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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Arenas?

Article by Joe Wolfond
Once upon a time there was The Takeover, when young Gilbert Arenas exploded onto the scene, brimming with confidence, prancing, pranking, and freewheeling his way to NBA superstardom. Once upon a time Agent Zero stole our hearts with his charming eccentricities, mischievously dynamic play, goofball antics, phenomenal swagger, and above all, his unfettered love for the game of basketball. In Gil we saw not only a remarkable talent, but a personality that threatened to swallow the league whole. A second-round draft pick, he was ever the loveable underdog; a perpetual overachiever and self-made star. He defied critics who portended NBA failure. He proved that combo guards could indeed succeed in the pros. And he had fun doing it.
Even when his actions were a little misguided (like declaring that he would score a hundred points on Mike D’Antoni and Nate McMillan’s teams after they left him off the 2006 Team USA roster, or launching one-handed shots in the three-point shootout), we still pulled for him, because in spite of those occasional frivolities, we knew that the radiating bundle of ebullience known as Arenas would always be good for the game of basketball.
A lot’s changed since then. These days the Washington Wizards, the franchise that once wore Gil’s face, are doing their best to eradicate any trace of the man from the collective consciousness of their fans. All Arenas-related merchandise has been removed from the Verizon Center, he’s been edited out of Wizards team videos, and his banner which hung outside the arena is now nowhere to be seen. Three years of frustration for Arenas culminated in the bizarre catastrophe that took place in the Wizards’ locker room on December 21st. After the devastating knee injury that cut his iconic 2006-07 Takeover short, Gil missed all but ten games over the next two seasons before returning for 09-10 in what was supposed to be his glorious comeback tour.

He began by declaring that he planned to scale back all the joking and childish behaviour, and to be a more focused player who took the game more seriously. He set out to prove Washington right for signing him to a 6-year, $111 million contract, and to rebuild his legacy after he’d tumbled into irrelevance. Of course, things didn’t exactly go as planned. Arenas played sporadically, the Wizards stumbled out of the gate, and then news broke of Gil bringing guns into the locker room as part of a prank on teammate Javaris Crittenton. There’s no need to go into detail – the story is still a bit hazy and the facts seem to change every day – and really, it’s beside the point. Gil is now suspended indefinitely, because for one reason or another, he brought firearms into an NBA arena, an incredibly poorly thought-through decision, which defied everything the league has come to represent. And it is exactly what the association now stands for that lies at the heart of this issue.

The league had already begun to change when Ron Artest went roaring into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 2004. But the fallout from that infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl was dramatic, and the NBA would never be the same. David Stern and the league’s front office immediately set about to clean up the wreckage from the nightmarish episode. It began with requisite suspensions, none more severe than the season-long sentence handed to Artest. But Stern felt he needed to do more to repair the damage done to the NBA’s reputation.

What followed in the coming months were a handful of new policies put in place to try tidy up the image of the league. To combat the dissemination of hip-hop culture in the association, Stern implemented a dress code for all his players. To dissuade folks of the notion that basketball players were violent hotheads, he issued a mandate for referees to crack down on any on-court behaviour deemed inappropriate, meeting even the most modest taunts, jeers, or complaints with a quick whistle and a technical. Interviews and post-game press conferences began being scrutinized closely for anything that might be detrimental to the league. Fines were slapped on those who spoke out.

It continues today with the message being drilled into our brains by the new marketing campaigns for the NBA and NBA Cares program. It’s written everywhere in print in case we miss the point. The NBA is where caring happens. It’s where amazing happens. Dedication. Determination. Passion. Whatever. I have no fundamental problem with the ads, and I think Stern has the right idea with NBA Cares, but the ad campaign is specifically geared towards convincing the average viewer that the league is brimming with amazing, hard-working, moralistic, responsible citizens. God forbid anything should happen to explode that notion.
Maybe all of Stern’s remodelling has changed the league’s persona, but it hasn’t actually changed the players. They may show up to games looking spiffy, keep their mouths shut when they’re unhappy with an official, and do charity work, but most of them still do a lot of reckless, stupid shit. We shouldn’t have to be surprised when they do, because we shouldn’t be asked to expect more from them than we expect from ourselves.

What’s come with the league’s new mode of branding is the suppression of the NBA personality. On the court the players are often reprimanded for showing too much emotion; for getting angry in the heat of competition.

