Gone and Forgotten: Gilbert Arenas
December 10, 2012 1 Comment
News hit a few weeks ago that Gilbert Arenas signed on to play with the Yao Ming owned Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association, the continuation of a slow decline from basketball relevancy: from NBA Allstar, to backup Point Guard, to the inability to secure an NBA job. In fact, so irrelevant had Arenas become that major sporting websites didn’t bother to report the signing.
There was a time however, when Arenas was the toast of the internet…
“There’s ideology, and then there’s Gilbertology.”
- Wizards head coach Eddie Jordan
A second round draft pick in 2001, an afro’d Arenas played his first 2 years on the run’n’gun Golden State Warriors. Though the team itself was largely forgettable, Arenas’ backcourt pairing with high-flying youngster Jason Richardson produced some spectacular results.
After grabbing the Most Improved award in 2003, Arenas moved to the Washington Wizards where his career arc continued to trend upwards. He had a prolific 2005-2006 season, scoring 29.3 points per game while playing the most total minutes of any player. Off the court, his profile began to increase with Arenas and his enigmatic personality becoming a favourite of NBA writers. Wizznutzz (one of the all-time great websites) had always had an affinity for Arenas, dubbing him “Agent Zero”, and his storyline fit in nicely amongst the weird Wizznutzz world of Half-smokes, Moomintroll and Michael “Salieri” Jordan. But now the major sports outlets also took an interest and the articles that resulted often presented Arenas as a fascinating case study of uniqueness among the athlete populace, and the anecdotes that resulted were at times endearing, quirky, but mostly juvenile:
“He met Andre McAllister, a 10-year-old who was the only member of his family to escape a December house fire. “I took him under my wing and decided that I would be his big brother,” says Arenas. So he bought Andre clothes and set him up as a frequent ball boy at Wizards games.”
“They used to make him get doughnuts, a rookie thing,” said Golden State forward Troy Murphy. “I would come in early and he’d be putting baby powder [as if it was powdered sugar] on the doughnuts or licking them and putting them back in the box. He would look at me and laugh whenever someone would eat one. That’s when I shut down eating doughnuts.”
“…sneaking up on my teammate Awvee Storey. He has a bad attitude, and I just have to try and get him to smile. One day he was on the toilet reading the paper, and I snuck in with a water hose, turned it on him and sprayed him for, like, three minutes. He had all his clothes on, and he got soaked. It was hilarious. But for some reason he still wasn’t laughing.”
Yes, Arenas was a little ‘different’ than his NBA peers, with both his on-court and off-court exploits garnering attention. However the best (and worst) was yet to come.
“I call it, ‘The Takeover.’ I want this year to be ‘The Takeover,’ and I’m going to position myself.”
- Arenas Blog entry, Oct 19 2006
Building on from his increasing popularity, Arenas started his own blog at NBA.COM at the start of the 2006-07 season. The manner of the blog posts were such that there seemed to be a direct link from the mind of Arenas to the words on the page, leaping randomly from topic to topic in quick succession:
- The hyperbaric tent in his home
- The time he bought an 18,000 piece puzzle
- How Adam Morrison reminds him of Larry Bird
- His shooting contest with DeShawn Stevenson
- The Hibachi grill
- How false rumours of Sinbad’s death reminded him of a Dave Chappelle sketch
It was an exhibition of stream-of-conscious thought that had not been commonly seen from an athlete at that point (remember, these were the days when Twitter was in its infancy and Facebook had less website visitors than Myspace). Gilbert Arenas the Person strongly perpetuated the image of Gilbert Arenas the Character and unsurprisingly, the internet community lapped it up.
“The Takeover is just about everything. From taking over the city, I’m trying to take over the league, taking over sponsors, taking over you know ‘ Just the industry of everything.”
- Blog entry, Nov 7 2006
With his persona now established and his level of on-court play continuing to reach new heights, Arenas revelled of the opportunities that resulted.
Adidas featured Gilbert in their Impossible is Nothing campaign and released a signature shoe in his name, the Gil Zero. EA sports announced that Arenas would be the cover athlete of their NBA Live 08 video game, a move that Arenas (an avid gamer who sponsored a Halo team) described as “A dream come true”.
