiosyncrasies and flaky personae, at their height, were unmatched.
He carried the insistent whimsy of a child with the ability to drop 60 points in a game, something that’s still only been done by nine different players 16 different times in the last 26 NBA seasons — Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Tom Chambers, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan (four times), and Kobe Bryant (five times). Arenas’ brand of roller coaster fun captured basketball fans in Washington, and dragged franchise to its only sniff past the first round of the playoffs in the last 28 seasons.
Arenas was also the first big-time blogging athlete, and also one who exemplified the ills of careless athlete tweeting in the early days of the social media tool. Now, even with much of the league directly available in a variety of online ways, plot-twists similar to Arenas’ candid character cannot be found anywhere near in abundance. While Shaquille O’Neal is known as the predictable goofball, graphically depicted as a clown in Free Darko’s Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History with quips ready-made for his cushy new television gig, Arenas was depicted riding a bike on a tightrope above the circus, taking a risk for your attention.
“At the end of the day, everybody in this business knows that superstars get away with certain things. And at the time, Gil was Gil. Gil was on top of the world, making game-winning shots,” DeShawn Stevenson told me when his team at the time, the Dallas Mavericks, visited Washington in February 2010. “He doesn’t go out, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t do stuff like that. So I think they kind of overlooked [the pranks] … everybody has something that’s bad. I think they over-looked that like it was his bad thing.”
The December 2010 trade that sent Arenas to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Rashard Lewis is a glowing wart on Orlando general manager Otis Smith’s inability to build a title team around Dwight Howard. For Wizard team president Ernie Grufeld, it relieved the knots in his stomach, and saved some money for his new boss, Ted Leonsis. Although, the current circumstance in D.C. likely doesn’t help Grunfeld’s stomach much.
Arenas’ knee, his psyche, and who knows what else, did not allow him any success on an Orlando team that got bounced by the seven-seed Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. In 1,070 regular season minutes with Orlando his averages per 36 minutes were 13.2 points, 5.3 assists, 3.6 turnovers, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals. He shot 34.4-percent from the field and 27.5-percent from beyond the arc. Arenas’ 8.6 PER with the Magic equated him to Wayne Ellington in 2010-11, and slightly below the 8.8 season PERs of Travis Outlaw and Hilton Armstrong. The Magic paid Arenas an estimated $11,720 per minute of game clock time on the court, spread out over 49 games, before they sent him the amnesty way in early December 2011. Orlando still owes him just under $60 million through 2013-14. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy recently fell on the sword and blamed himself for Arenas’ troubles in the Magic Kingdom.
In 21 games and 726 minutes with the Wizards at the beginning of last season, for which he was compensated an estimated $7,148 per minute of court action, Arenas’ numbers were more respectable — 18 points per 36 minutes, 39.4-percent on field-goals, 32.4-percent from three, a PER of 14.0. Still, no where near his once well-chronicled apex, nor a reflection of his time as a Wizard. In more than 350 regular season games over seven-plus seasons with Washington, he scored 8,930 points, good enough for eighth most in franchise history.
“I can’t remember past yesterday, so…” Arenas facetiously responded under the guise of a serious face upon his first trip back to Washington in February 2011 as a member of the Magic. He was being asked about bitter feelings toward the Wizards franchise in the aftermath of his locker room gun incident with Javaris Crittenton. After the game, a 110-92 Orlando win, Arenas still referred to D.C. as home. Most Washingtonians chose to fondly remember him with an appreciative and joyous ovation when he checked into the game off the bench. An audible minority chose to boo. It wasn’t championship-less Timberwolves fans welcoming back their Big Ticket in Kevin Garnett. It wasn’t Cleveland witnesses wanting their king LeBron stricken from the record. It was the polarizing Gilbert Arenas, the only player of epic legacy the Wizards have had while they’ve carried their current nickname. (If you’re wondering, Michael Jordan doesn’t count).
At the height of his career with the Wizards in 2006-07, in 74 games before hurting his knee, Arenas had a PER of 24.0, placing him 11th in the league, right above Steve Nash’s 23.8 — Nash’s ’06-07 was thought to be better than his previous two seasons in which he won back-to-back M.V.P. awards. Clearly Nash’s value on the court is much higher than a statistic could ever convey. Nonetheless, Arenas was supremely talented, and the difference from what he once was and what he seemed capable of just last season is significant. His per 36 averages in 2006-07: 25.8 points, 5.4 assists, 2.9 turnovers, 4.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals on 41.8-percent shooting from the field and 35.1-percent from long distance, where he made 2.5 threes per game. Those numbers would represent the last of his best.
