Gilbert Arenas Ruined My NBA Season
Far and away, though, what makes this year's Wizards such so Loose Balls-worthy (Terry Pluto's ABA chronicle, not Jayson Williams, but nice try) is the Gilbert Arenas/Javaris Crittenton firearms incident. Not just the actual showdown, which is really funny if you can suppress your moral gag reflex for a second.
There's also a special place in history for the bizarre aftermath-the cover-up, the FINGER GUNZ, the Wizards' attempt to erase Arenas from the public record, and finally, the realization by both parties that they were likely stuck with each other for the next few seasons. Best of all, it doesn't even seem to have done any permanent damage to the NBA's image. Salut!
Except, in one of those ironies that can only result from hitting up the devil with someone else's online dating account, the Arenas scandal did end up ruining my NBA season. Maybe that's a bit strong. I freely submit that there's been much to get excited about thus far, and we haven't even hit the playoffs yet. Between next generation teams on the rise (Thunder, Hawks), old teams refusing to die (Suns, Mavericks), weird teams from the sky (Bobcats, Grizzlies, Bucks), we've had plenty to talk about. What's more, while the Lakers, Magic, Celtics, and Cavaliers have stayed on top as expected, only Cleveland has been trouble-free dominant.
The league may be top-heavy as usual, but it's not a foregone conclusion that titans will clash and others will fall. Individually, Kevin Durant, Gerald Wallace, Josh Smith, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, and pretty much all the 2010 rookie point guards deserve mention.
About as rich as an NBA season gets, right? Sadly -- or maybe, you'll say, I'm getting what I deserved -- I'm having some trouble enjoying it.
Admittedly, I've been preoccupied and working too hard. However, one of the first things they teach you when you try to get a degree in counseling at the grocery store is that sometimes, we seek refuge or escape when the world causes us pain. In other words, my excuse tells us more than it deflects. After much soul-searching, I'm come to the conclusion that Arenas, and maybe even my willingness to get caught up in the post-scandal hype as anything other than Arenas unraveling, has cast a pall over watching games in 2009-10. If that makes you sick, let's be very clear about this: It has as much to do with my expectations for the league as it does Arenas.
But because I like to put on a human face, let's start with the Gilbert-for-Gilbert's-sake part. Say what you will about the man's behavior throughout, or his value as a player. As David Steele exhaustively explained, Arenas was good for the league, especially insofar as establishing its (indomitable) presence on the intertubes was concerned. More than any other figure, he showed the NBA that it was alright to have a personality -- that fans would eat it up, it could help market teams outside of their markets, and if vetted properly, not force nameless, faceless professionals on an 18-35 fan base that really does expect more than solid post moves and manly dignity.
Arenas knew this, but eventually lost control of the monster that had sustained him. His comments about wanting to remind Stern that this was still him, Gil, smacked of a certain heart-wrenching scene from The Wire (yes, it's a spoiler, but who hasn't seen this yet? If not, you'll probably cry at work. Even you.). It hurt.
More to the point, though, following Arenas to the bitter end -- based on the first few grafs, I may not even be done -- makes me feel tremendously disappointed. In him? Maybe. But can I blame an unusual athlete for where I'm willing to follow him? It's like the Pied Piper -- unless that tune was pure hypnotism, it must have had a beat that the kids could dance to. The league perhaps staked too much on Arenas, even as he sat injured; Arenas expected he could continue on through life with zero checks and keep his privileged status; and I refused to acknowledge that, after some point, Arenas could no longer be my point of reference for a new league. Gilbert Arenas has fallen, for now, and no one's come around to take his place.
Was I wrong all along? Should I, from the beginning, have understood that Gil-as-vanguard brought with it an understanding that he was bound to short-circuit at some point, or at least see -- despite the spring in his knees at the beginning of this season -- that post-injury, it had to be about business?
Maybe this is what fandom is, but I felt like I had to go down fighting with the ship, the version of Arenas that really stirred up my interest in the league again from the day he was drafted. He may not be done, and his legacy lives on. But if stuff like the dress code (before it shifted toward the center) marked the new right of the NBA, then Gil was its other extreme. Of course -- as with the dress code -- an equilibrium was bound to result. That Arenas just kept on upping the ante may have had a certain eff you cachet to it, but there's a reason Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison wanted off the island before the locker room incident.
That commitment was to a certain version of pro sports -- one that would have fit nicely into Loose Balls, or any other chronicle of the olden days that bothers to scratch the surface -- as it was Gilbert Arenas. He was just the only one who dared to, or couldn't help but, act in that direction.
The twist to all this? When Darko Milicic announced his intentions to leave the NBA, I was expected to weigh in because, well, I'm associated with a site that bears his name. What I realized then was what an uneven mess my obsession with raw, promising, maddening players has proven to be. Yes, there were success stories, but I could point to just as many outright whiffs or incompletes. The irony, though, is that since, Blatche and Amir Johnson have begun to look like they have at long last come along.
But that's neither here nor there. For myself and others, Gilbert Arenas wasn't just a different kind of basketball player. He fed into a new vision of what the league's public face might look like. That we failed to see that this would, as with all things David Stern, involve compromise, was incredibly short-sighted; the blind belief in Gil's ability to amuse and astound, even as he drew firearms and tried to talk his way out of a federal offense, was unfair to him, ourselves, and the rest of the sport.
Gil ruined my season, but it's all my fault. I can only hope that, when he returns, he does his best to help set me straight.