Happy-Go-Lucky Gilbert is gone, a lost treasure that lived in simpler, happier times. That Gilbert Arenas is as nonexistent as his former nickname, Agent Zero, which no longer matches the No. 9 on his Wizards jersey.
|Once Agent Zero, Gilbert Arenas is now just trying to fit in. (Getty Images)|
And if it's killing me, imagine what it's doing to Gilbert Arenas himself.
The unraveling of one of the NBA's most unique personas -- and that's what we let him be, not a real person but an aura -- is terribly difficult to watch. It has to be unbearable to live.
And it's time for it to stop.
Arenas, a man of extremes both on the court and most certainly off, has done it again. All the yucks and nicknames and gamesmanship that made him Agent Zero just proved Arenas was overcompensating for something. Something deep and dark and hidden that Arenas didn't want to confront, and something his adoring fans and enablers didn't want to confront, either.
And now he's doing it again, and we're letting him. He's overcompensating, going 180 degrees and 180 mph and putting himself on a collision course with something far worse than the notoriety, embarrassment and humiliation he brought upon himself with last season's senseless weapons conviction. What could be worse than all that? Pity. This next chapter in Arenas' basketball life is inspiring more pity than empathy. And that can't be allowed to go on. Even if Arenas is willing to stand by and just let it happen, I'm not.
It's time for everybody to be honest with themselves, Arenas included. Yes, he did this to himself. He made himself the court jester, the attention-starved prankster, and he got himself banned from the NBA for doing something unthinkably stupid -- bringing guns into a locker room and taking them out as part of some misguided prank during the infamous and equally senseless argument with then-teammate Javaris Crittenton. Part of the irony was that Arenas' actions somehow validated many people's opinions about the NBA, proving in their twisted minds that gun play is as much a part of pro basketball as the pick-and-roll. The truth was that only Arenas could've done something like this -- placed three firearms on a chair with a note for Crittenton that said, "Pick one." Only the Arenas that his greatest admirers helped create.
"That was the Gilbert who was promoted by the enablers in his own organization," said a person close to Arenas, who didn't want to be named because of the subject matter.
Now the court jester has transformed himself into a public martyr -- or, more accurately, an undertaker for his fading career. The words he spoke after the Wizards' first preseason game in Dallas Tuesday night were nothing that those close to him haven't heard before. But the cameras were rolling and the digital recorders were eating it up and spitting it out, the same way they treated the delightful and, in retrospect, disturbing musings of the man he used to be.
The quote that grabbed me was the one in which Arenas said, "I lost all feeling a long time ago."
This isn't the Arenas I knew. But then, did anybody really know him? That was our mistake, not his.
Addressing his role on the Wizards with the addition of No. 1 pick John Wall -- who happens to play his position -- Arenas said, "I'm out there to hit open shots, teach John the ins-and-outs of the game and eventually go on and move on. And I'm on my way. ... Right now, the city is John's. I'm not here to fight anybody. I'm here to just play alongside of him. He's Batman and I'm Robin. I'm moving aside so he can become a star."
Somewhere in there, Arenas is saying the right things. The NBA already suspended him without pay for 50 games, costing him millions in salary and endorsements, and the Wizards tore down the larger-than-life Arenas mural outside the Verizon Center months ago. There would be no use in Arenas fighting Wall's takeover of the Wizards, and so for that, he should be applauded.
But the man of extremes has to find the in-between here, and he has to find it fast. Can't he play alongside Wall, play well, help the team, help himself, and be himself -- whoever that is? Arenas' closest confidants are yearning for that day to come, and indeed are pleading with him to end the public pity party. It's won't be easy, given what he's endured, but it's for his own good.
"Gilbert's trying too hard to put a blanket over who he is," one of the confidants said. "He always had a ready smile, a quick joke and a clownish, eccentric personality. But for the gun incident and few other incidents where he thought he was invincible, he was largely applauded and well-received. This incident happened, and he's going to have to get over it. Going to this grim place, not talking and not smiling, it's hard for him; harder for him than he realizes.