The Wizards started that season slow, going 4-9 over their first 13 games. But by the end of January they were 27-18, and head coach Eddie Jordan would lead the Eastern Conference squad at the NBA All-Star game in Las Vegas the following month. During a break in the festivities, after a contingent of flying Elvis’ dunked off a trampoline, Arenas, an All-Star for the East, did the same, putting the ball through his legs while in the air. People ate such personality quirks up like half smokes. But that 2007 All-Star weekend would be it for the team constructed by Grunfeld that also featured Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. Fun Street came up on pro basketball like a D.C. pothole, many thanks due to the injury bug.
Jamison missed all of February with a sprained right knee; the Wizards went 4-7. Butler missed significant time that month with back spasms and a bruised knee forced him to miss time in March; the Wizards held on with a record of 7-8 that month. Then the April rains came. Days after returning from knee injury, Butler broke his index finger on the backboard trying to block Ruben Patterson’s shot, during a homecoming appearance in Milwaukee no less. Three days later on April 4 in Washington against the Charlotte Bobcats Arenas experienced that fateful collision with Gerald Wallace, tearing the meniscus in his left knee. The Wizards went 3-7 in the season’s final month and finished the year with 41 wins, 41 losses, and the seventh seed in the play0ffs. Jamison and a main supporting cast of Antonio Daniels, Jarvis Hayes and Darius Songaila were swept 4-0 by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
The issues with Arenas’ knee and the Wizards’ descent since have been well documented. Arenas missed all of 2007-08, save for 13 games, his knee injury drama becoming its own sideshow. The Wizards cobbled together a 43-39 season and a 4-2 playoff series loss to the Cavaliers, again in the first round. Handcuffed by circumstance — not wanting to lose their own free agents for nothing, compounded by one last championship chase by former team owner, the late Abe Pollin — the Wizards heavily invested in risky propositions.
There was a message of hope contained in re-signing the 32-year old Jamison and the shaky-kneed Arenas in the summer of 2008 to the grand total of 10-years, $161 million. Jamison was a great player and community guy, perhaps deserving of being overpaid with a four-year, $50 million contract. And Pollin had taken the zero to hero Arenas under his wing, who was in turn a personality that put butts in seats and made the franchise a lot of money.
Riddled by continued knee issues and his own erratic nature, Arenas earnestly strove for a return to the court. But he did not have reasonable physical restraint, nor people and treatment around him capable enough to deal with injuries such as his, physically and mentally. After continued surgical procedures on his left knee, Arenas saw an NBA court only twice by the end of the 2008-09 season, a horrid campaign for the 19-63 Wizards.
Then came 2009-10. Before guns triggered trades of Butler, Jamison, DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood, there was Arenas saying he felt profiled by the refs, Flip Saunders opting for gimmicks like pulling all five veteran staters in early in the third quarter after bad effort, and overall, a crumbling village of Wizards in an NBA kingdom, accented by the death of Abe Pollin at the end of November 2009. After Arenas asked Crittenton to “Pick One” of his novelty guns at the end of December and was subsequently suspended for the rest of the season by David Stern, on his January 6 birthday no less, the music had stopped. The thrill ride was over. In the NBA’s carnival, the Wizards had been reduced to a tightrope with no one to cross.
Perhaps for too long fans in Washington held on to the possibility of an Arenas return to glory. If you can shoot, you can shoot, right? No sir, in the NBA its often about leg strength and unwavering confidence. Arenas quickly seemed to be without either. But that’s not what made jettisoning him so easy for Grunfeld.
This past summer, people asked if Crittenton being charged with murder cast his card game dispute and gun involvement with Arenas in a different light. Whomever Crittenton really is, it’s hard to absolve Arenas’ penchant for crossing the line. The price he paid could be considered fair by most — the suspension, the money lost, the court case, the halfway house.
“Why can’t Tiger Woods get away with what he did when Lil’ Wayne can?,” I heard Arenas once wonder aloud in the Wizards locker room in late 2009, way before his gun incident. He speaking of Wood’s transgressions with women. Dissecting Gilbertology, he’s probably since wondered why Bryan “Baby” Williams, CEO of the aforementioned rapper’s record label, Cash Money Records, stood by Wayne’s side through gun charges while Grunfeld turned in Gilbert and his Desert Eagle to the NBA league office.
Arenas always considered himself an entertainer along the lines of a musician or an actor, so he never understood why his bad decisions came under such scrutiny on the sporting stage. He felt that as long as he was playing well, he was entitled to do as he pleased. And when he lost his effectiveness on the court, he thought he could cure everything with a joke.
No one cares to see the tightrope walker go back and forth all day; you either get to the other side or you fall. After hitting the safety net last year, Arenas remains entrenched in embarrassment bordering on irrelevance. No one knows if anyone’s going to extend him a ladder for a small climb from the depths, or if he’s just going to quietly fade under a deflating big top. It was a memorable performance nonetheless.