Yes, these were high times for Arenas and he celebrated in an appropriate manner, throwing himself a lavish million dollar 25th Birthday party in the middle of the 06-07 season, complete with red carpet, performances by various hip-hop artists, naked ladies covered in body paint and a life-sized ice sculpture in Arenas’ image.
He described the attention grabbing party as part of the plan that was the Takeover, as “Just trying to take the city over by storm with anything.” As much as Arenas had cultivated his oddball image, on some level it appeared that Arenas’ actions were in turn being dictated by that image. Had Gilbert himself now been taken over by the Takeover?
“I mean, when I said it was going to be The Takeover, I really didn’t know what I was really going for but, it’s like, ‘Wow, I am taking the NBA by surprise.’”
- Blog entry, Jan 7, 2007
The sponsorship opportunities, the easy acceptance and tolerance of this so-called quirkiness – none of it would’ve been possible had Gilbert not been performing on the court, and Arenas reached his peak in 2006-07: 28.4 points per game (good for third most in the NBA) and 6 assists per game helping to produce a career high PER of 24.0.
As impressive as the numbers were, watching the manner in which Arenas played left a greater impact. A powerful yet cat-quick Point Guard with a solid handle and a green light to control the Wizards offense, Gilbert combined these attributes to constantly blow by defenders and bullock his way to the rim. And while his outside jumpshot would never be described as pretty, it was certainly deadly – a testament to the countless hours put into individual practice shooting sessions (which in true Gilbert style were often undertaken in the wee hours of the morning). He had the uncanny ability to stop on a dime with his defender on their heels and rise up to hit a jumper.
Arenas was undoubtedly an elite inside/outside threat, but just as important to his game were two other factors: his confidence (which was sky high all throughout the 2006-07 season) and his lack of conscience over what constituted a good or bad shot. With all these elements put together, it came as no surprise that we witnessed some crazy scoring nights in from Gilbert that season, none more memorable than the 60 points he dropped on his the Lakers in an overtime victory.
Afterwards, Kobe Bryant – not exactly shy himself on the offensive end – said the following about Arenas’ performance: “Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, they’re just terrible shots, just awful. You make them and they’re unbelievable shots.”
Gilbert of course just took it in his stride. How could he be surprised by a performance like this? It was the Takeover after all! “It was bound to happen,” he’d say. “I’m a scorer, so I was going to have one of those days where I was clicking.”
Not only did Arenas give us memorable games, he also gave us memorable moments. His confidence, his swagger: they were evident for all to see during 3 buzzer beating game-winners he made during the 2006-07 campaign. These moments would not be lost on the NBA fans, and coupled with his online blog persona, it would be enough to see the fans vote Arenas in as a starter for the 2007 All-Star game. It was clear Arenas’ popularity and basketball production had both reached new heights.
It was a game late in the season when things would take a sudden turn for the worse as the Washington Wizards, gearing up for the playoffs and still in contention for the Southeast Division title, faced the Charlotte Bobcats. Prior to tipoff, Gilbert’s night had already begun poorly, late for shootaround and subsequently coming off the bench. Then, after having just entered the game late in the first quarter, disaster would strike as the Bobcats’ Gerald Wallace would live up to his ”Crash” moniker and fall heavily into the leg of an unsuspecting Arenas, who instantly clutched his knee and winced as he writhed on the floor.
The outcome of the collision – eventually revealed to be a torn MCL – effectively signalled the end of the Wizards’ playoff hopes as they would go on to get swept in the first round by LeBron and the Cavaliers. More significantly it meant an end to Arenas’ career best season, an abrupt end to the Takeover and, unbeknownst to everyone at the time, the end of Gilbert Arenas as a meaningful NBA player.
“I said last year was The Takeover. Well it’s going to be like James Bond movies for Agent Zero. You have The World Will Never End and then you have Casino Royale. You have another one. It’s the sequel. Like in X-Men too. So next year is The Sequel. That’s what I’m calling it. That’s great, The Sequel.”
- Blog entry, May 10 2007
Despite the injury setback, Arenas headed into the 2007-08 NBA season determined to keep the momentum he built from the previous campaign. He was still blogging prolifically, stating his aim was to make 100,000 jumpshots in 73 days as part of his rehab. He posted about the release of NBA Live 08. There was information about new enterprises too, such as his new signature shoe the Gil II Zero and the audacious to plan 20 different versions of the shoe in intervals throughout the 2007-08 season. He also had plans to launch a cartoon called “Gazo the Pranksta” which he described as being “about a group of kids who are the out crowd in high school”. It appeared Takeover: The Sequel was ready for lift off.
