Arenas the Opposite of NBA's Poor Image
The Arenas most knew dunked off of a trampoline at the All-Star Game -- to be exact, in the All-Star Game, while in uniform, during a time-out, along with a bunch of Elvis impersonators at the 2007 game in Las Vegas.
"That's why he's Gilbert,'' TNT analyst Doug Collins said on the broadcast that night when that moment was replayed. "That's the beauty off his game, and that's why you also sometimes shake your head.''
Arenas' career has been filled with head-shaking moments, but the overwhelming majority of them -- up until his public comments, tweets and pregame finger-gun routine prompted Stern to punish him while law enforcement officials were still investigating last month's locker-room incident -- were ones that fans eagerly embraced.
In extreme contrast to the way Arenas has been described (often by peripheral followers of the NBA) as "typical'' of a league perpetually accused of harboring criminals and criminal behavior, Arenas' persona since entering the league in 2001 has gone completely against type. In fact, his image has been nearly the polar opposite of the stereotypes the NBA and its players have lived with for at least the last decade, that of a "thug'' totally divorced from the reality of their fans' lives.
On the contrary, Arenas connected with fans in ways that few big-time athletes in any sport had before. His blog on the league's official Web site, which he maintained until last season, set the standard for all others: open, honest, engaging, uninhibited, colorful, instantly and constantly quotable, and as funny as anything on the Web, athlete or not.
Fans, primarily of the Wizards but quickly throughout the NBA, bought into the rationale that led to his taking the number 0 -- as he has told it numerous times, it was because he was told when he arrived at Arizona for his freshman year that he would probably get "zero minutes'' -- and thus into his nickname, Agent Zero. Those same fans, normally uninterested in letting a player pretentiously give himself a nickname, also bought into his second, "the Hibachi," one he created in the same 2006-07 season in which he made the All-Star Game. In that very same season was when he coined the phrase "phenomenal swag,'' to describe (as best as it can be described in mere words) the kind of attitude that produces the game-winning shots that he was beginning to make his trademark.
That season, in fact, was the pinnacle of Arenas' career: that All-Star Game was his third, but the first in which he was voted to start. (Another example of Arenas' unique world view -- one reason he said he was so excited about starting was the chance to take part in the Shaquille O'Neal-choreographed dance during player introductions.) He was ridiculed for signing as a free agent with the Wizards in 2003 because the franchise was still in a two-decade run of losing, playoff-free ball -- but with him, they had the best record in the Eastern Conference at that All-Star break, and the coach with whom he'd had a complicated relationship, Eddie Jordan, had earned the East All-Star coaching berth.
Most of all, he had endeared himself to all but the most cynical fans, particularly in Washington, where he already had long established a habit of tossing his jersey into the crowd after home games. Arenas was the most popular, magnetic pro athlete in the area. Before Alexander Ovechkin fully blossomed for the still-downtrodden Capitals, and while the Redskins were changing coaches and bringing expensive newcomers in and out regularly, the competition wasn't even close. The Wizards were also the most successful pro franchise in town, for the first time since their championship days in the late 1970s, and Arenas was largely the reason, thanks to a stunning array of last-second game-winners, and the four straight playoff berths they helped generate.
Arenas managed all of this while never, by all accounts, changing that persona for better or worse. At one point, he casually revealed that before games and at halftime, he sometimes played video poker in the locker room. He made his 25th birthday party at a D.C. nightclub the social event of the year. When he began cashing in on endorsements, his first shoe campaign centered around the "Zero'' story, with evocative hand-drawn depictions of his career, including his sitting on the bench trying to amuse himself. From there, though, he branched off with video vignettes that portrayed him as, among other things, a spy, a chef, a cross between Gilligan from Gilligan's Island and the Tom Hanks character in Cast Away, and the President, some of which featured a man in a lobster costume.
While showing that side of him, Arenas also put his charitable side on display. The idea of Agent Zero gave birth to the foundation he named "ZeroTwoHero,'' mainly to support children's causes. In that same 2006-07 season, he began donating $100 per point to the Washington public schools, which, like most major city schools, are wretchedly underfunded and in debt. Owner Abe Pollin and his family's own foundation matched his donation. When he blew out his knee near the end of that season and missed most of the next season -- presuming he remains suspended for the season, he will have played in just 45 of a possible 254 games since his injury -- he came up with a formula to keep up the level of his donation, and had continued it up until the suspension.
His connection to the city, at a more profound level than just an entertaining player, is partly what led Pollin to re-sign Arenas to a six-year, $111-million contract in the summer of 2008. The day the contract was announced, the then-84-year-old Pollin said of Arenas: "Not only is he a fantastic athlete, but he is a fantastic human being ... I'm honored that he represents me and is the kind that I want to be represented.''
Absolutely nothing about any of this put Arenas in a category with other players, in the NBA or other leagues, who had earned the wrath of their sport and the public. Ron Artest, Latrell Sprewell and Dennis Rodman, to name three from the last two decades in the NBA, all had past incidents of varying sizes and degrees that had telegraphed later problems to an extent. In 2003, Arenas had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession of a concealed weapon, after he was pulled over driving in the Bay Area and a gun was found in his car. That summer -- the same summer in which he signed with the Wizards -- he appeared unexpectedly on a roster in the San Francisco pro-am league. He said after his game that he was in the area to perform his required community service and was playing at night after picking up trash on the side of local roadways during the day.
It wasn't obvious then that it might be a sign of things to come, because as a player who had entered the NBA at 19 and was still forming as a player and an adult, Arenas' approach to virtually everything, then and now, was unpretentious, casual and lighthearted. At the time, it was just far less out of place and inappropriate than some of his comments and behavior as the current gun investigation has played out.
Again in the summer of 2003, after he was awarded the NBA's Most Improved Player trophy while still a Golden State Warrior, he talked about his impending free agency and what was then expected to be a $7 million-per-year contract (which turned out to be nearly $11 million when the Wizards signed him). He also talked about playing pickup ball in area high-school and rec center gyms, sometimes in street shoes, usually against whoever showed up. He was completely unconcerned about the potential for an injury that could ruin his first, long-awaited chance to hit the jackpot. His expression and tone of voice said, in essence, why would he worry about that?
The personality that emerged and became so popular in Washington clearly was not something he created when the opportunity arose. The story of his choice of number 0 emerged in his rookie season, after being drafted in the second round by the Warriors. In training camp, the guard who had played just two seasons at Arizona and was considered a sleeper at best, predicted that by midseason, he would be the starting point guard. Indeed, after sitting on the bench for virtually the entire first half of what became a 21-win season, he was put in the starting lineup after the All-Star break and did not come out the rest of his two seasons with the Warriors.
By the time he did leave as a free agent -- because the Warriors did not have the cap room to re-sign him under the rules at the time -- the team had leaped to 38 wins and playoff contention until the final week, and two websites had been started to encourage him to either stay with Golden State, with fans in Denver starting a third to beg him to sign with the Nuggets.
The gun incident in the Wizards' locker room indicates that there was much about Arenas that was not known to the public. But what was known was nowhere near what that same public has largely come to believe about NBA players. Gun-toting, authority-scoffing thugs generally do not stick on fake beards, draw a face on a basketball and play one-on-one with a giant lobster.