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The Wizards should part ways with Gilbert Arenas, but Arenas doesn't deserve an all-out character assassination

When I think of Gilbert Arenas, I'm reminded of Mike Miller's pet phrase.  It's one he uses every time he doesn't feel like thinking about an answer to a tough question or every time he knows that there is no way to get at the issue in a short soundbyte.

"It is what it is."

Of course, with Gilbert Arenas, the phrase would be "He is what he is."  I mean no disrespect to the efforts of so many mainstream and independent scribes, but Gilbert Arenas cannot be classified.  He's too self-aware to be Stephon Marbury, yet too goofy to be Ron Artest.  He's too smart to be any of the high-school knucklehead flameouts that come through the NBA, yet he's not book-smart enough to be Baron Davis.  I am not even going to try to judge Gilbert Arenas for his character, because I cannot possibly define what that character is.  It's too confusing, too maddening, too unique.  How else can I explain how I cringe every time someone criticizes him and every time someone defends him?  If I were to judge Gilbert Arenas' character, I would only be projecting my own values into a situation where they don't mean much (which is what seemingly every criticism of him comes to).  

In other words, I don't care either way if he goes bananas on his Twitter account or tries to diffuse tension with ill-timed humor.  That's Gilbert being Gilbert.  (I also don't really think it's appropriate to throw in other "transgressions" of sorts of his like Adrian Wojnarowski did in his otherwise well-done Yahoo piece today.  But we'll get to all that later).

The only thing that Gilbert can therefore be judged on are his actions.  From 2004 to 2009, Gilbert Arenas' actions have ranged from harmless to "not good, but we can work through these and still be successful."  Breaking plays offensively?  Michael Jordan used to do that all the time.  Verbal takeover of the locker room without being much of a traditional "leader?"  Again, Jordan and Kobe Bryant used to be like that, albeit in a different way.  Messing up his injury rehab?  Bad, of course, but not completely his fault.  Being distant from the team during his rehab?  Again, not uncommon - Amare Stoudemire was the same way in 2006 when the Suns were shocking everyone.  Even the stuff in Wojnarowski's article about "disrupting practice" and refusing to talk to Saunders is simply one person's (i.e. Woj's source's) interpretation (you could say imagination) of some real issues that plague most teams, namely stars going through some tensions with their coach and their teammates as all of them try to adjust to one another.  

However, like Antawn Jamison said after the Spurs game on Saturday, Gilbert Arenas officially crossed a line when he brought guns into the locker room.  He crosses that line if his version of the story (he brought them in to diffuse tension with Javaris Crittenton and it didn't work) holds up, and he crosses that line if it was worse than that.  Having guns on team property is against NBA rules.  It's arguably illegal in DC.  It threatens the perceived safety (i.e. it doesn't matter if the guns were loaded or not) of the locker room for your teammates, your coaches and, as Matt Moore pointed out to me on Twitter today, even the journalists and bloggers like myself who cover your team.  It's a major no-no under any circumstances, and image problem or not, the league should respond harshly.  Intent isn't important here, because the lapse in judgment is so awful.       

And with the Wizards currently in disarray anyway, Gilbert Arenas should get no second chance to prove himself as a Wizard again when the inevitable harsh (read: season-long) suspension from the NBA comes.  Maybe in another situation, he could.  Maybe if the Wizards were 21-10 instead of 10-21, he could.  But not here, and not now.  This team needs a facelift anyway, and the face of the previous edition of the Wizards cannot possibly lead that facelift when he's coming off such a colossal error in judgment like this.  

To be clear, I'm not sure yet whether this means it's wise to try to void his contract even if he's not charged with a felony.  It probably won't work anyway and will lead to more harm that good.  For now, the Wizards should do exactly what Mike Jones says they are doing.  They should look into whether they can void his contract and they should offer him up around the league and be willing to accept second-rate packages for him.  This is the NBA, where Latrell Sprewell can be traded despite trying to kill his coach, so someone will take on Gilbert Arenas someday.  Until then, let the league suspend him, keep him away from the team even after then (Jamaal Tinsley him), and begin a life without Gilbert Arenas.  