Off the court, they spew the same hollow, pre-packaged answers over and over, always careful to carry themselves like professionals, even though some of them aren’t even old enough to drink. It’s as if in order to make the NBA respectable, Stern felt the need to give the entire league a lobotomy. That is what initially made Gil such a revelation, and it’s a big part of why he now finds himself in hot water. As great as Arenas’ attitude towards basketball might be for the NBA, the league and its sponsors would still rather promote the understated, easygoing superstar who says all the things he’s supposed to say, than the spontaneous, volatile wild card.

LeBron James, the association’s unequivocal poster boy, has a squeaky-clean image, but what outsider really knows anything about his true character? From a young age, he’s been taught how to present himself, how to talk to the media, how to appear. He’s learned to keep people at arm’s length – not to act like himself, necessarily, but to act like the man who will sell the most sneakers. The NBA and Nike don’t sell LeBron James, they sell his face; he’s a brand just as they are. And this begs the question: Isn’t this method of branding just a set-up for disappointment, bound to blow up in the face of the league, its athletes, and its fans? To make the painfully obvious comparison, we know about as much about LeBron as we knew about Tiger. If LeBron is truly the upstanding young gentleman the NBA would have us believe he is, how will the league react if he ever ends up on the wrong side of the law? Will Stern give him the Arenas treatment, painting him a menace and ridding the association of his brand? Or will he realize that he simply has far too much invested in King James, and defend his honour to the bitter end?
As far as we know, Arenas could be a much better guy than LeBron. He could also be a much worse guy. The fact is we have no idea. But we know what the NBA wants us to think, which is why we should be wary of how these things colour our perception of Gil, and all the hell-raisers that have preceded him. And if LeBron were in fact to find himself in a sticky situation in the future, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to him, and the NBA, if players were marketed as mere human beings, instead of the infallible heroes they’re currently made out to be?

With Gilbert Arenas, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. If we’ve learned to expect anything from him, it’s that he will shatter any and all expectations that anyone has of him. Obviously that isn’t to say we should have expected him to bring guns to the Wizards’ locker room, but when put in perspective, does using guns in an imprudent attempt at prop comedy really fall that far outside our understanding of Gil’s behaviour? Yes it was a major lapse in judgement, an illegal act even, and one that put the NBA’s sacred image in jeopardy, but should it really change our perception of him that much?

Arenas is far from being the first NBA player tied up in a weapons controversy. Recall Delonte West, Stephen Jackson, Marquis Daniels, Sebastian Telfair, even Crittenton, Gil’s teammate who was involved in the incident, and reportedly actually loaded his gun. Those cases made headlines briefly, before being brushed aside, none inviting a punishment nearly as harsh as the indefinite suspension that Gil currently faces. Why?
It may be a combination of things, but the general consensus around the league is that the aforementioned players generally responded as they were expected to, issuing their perfunctory apologies, appeasing Stern, and playing the role of obedient soldiers, while Gil tweeted and joked and laughed and said “David Stern is mean” and even waved finger guns in the air during the introductions before his last game in Philly. He might as well have stuck a middle finger right in the commissioner’s face.
But again, should we have expected anything different from him in a situation like this? Not to defend the way he reacted, but I do think it’s slightly unfair to be suddenly judging him for showing the same candour that touched us all and helped invigorate the association not so long ago. For a man who has always drawn intrigue, even been respected for his insistence on going about things his own way, his response shouldn’t have been particularly surprising or appalling. Nevertheless, Mr. Stern felt slighted and decided to take firm action.
Regardless of who’s side you’re on, it’s heartbreaking to see Gil being exiled this way by the NBA, which had always welcomed his uniqueness, so long as they could reap the benefits. When Gil first started blogging, for example, it was still a remarkably fresh trend among athletes. What other NBA players were blogging, or really making any attempt to reach out to their fans, before Arenas started doing it? When Arenas rocked the blogosphere with his refreshing ruminations of the association, everyone else started jumping on board. Player blogs started popping up all over the place, and it helped pave the way for the twitter phenomenon which has swept through the league more recently. The NBA was proud to sponsor Arenas so long as he was selling merchandise and enticing more viewers. But now, with the media making a mess of this whole situation the league seems content, as it so often is, to adhere to the hero/villain dichotomy.