"The sooner he puts the past behind him," the person said, "the easier it will be to be Gilbert."
On Thursday, Arenas clarified his "move on" quote, telling the Washington Post that he was merely alluding to having four years left with the Wizards before his contract expires after the 2013-14 season. The inference was that Arenas wasn't asking to be traded and, in fact, doesn't want to be traded. I don't know what Arenas wants, because I never did. But I know what would be best for him: a trade.
Not because he can't or won't co-exist with Wall; he tried to make it clear he can and will do that. It's simply that the only way for Arenas to truly and completely come back from what happened is to do it in another city.
"Just because he made a terrible mistake doesn't mean he's a bad person," his confidant said. "He paid the price. He was embarrassed, publicly humiliated, lost tens of millions of dollars, and couldn't play game he loved. That doesn't mean he can't have remorse, but he doesn't have to change everything. I have a sense that he feels the whole world wants him to be completely different."
But that's not what Arenas really needs, and it's not what we should want, either.
"Gilbert needs someone to really focus on getting him a fresh start," the person said.
Significant progress was made toward that end this past summer with Orlando, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. The framework of a trade that would've sent Arenas to the Magic with Vince Carter going to the Wizards was arranged, with GM Otis Smith being one of the few executives in the league willing to contemplate such a deal because of his personal relationship with Arenas. In the end, it was the cost that killed the deal; Arenas has four years and $80.1 million left on his contract, which amounts to two years and $44 million more than Carter. An opportunity like that will be hard to resurrect, considering how poisonous Arenas' contract is given the uncertainty about "where he is mentally," according to an NBA front-office executive.
Sources say Dallas flirted with the notion of trying to revive Arenas' career, but nothing materialized. If only Carmelo Anthony wanted to sign an extension with the Wizards -- essentially his hometown team -- there could be a match there, with each team getting rid of a problem in the tried-and-true equation that often makes NBA trades work. Alas, the Wizards are not on Carmelo's list, and Arenas' contract doesn't fit Denver's priorities.
One person in Arenas' camp believes there is a certain star-starved team in northeast Ohio that should take a chance on him. To the extent that both Arenas and the Cavaliers are starting over, it makes sense.
"They've both been burned," the person in Arenas' camp said of the Cavs. "They need a fresh start the same way Gilbert does."
Unfortunately, Arenas probably will have to look elsewhere for the fresh start he's seeking. Sources say Arenas "won't be an option" for the Cavs, who prefer to maintain their flexibility heading into the uncertainty of a new collective bargaining agreement. Arenas' contract, his emotional state and his health will make him too much of a gamble for most teams; don't forget, because of injuries, he'd played only 15 games in the two seasons before the suspension-shortened 2009-10 season.
"Stephen Jackson reinvented himself because he got traded," one of Arenas' confidants said. "Ron Artest won a ring because he got out of Indiana. [Without a trade], Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest were never going to get past their incidents, and I don't think Gilbert will, either. The scars are still too fresh on both sides."
A contending team that's one piece away from title contention -- and has had a chance to see Arenas perform at his pre-injury, pre-suspension level for a reasonable period -- will be his best bet. If he can go back to being the scoring machine and fan favorite he once was, and if he can smile again, Arenas might get a chance to start over. And I mean really start over, somewhere else.
"It's funny the things you can overlook [as a GM]," the front-office executive said. "You start to go, 'Hey, I can live with that.' ... People in this league know Gilbert is a very talented player."
A very talented player who has lost his way, a lovable character whose outsized personality has been stripped down to nothing but sadness.
"He was a good guy who was a victim of his own overblown ego and paid a big price for it," one of the people close to Arenas said. "But a lot about Gilbert was likeable on and off the floor. He's got to give himself permission to be who he was."
And it isn't so much how that happens as where.