Wizards Nearing Zero Hour With Arenas
Taking it down, said a spokesman for Washington Sports and Entertainment (which operates the arena and the team), was "an organizational decision,'' and it does not necessarily have to be taken as a sign that the Wizards have completely washed their hands of their one-time franchise player. The suspension handed down to Arenas by the NBA Wednesday was still "indefinite,'' and not only has the NBA not spoken to Arenas yet, the legal process is still far from finished.
In fact, on Friday head coach Flip Saunders said before the game that he had appeared before a grand jury in D.C. Superior Court earlier that day to discuss the Dec. 21 incident in the Wizards' locker room involving guns belonging to Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton. Saunders implied that other players had also spoken to authorities about the case Friday.
Nevertheless, if any act ever spelled "divorce'' between a team and a player, it was of the banner disappearing -- and technically, that player was still part of the team. The only comparable action by a team with one of its players in recent years was taken by the San Francisco Giants early in the 2008 season, when wall banners and decorations commemorating historic moments in Barry Bonds' career were removed from AT&T Park. But that was after Bonds had been allowed to leave at the end of his contract at the end of the previous season -- and after he had been indicted in the offseason on federal perjury charges related to the BALCO investigation.
Several players had not known that the Arenas banner had been taken down until they were told by reporters after the game, and seemed bothered by the news. "It's just sad, because he worked so hard to get where he's at,'' said DeShawn Stevenson, who described Arenas as "like a brother.'' "Second-round (pick), nobody knew who he was, and to make his name, it's sad that he has to go through this.''
With the Wizards, however, all images of Arenas had also been removed from the team Web site by Thursday, and his jersey was taken off the shelves in the team store and at the concession stands; it also was no longer for sale at the team site or at the NBA's online store. Eight other players' jerseys were displayed on the Wizards' site, as well as a generic one with two zeros.
Arenas also was asked by the team not to appear at games or at team functions, although he is not prohibited from coming to the arena. (His locker was not cleaned out Friday night, nor his nameplate taken down from above it, although all it held was a belt, six pairs of basketball shoes and a trading card of assistant coach Sam Cassell.)
From those vantage points, the public face of the franchise no longer belonged to the suspended All-Star. Inside the arena, though, two photos of Arenas -- along with other stars from teams that played there, such as Alex Ovechkin and the WNBA Mystics' Alana Beard -- still hung in the media work room at court level. And on the mural of action shots across from the entrance to the Wizards' locker room, there still were three pictures of him.
Meanwhile, a reader posted this on the Washington Post's Web site Friday: "You know ... my season tickets have pictures of Gilbert on them. Do you think I can make the Wizards organization re-issue them. They had no problem removing the poster. Just wondering.'' The game tickets do include images of players, including Arenas.
Otherwise, the organization was putting into action the statement issued by the team on Wednesday, and signed most prominently by Irene Pollin, the owner and widow of the late Abe Pollin, and their sons Robert and James, along with team president Ernie Grunfeld. "Under Abe Pollin's leadership, our organization never tolerated such behavior, and we have no intention of ever doing so," the statement read in part.
Between that and the potential for criminal charges being brought against Arenas -- and the likelihood that commissioner David Stern is in no hurry to change his mind about judging Arenas "not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game'' -- the Wizards are showing signs not only of moving on into the near future without Arenas, but distancing themselves from him permanently. The possibility still exists that the Wizards will try to void the remainder of the six-year, $111-million contract he signed in the summer of 2008, but what avenue they would take with that, if they do, remained uncertain.
Players, officials and Saunders spoke of Arenas not by name but by situation -- as a "distraction.''
"I think what it is, to be honest with you, it's almost a surreal situation,'' Saunders said before the game. "You almost are in more of a foggy-type situation than anything. We had some players today who had to deal with that, that have to play. They're used to being in an afternoon where they rest and prepare; instead of that, they're having to talk and those things, and that makes a difference. We're doing as best as we can. It's important for us to cooperate as far as the authorities, whatever we can to cooperate, to accelerate the process.''
To add to the "surreal'' atmosphere, the players were awaiting word on how the team would discipline them for participating in the mock-shooting with Arenas in the pre-game huddle before Tuesday's game in Philadelphia. (It was reported later that four of them were fined $10,000 each.) Also, it was unveiled earlier in the day that gambling on team flights had been banned in the wake of the incident between Arenas and Crittenton, which according to one report flared up over a debt of as little as $1,100 from a card game. Finally, another report had surfaced, from TMZ.com, that a security camera in the locker room had caught the entire altercation, and that Washington police were trying to obtain the recording. It could not be confirmed, though, that there actually is a security camera inside the locker room.
"Obviously,'' Miller continued, "anyone who is anyone who has been around here understands it's a distraction. We have to handle it as professionals. It's not going to be easy, but is what it is.''
If the Wizards had fully separated themselves from Arenas, however, Miller seemed to have missed the memo. "I'll tell you one thing,'' he said, after being reminded of the team's 11-21 record and the loss of its signature player, "if we get our full arsenal back and we get on a run, there aren't gonna be many teams that are gonna want to play us.''