A reliable friend of mine told me on Friday night that Gilbert Arenas was getting traded, and the deal sending him to the Magic was done, to be announced Saturday. It hurt more than expected.
The next day, like some sad sack sentimental, I spent the day Christmas shopping around D.C. wearing my Gilbert Arenas jersey. At one of the stores, a guy at the cash register stopped and said, "Mannn... I like that jersey you got on. Some real good memories right there."
I told him about the trade. "Damn," he said. "Really? Who'd we get?"
Some dude named Rashard Lewis, I tell him. He's pretty good, but nothing special.
"Damn! So that's it?"
Gilbert Arenas' greatest achievement in Washington D.C. was that he made this city love pro basketball again. The greatest player in the sport's history had just given us more hope than ever, and then crushed our hopes for good. "If Michael Jordan can't do it, then who can?"
The next year we found out: Gilbert could.
Almost overnight, his presence made Wizards fans forget about 20 years' worth of mediocrity and our two years of disaster with Michael Jordan. He converted Redskins fans, too. All the transplants that troop inside the Beltway with a new Congress—them, too. We all loved him, and we adopted him as our own.
Until this past weekend, I'd become numb to all that nostalgia. The Wizards have John Wall now, and keeping a surly, shoot-first veteran around just made no sense. They literally won the basketball lottery; no need to screw up a winning ticket by clinging to some failed dream from the past. They weren't going to win a championship with Gilbert Arenas on the roster, and sitting at rock bottom, what's the point of planning for anything but an NBA title team? It made sense to move Gilbert.
But you know when a relationship is slowly dying, neither side is happy, and a clean break is best for everyone? When that happens, it still sucks. I mean, trade or not, my dog is still named 'Gilbert'.
So yeah, trading Gilbert makes sense, but that doesn't make it easy. When things go bad and the breakup goes final, the head knows it's for the best, but the heart remembers the good times. The Gilbert we first loved. The bizarre interviews, the practical jokes, the blog, the nicknames. The playoffs, the game-winners. The only reason I ever started really caring about the Wizards was Gilbert Arenas. It's true of almost every Wizards fan I know.
It's one thing to like a team; technically, I was rooting for the Wizards when we played against the Heat Saturday night. But there's a distance there, if only for self-preservation. When "love" comes into the picture, that distance evaporates, and every success and failure feels like it's your own.
So when the Wizards lost to LeBron James the Heat Saturday night, blowing a five point lead with less than thirty seconds to go, it hurt. But only a little. That happened to them, the team that I like, but know isn't nearly competent enough to count on.
When the Wizards lost Game 6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2006--after Gilbert had hit a 30-foot three to send it to overtime and then missed two free throws in overtime to give the Cavs a chance to win--it happened to us, and it was the worst feeling in the world. Because for better or worse, the city of D.C. was 100 percent on board with Agent Zero and the Wizards. We ignored his flaws, exaggerated his virtues, and treated his team like an extension of ourselves. It was true love.
And if nothing else, with the relationship finally coming to an end this weekend, it's worth pointing out that until Gilbert came along, Washington sports fans had always kept the Wizards at arm's length. Partly for self-preservation, and partly because there just wasn't much to love.
With Gilbert, for the first time in decades, there was. He was the guy who'd hit dramatic game-winners one day and hold high stakes shooting contests the next day in practice. He wore number zero because nobody believed in him, and it fit perfectly with the Wizards identity. They were the Clippers of the East before he got here, and not even Washingtonians believed. But in D.C. and beyond, Gilbert gave everybody a reason to get invested.
He talked more honestly than any athlete in sports. He blogged about growing up without a mother, and told us about his elaborate paintball wars with younger players like Nick Young. He spent thousands of dollars so that he could throw his jersey into the crowd after every game. He explained to us why there's no such thing as shark attacks. He took hundreds of D.C. kids to go see Spongebob Squarepants for Christmas. He went to the Philippines and the people of Manila loved him, too. Everywhere he went, he was the people's champ.
As Will Leitch, former editor of Deadspin, wrote in God Save the Fan:
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.
But our memories are more complicated now.
Forget the charity work and the populist ethos; to many, Gilbert went from a dream to the latest example of pro sports' ongoing nightmare. He was a crazy, selfish athlete who was willing to risk $100 million to settle a bet with guns. His refreshing honesty had been replaced by truculent silence for the better part of the past two years. He seemed less spontaneous and refreshing, and more bi-polar and disturbing. Remember when he faked an injury? It was self-sabotage in the most literal sense possible.
Nothing encompasses Gil better than that Cavs game in 2006. For the Wizards, he was the ultimate superhero, capable of pulling up from 30-feet away and nailing a three pointer to send it to overtime. But ten minutes later, psyched-out by LeBron James, he missed two free throws, lost the game, and Washington was knocked out of the playoffs.
All superheroes are human, obviously. It just so happens that ours was more human than most. In his case, "mercurial" wasn't just a sportswriter cliche. There was something tangibly unstable about Gil as a superstar. And as doubt crept into our minds, it crept into his, too. As soon as circumstances threw him off balance, Gilbert's rise in D.C. spiraled downward. Two season-ending knee injuries later, and he wasn't the same person, let alone player.
Injuries and insecurities left him ravaged in body and spirit, and it's now time for a change. But that's life. Things happen and people change, and relationships change with them.
Steve Buckhantz is the play-by-play man for the Wizards, and his most famous catchphrase is yelling "DAGGER" to punctuate a shot that wins a game. It's the sort of tradition that hometown fans love, so naturally, Buckhantz' ad-libs have become an institution in D.C. over the past decade. But that's not necessarily a reflection on Buckhantz.
Nobody would have been watching Wizards games if it hadn't been for Agent Zero, and we wouldn't have such fond memories of "DAGGER!" if it hadn't been for all the times Buckhantz said it after each of the surreal, last-second miracles that Gilbert Arenas gave us.
He introduced a generation of D.C. fans to basketball and got us hooked. So if Game 6 vs. the Cavs is a metaphor for Gilbert the player, then Steve Buckhantz is a metaphor for what he meant to basketball in Washington. He gave us a taste of what it's like to have basketball be something that everyone loves. It became a communal experience around Gilbert. And like the guy at the register said looking at my no. 0 jersey, "Some good memories right there."
This is why, to paraphrase Leitch, in twenty years when we think of LeBron James, we will think of Nike and ESPN and maybe the Miami Heat. But when I think of Gilbert Arenas, I'll think of how it always felt cooler to lose with Gilbert than it would've been to win with LeBron. I'll think of the memories he gave us. The fans he created in D.C. and all over the country, and those three or four years where he saved basketball in this city.
The Wizards will find life after Gil, but it's hard to make the case there was much life before him.
And yeah, maybe it ended in heartbreak for both sides, but isn't that true of most relationships? It doesn't really matter, anyway. With any relationship, you don't get bogged down by the end and everything that went wrong. It's the good stuff that lasts forever.
Read more Gilbert tributes on SB Nation's Bullets Forever.