Gilbert Arenas made it to the NBA out of improbable circumstances, thrilled fans with his personality and antics, and parlayed his ability and showmanship into a $100 million-plus career. His future in basketball is now in the hands of a bunch of lawyers.
It's a cautionary tale to anyone lacing up his free sneakers in NBA locker rooms across America -- those foolish, immature, and ill-prepared enough to think their world of dribbling, shooting, texting, and tweeting will never collide with the segment of society where they wear suits and robes. And we're not talking about the freshly pressed robes that hang in the players' closets at the Ritz-Carlton or some other road-trip playpen. We're talking about the kind of robes people wear when they wield gavels and put people in jail.
The filing of a felony gun charge against Arenas on Thursday in Washington, D.C., is not the end of this story. For Arenas, it is not time to tear off his jersey and toss it into the stands. It is only halftime. The best legal minds from the best law schools were huddled in conference rooms in New York and Washington on Thursday night, reading incongruous language and trying to figure out their next move. For Arenas -- the jokester, the clown, the life of the party until now -- the next move involves throwing not his jersey, but rather himself at the mercy of the court.
Law enforcement sources familiar with the case told CBSSports.com that Thursday's single felony count -- leveled against Arenas in an information by prosecutors instead of via a formal grand jury indictment -- provides overwhelming clues as to what happens next. Prosecutors charged Arenas with one count of carrying a pistol without a license, a felony punishable by a maximum of five years in prison. Since Arenas had four firearms in the Washington Wizards' locker room on Dec. 21, they could've charged him with three more felonies and four misdemeanors -- one unlawful possession of a firearm count for each weapon. The totality of those charges would've carried a maximum sentence of 24 years.
Were they won over by Arenas' smile, his sense of humor, or his crossover dribble? Did they want signed Agent Zero jerseys for their kids? Were they simply in a good mood? Not at all. The single felony charge, sources said, signaled the strong expectation that Arenas will plead guilty to that count in exchange for not being indicted on all other charges prosecutors have at their disposal. It is a half-court trap from which Arenas has only one way out. If the three-time All-Star takes the most sensible option, a guilty plea is expected to happen quickly, probably as early as Friday.
In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors likely would recommend a sentence that does not include jail time. That ultimately will be up to the judge, one of several Arenas still has to face.
|Gilbert Arenas' deal has more than $80 million left over the next four years. (Getty Images)|
But that may not be all, and that's where public opinion and the media feeding frenzy have gone completely off the rails since CBSSports.com first reported Dec. 24 that Arenas was facing a firearms investigation. Language in the official suspension letter Stern sent to Arenas, a person who has read it told CBSSports.com, left the door open to further punishment by the Wizards on top of Stern's justice. The indefinite suspension, Stern wrote, was "without regard" to any action the Wizards might take.
Stern cited three related offenses in the suspension letter: Arenas' possession of a firearm, the confrontation with teammate Javaris Crittenton at Verizon Center, and his public statements about the ordeal. A crafty attorney would argue -- and a grievance arbitrator might agree -- that all of this was related to the same offense. Under the collective bargaining agreement, a player cannot be punished for the same infraction by the league and the team unless "the egregious nature of the act or conduct is so lacking in justification as to warrant such double penalty."
There is no disputing that Arenas violated league and team rules, possibly broke the law, and acted like a fool after the fact. But if that were the threshold for letting teams weasel out of bad contracts, half the contracts in the NBA wouldn't be worth the PDFs they're emblazoned upon.
"We will continue to lend our full support to Gilbert and assist him in every way possible to see this matter through," Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBA Players Association, said in a statement.
But Stern's reference to his suspension being "without regard" to any action by the team should frighten Arenas, the union, every player employed in the league, and every one of the other 29 teams employing them. Whatever the length of Arenas' suspension, the Wizards cannot be allowed to double their fun by voiding Arenas' contract, which has more than $80 million remaining over the next four seasons.
"I don't think there's a grievance arbitrator in the country who would allow that," said a person familiar with the legalities of the CBA.
Nor should they. As a matter of law, if Latrell Sprewell couldn't be suspended and have his contract voided for choking P.J. Carlesimo, what possibly could be the justification in this case? As a matter of good business, how could the rest of the teams on the chase for LeBron James in 2010 allow the Wizards to use Arenas' poor judgment and inane behavior as an excuse to clear massive amounts of cap space and fix one of the biggest mistakes the franchise has ever made?
If Stern wants to come down like a jackhammer on Arenas for apparently becoming the first player to be caught with firearms in an NBA locker room, so be it. If he chooses to make him an example that professional basketball and idiotic gun play cannot ever mix, I'm all for it. Some players are as furious as I am that Arenas so callously poked fun at the serious issue of gun toting with his fake guns salute in Philadelphia on Jan. 5. They know Arenas effectively aimed public scorn, polluted by stereotypes, directly at them that night. Arenas didn't have a license for his guns, but he issued another kind of license to people who insist on believing that the NBA is nothing but "a bunch of thugs," one player told me.
The kind of behavior exhibited by Arenas throughout this scandal can't be tolerated. But neither can a team's efforts to use it as an excuse to move on to bigger and better things. It's one thing to tear down banners, box up the No. 0 jerseys, and edit the pregame video performance. It's quite another to use someone else's mistakes to clean up your own.
A person familiar with the union's strategy said any effort by the Wizards to void Arenas' contract would be "contested vigorously." As it should be. Arenas may very well receive a get-out-of-jail-free card from the legal authorities. That doesn't mean the Wizards should get one, too.