When news of Gilbert Arenas' gunplay broke in the early hours of Friday morning, this was my immediate reaction: "Can we void his contract?" It didn't matter that this was the craziest story of the NBA season, or that my favorite athlete of all time had reportedly pulled a gun on his teammate... I just wanted to know if maybe, by the grace of the Salary Cap Gods, we could get rid of him. That's says a lot about where the Washington Wizards are right now.
But the thing is... It's not quite that simple. Not your typical tale of "Overpaid Superstar Needs To Go." It took a long time for things to get this bad.
It's a two-part story, really; about an athlete that reinvigorated a franchise, and an athlete that's slowly killing it. Gilbert Arenas is both of those people, which makes this both painful, and impossible to ignore. To skip ahead to why he needs to go, the part that's relevant today, click here. But it'd be incomplete to explain why the Wizards need to get rid of Gilbert Arenas without also explaining why that notion would have once seemed so ludicrous.
When Gilbert Arenas came to Washington D.C in 2003, pro basketball was juuuuust about dead in this city. Michael Jordan had done his damnedest to kill it. The greatest player in the history of the NBA had come to D.C. and failed to revive the franchise, displayed apathy toward the fanbase, and essentially deemed us unworthy of his affection or his full effort. It felt like a slap in the face. But when he left, you couldn't help but wonder if maybe he had a point.
It had been decades since the Wizards had won a playoffs series, and while the Jordan cameo piqued everyone's curiosity for a few years, Washington D.C. was a Redskins town first, last, and always. With Jordan gone and a roster full of re-treads and failed prospects like Kwame Brown, apathy was about to hit an all-time high.
Then Gilbert got here.
Michael Jordan was gone and the Wizards had been deemed a failed franchise. But the flip side meant that we didn't have to be a championship-caliber team to be deemed a success; suddenly, the expectations had vanished and anything positive was considered a bonus. And Gilbert -- 22 years old, stronger than most any guard in the league, and probably quicker, too -- was a big, big bonus.
In the entire NBA, you couldn't have picked a player who was a more perfect fit for this city than Gil. Any star player would have been a figurative "breath of fresh air" after Jordan, but Arenas' effects were literal. After Michael Jordan had sent dour ripples throughout the franchise and its fans, here was this career misfit, playing jester in the wake of Jordan's turn as king. Just like that, everyone remembered that it was okay to have fun with this stuff.
He threw his jersey in the crowd after every game. He played online poker at halftime. He had the most entertaining blog of any superstar athlete, ever. He held $20,000 shooting contests with Deshawn Stevenson. On Christmas, he'd take 200 underprivaleged kids to the movies. And he said things like this: "When I leave the NBA, I don't want my legacy to be, 'He won a championship ring.' I want my legacy to say, 'He played for the people. He gave everybody in the world hope that they can be just like him.'"
Will Leitch, former editor of Deadspin and noted skeptic of everything, once wrote the following:
To say that Gilbert is Just Like Us is oversimplifying it; Gilbert is only himself, and therefore all of us. His lack of pretense makes him human ... This is why, in twenty years, when we think of Lebron James, we will think of Gatorade, and when we think of Gilbert Arenas, we will think of ourselves.
It wasn't just that Gilbert Arenas was a good player, or even a superstar. But it just felt like this was destiny. If the Wizards were going to finally have a superstar in his prime -- after striking out on Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Kwame, etc., and landing players like Bernard King and Mitch Richmond just a few years too late -- it seemed appropriate that it'd be someone like Gilbert to finally carry the mantle as the "franchise player."
Again, DC's a Redskins town. The hardcore fans that stuck with the Wizards throughout the 90s were sort of a quirky bunch. It's only fitting that the face of the franchise would be someone that takes "quirky" to a whole new level. Gilbert was that crazy dude that nobody understood, but everybody loved. As he once explained his cell phone habits, "When I get a new cell phone, first thing I do is turn it off and call from my house phone and leave stupid little messages to myself. Like: 'It's me.' 'It's me.' 'This is Gilbert.' 'It's me.' 'It's Gilbert.'"
But more than just some "quirky" figurehead that Wizards fans embraced, there's something to be said for Arenas' underdog ethos. It's why he wore number 0 at Arizona, and then in the NBA--because that's how many minutes his critics predicted he'd earn.That number's only half the story, though. A funny anecdote for NBA announcers to tell during games, but the truth is more profound.