They’re either too lazy, or don’t care enough to convince the public that he’s the former, so for the sake of appearances they’ll treat him like the latter. That’s simply much easier than showing support for Gilbert through all the media scrutiny, and explaining to people that he is a fine young man who just happened to have made a colossal mistake. Instead, Stern has decreed that Arenas is “not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game.”
Arenas was right, David Stern is mean. Objectively speaking, it can be argued that Arenas’ actions were deserving of a suspension. But there should be no moral high ground from which David Stern or the Washington Wizards organization can look down on him. Not when both parties have sought to profit from his demise. The commissioner has used this scenario to protect his ego, flex his muscles and make an example of somebody. For the Wizards, this is their chance to get out from under Arenas’ burdensome contract, which they are attempting to have voided by the league. Even amidst this rampant controversy, there are angles to be seen and things to be gained. Just not for Gil.

The NBA is always quick to outlaw its perpetrators; to let the public know that the rare bad seeds shouldn’t be considered reflections of what the league is really about, and don’t embody its true values. But that doesn’t mean Gilbert won’t get the chance to repair his image. The league is equally quick to pounce on the opportunity to create some sort of comeback narrative.

Witness the NFL this year, uncomfortably sweeping the whole Michael Vick scandal under the rug, and instead trying to use the reinstated QB to demonstrate the value in bestowing second chances. In the past, the NBA has had to navigate similar waters with some of its stars, fitting them into a grand schema in one way or another. Kobe had his dalliance in Colorado, but he came back as the stone-cold assassin on a revenge tour, hungry for a ring, and ready to put the past behind him. That narrative worked just fine for the league. Stephen Jackson followed Artest into the stands in Detroit, then later fired a gun outside a nightclub, but he emerged as a leader on an inspirational Warriors team and began being touted as the quintessential teammate who’d always have your back and follow you into the trenches. Chris Andersen was banished from the NBA for two years for violating its substance abuse policy, but came back on a quest for understanding, forgiveness, and self-worth. The league decided it liked that story so much, it began producing Birdman T-shirts. Even Artest, who’s probably cost David Stern more sleep than anyone in the world, has been, if not embraced, then at least tolerated by the NBA. Last year during the playoffs, Artest was asked in a post-game press conference about a play in which he lunged into the stands after a loose ball. To this he answered, “I’ve been in the stands before,” drawing an eruption of laughter from the roomful of reporters. Just like that, they realized that they’d moved past the brawl and that yes, it was okay to laugh about it. The same thing will happen with Gilbert. Eventually.
So while the league’s front office has all but banned the very mention of Gil’s name for the time being, the fact is he will be back on an NBA court in time. When that happens, the NBA will do its best to keep Gil on his best behaviour, convince the public that he’s grown up, and turn the whole affair into a heartwarming story of redemption.

But the sad truth underneath all of this is that the Arenas we first fell in love with is probably never coming back. When he does take to an NBA court again, it will be with his head in a guillotine. All eyes will be on him, critics and league officials waiting for any excuse to let the axe fall. He’ll have to play the part of obedient mannequin that he refused to this time around, because after the way this debacle has played out, it’s safe to say he’ll do whatever he’s told in order to remain in the NBA.

More galling perhaps, is that this fiasco will serve as further justification for the league’s ban on outspokenness and personality. After the story broke, Gil insisted that he was still the fun-loving goofball that we all remembered. But he failed to realize that that is precisely what continues to make this whole thing so hard for some people to swallow. The last thing the NBA wanted to have to deal with was something like this from someone like Arenas. As the league’s most recognizable prankster-goof, he had a certain responsibility to maintain a good name. In one moment of foolhardiness he abandoned that responsibility. Now other radical eccentrics that enter the association in the future will have to answer for Gilbert’s mistake. And you can be sure that the league and its sponsors will be more hesitant than ever to market characters of his ilk, no matter how harmless they may seem.

In this age of internet and sports-obsessed media, it’s become increasingly common for athletes to hide as much of themselves as possible; to tread along lightly with bowed heads as they traverse the lonely and treacherous path of celebrity. The NBA is more than willing to help them do it. For Gil, that path now beckons. Maybe he’s brought this on himself, but at this point blame is irrelevant. One way or another, Agent Zero as we know him is leaving basketball for good, and that is everyone’s loss.

Joe Wolfond is an english student at Dalhousie University and a broadcaster for Dalhousie Tigers basketball on CKDU 88.1 FM and ssncanada.ca.

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