There was one problem however and that problem affected the foundation of the entire Gilbert Arenas brand: the ability to play basketball at an Allstar level. Gilbert did begin the new season began in reasonable form – though his shooting was wayward at times, he managed to average 22.4 ppg and 5.9 apg over the first 8 games of the season. It was after that eighth game in mid-November when the brakes would be pumped on Arenas’ season. The knee that he had worked so hard to rehabilitate had flared up once more to the point where Arenas could no longer take the court. Continued pain in the knee led to the dreaded microfracture surgery and a lengthy stint on the sidelines.
The surgery occurred just days before the release of the first instalment of the Gil II Zero. The release of that shoe (and the subsequent 19 versions) continued unabated during the season, but with Arenas out of action the lustre was diminished. While we should have been seeing Arenas wearing the shoe on court letting his play drive hype for the product, what we were left with were a series of low-budget, off-kilter commercials for the shoe that reflected the Arenas personality – odd but endearing. This time however, the commercials skewed more towards the odd side.
The Adidas disappointment wasn’t the only Arenas commercial enterprise that failed to gain traction: NBA Live 08 was a critical flop as the video game continued to lose ground to the rival NBA 2K Sports series, while Gazo the Pranksta never got off the ground. Arenas was out of sight and eventually out of mind as the NBA.COM blog ended mid-way through the 2007-08 season. The magic dust that covered Arenas during the Takeover had disappeared.
As they say, the sequel is never as good as the original.
“Before that incident, I was the people’s champion, God’s gift to all fans, gave fans everything. If I never go back to the NBA, I had a great career.”
Despite a flagging NBA career Arenas still had one important believer on his side, the Washington Wizards, who offered Gilbert a $111 million, 6 year contract after the 2007-08 season, despite continued uncertainty over the health of his knees. Indeed, the following season would be the first indicator of how badly the Wizards had misjudged their main asset as Arenas played in just 2 games due to ongoing injury issues.
During the 2009-10 season Arenas was finally able to stay on the court unencumbered by injury and he did show flashes of the old Agent Zero, however by this time Wizards had fully transformed from the playoff contenders of previous years to a team of knuckleheads. This was exemplified by the infamous gun incident. Arenas’ decision to bring unloaded guns into a locker room in reaction to a gambling debt dispute, brought him a suspension for the remainder of the season. He never got his spark back when he finally returned and his last remaining backer, the Wizards, finally washed their hands of Arenas the following year, trading the one-time franchise Point Guard to Orlando. The one-time league wide sensation was now merely just another player.
“My swag was phenomenal!”
His recent stints as a backup Point Guard with the Magic (where he was visibly depressed and seemed to be playing in spite of himself) and the Grizzlies displayed just how far Arenas had fallen as a player. With the explosive first step gone he could no longer get to the basket, instead plodding on the perimeter, merely an initiator of the offense who launched contested jumpers that often missed the mark.
With the blogging days of his heyday now far behind him, Arenas tried returning to the social media scene, setting up a Twitter account. While this form of unfiltered communication seemed like an ideal match for an insightful character like Arenas, it turned out to be an absolute disaster. Gilbert struggled to show self-restraint with his tweets and as such his image took a hit. He took to ranting (which resulted in fines from the NBA), making sexist jokes and posting sexist images. The quirky and endearing aspects of his blogging days were gone and all we were left with was the purely juvenile. Struggling to handle the backlash, Arenas closed and reopened his Twitter account multiple times – he felt as he was making jokes as always, but no one was laughing anymore. For the man once called as a “blog superstar”, the venture into the new social media has been successful, currently amassing a mere 1,400 Twitter followers.
But the post-injury Arenas, slow and flat-footed on the court with a multitude issues off of it – this is not the Gilbert I’ll remember. Instead, when the name Gilbert Arenas is mentioned I’ll think of the spectacular play during the 2006-07, the one-of-a-kind blog. Maybe Gilbert will return to the NBA after his stint in China, maybe he won’t (his first game in China wasn’t too promising). In any case, we will never get back the magic of The Takeover and that’s a shame, because the man who is now gone and forgotten was at one stage was the most exciting player in the NBA.