Born in Miami's rough Overtown section to a drug-addicted mother and an absentee father, his father finally adopted him at 3 years old, and the pair headed across the country to Southern California a few years later. There, Gilbert Jr. and Gilbert Sr. lived together, with Sr. bouncing from job to job while pursuing a fledgling acting career, and Jr. quietly creating a stir on the Southern California basketball circuits that'd eventually land him a spot at Arizona.
For all his basketball success, though, local powers like UCLA and USC didn't offer Gilbert a scholarship. And even after he'd gone to Arizona and made his critics look foolish for doubting him, he left school a year too early. As the 2001 Draft approached, he expected to be a first round pick, and spent money like one. When the draft arrived, just a few weeks after he found out his college girlfriend had been cheating on him with NBA players, he found out he wasn't getting drafted in the first round, after all.
Suddenly, there were loans to pay off, and no first round contract to pay 'em with. Even worse, he had to deal with the sting of having his girlfriend sleeping around, and 30 teams decide to use their first-round pick, and first round money, on someone else. (That year, the Wizards took Kwame Brown first overall.) Ultimately, the slights to Gilbert's ego would fuel a work ethic that was unparalled; the type of mindset you only see in a handful of guys in any sport.
It's what made an undersized, second round pick tweener from Arizona into one of the best guards in the NBA. And it's part of what made Washington fans really love him. It was about more than just a entertaining blogger who played practical jokes on teammates and catered to fans. For once, the Wizards had a bonafide superstar--someone that would outwork opponents in the offseason, beat 'em on the floor, and entertain us afterward. And he was a career underdog, just like the Wizards, so there was an even deeper bond.
Sometimes, things just happen perfectly. After being walked all over by the greatest player in the history of the sport, Washington lucked into one of the more likable superstars the game's ever seen.
Had the Wizards taken Arenas with the number one pick in 2001 (the second rounder would end up being the best player from that draft), he likely wouldn't have had the fuel that allowed him to become one of the hardest working players in the NBA. Had he gone elsewhere in the first round, and gotten the contract he wanted, he wouldn't have been eligible to become a free agent and come to the Wizards in 2003. Had Jordan not comeback with the Wizards, the roster would have been built around Richard Hamilton, and adding Arenas probably never happens. And if it hadn't been for the Jordan disaster, there might have been more expectations, and Arenas might not have fully blossomed.
But it all happened just right. When talent meets opportunity meets a franchise starved for success. Gilbert gave us everything. In 2005, 2006, and in 2007, when Arenas blossomed into one of the best players in the league. The Wizards finally had a superstar. He scored 60 points in a head-to-head matchup with Kobe Bryant. He hit countless game-winners. And more than anything, it got to the point where we didn't just hope for heroics, but by the middle of 2007, we full-on expected it from Arenas. He was that good.
For me, it all crested on Martin Luther King day, in an afternoon game against the Utah Jazz. January 15th, 2007. Against a worthy adversary in Utah's Deron Williams, Gil went nuts. He hit for 51 points and afterward, offered a typically hilarious explanation, saying, "My swag was phenomenal." I didn't even see the game; I was on a plane. Walking through the airport, though, I got a voicemail from my brother, who doesn't even like the Wizards that much. He was hysterical and screaming, and so was the crowd in the background.
"DUDE. Gilbert is just... Amazing. I don't even know what to say. Gilbert. Is. Amazing. He had fifty today, and he just hit a game-winning three. Before it even went in, he had his hands up and knew it was good. Gilbert is amazing."
My reaction? "So Gilbert had 50 and a game-winning three? Of course he did." That's what superheros do. He was the star of the city, and one of the most popular players in the entire NBA , and it all peaked that day. When he called his game winner, then turned around to the media and explained with a shrug, "My swag was phenomenal," well... That's as good as it gets. And as good as it would get.
Sometimes, things just happen perfectly--and then they don't.
Click here to read Part Two.
Tom Chiarella, Esquire Magazine. The Pathology Of Gilbert Arenas
Mike Wise, The Washington Post. The Story Of 0
This Awesome Photo Gallery From Wizznutz
Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated. The Incredible Lightness of Being Gilbert