Now, lest you think I'm advocating the team "exploit" Arenas' actions as a way to rid themselves of all the other baggage of sorts that he brings, that's not what I'm saying.  Arenas' "baggage" here is irrelevant.  There is a huge difference between the mostly harmless stuff Arenas did prior to the gun incident and what happened in that locker room on December 21, 2009.  There is a huge difference between resisting what a coach maybe wants you to do and bringing a firearm to your workplace.  There is a huge difference between ignoring the advice of your team doctors (who, let's face it, have a pretty crappy track record anyway) and ignoring the basic decorum of an NBA locker room (and frankly, any setting at all outside of your own home) to play a practical joke on your teammate, the benchwarmer.  

I continue to believe that a team can win with Gilbert Arenas on it, despite all of the distractions he brings.  Of course, I'm talking about the daily mini-dramas that he brings, not the most recent error.  Clearly, Gilbert Arenas is far from the romanticized, perfect superstar -- the guy that makes his teammates better, never complains to the coach, always plays nice to the press, always plays hard on both ends of the floor, is a saint in the community, is understanding of his teammates' space, etc.  He's probably further away from that ideal than many other superstar-quality players.

But I don't think people grasp that life inside an NBA team is far from harmonious.  When I think of all of Arenas' mini-dramas from 2004 to 2009, I think of Sam Smith's line in the acknowledgments section of his landmark book The Jordan Rules, which chronicled the rise of the 1990/91 Bulls, Michael Jordan's first championship team.  During that season, the Bulls had to overcome so many obstacles.  They had a superstar who verbally abused players, tried to get some of them traded, complained to the owner when that didn't happen and feuded all season with the coach over his offensive system and his on-court selfishness.  They had an immature supporting cast that didn't always give a professional effort.  They had players expected to do big things struggle (Stacey King, Dennis Hopson, B.J. Armstrong and Cliff Levingston at times).  They had tension in the front office, to the point where the GM cared more about some European pipe dream at the time (Toni Kukoc, the 90/91 version) than his own team.  Yet they overcame it all to win a title, which occurred because they were the best team that season.  Bottom line.  

Anyway, here's Smith's excerpt that I want to reprint here.  

It's easy to come away from this season wondering how such a disparate bunch could win a title.  

The Bulls won for reasons discussed throughout the book.  But I would take exception with the notion that their behavior--often angry with one another and management--suggests that they were an unusual team.  I suspect many teams in pro sports exhibit the jalousies, anger and resentments that often occur in this story.  And why shouldn't they?  Frankly, it's unnatural to take twelve young men united only by their athletic ability, put them together for about eight months, pay them varying fortunes of money, give them one ball to play with and then expect them to maintain some sort of storybook, harmonious relationship.

Athletes too often are depicted as something less than complete human characters.  They're supposed to be ehroes and role models; they're not supposed to have to stay up all night with sick children, face cranky mothers-in-law in for long visits or have angry or ailing wives.  But they do.  And they have the same problems everyone else has.  It's just that no one pays to see such problems or hear about them.  Athletes are paid to perform.  The Bulls did that as well in 1990/91 as perhaps any team in NBA history.  But they also fought and feuded and were angry some days, giddy others.  They ran the range of human emotions, although when the interviewers were around they mostly gave them what they expected to hear.

This brings us now to Wojnarowski's piece.  Wojanorwski's first 15 paragraphs were a product of excellent reporting and context.  The line about how Arenas supposedly gambles on video games is poignant because the allegations are that this is over a gambling debt.  Quoting Dan Fegan, Arenas' former agent, and later bringing in the point that Arenas might find this funny, but the league doesn't, was great reporting.  But then Wojnarowski went off the tracks and began talking about stuff that falls under the same "transgressions" the 1990/91 Bulls overcame - i.e. the day-to-day issues a team faces when trying to win.

In a lot of ways, Arenas' return to the Wizards from microfracture knee surgery this season had been tumbling toward this bottom. He returned angry, isolated and unsure about his ability to be his old self. For a short time, Arenas tried to fit back into the lineup with prominent teammates Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.

Arenas barely talked to coach Flip Saunders in training camp. Sources say his trainer, Tim Grover, spent time in Richmond, Va., for training camp and became, in the words of one team witness, "a buffer" between the coach and star. After the team broke camp and returned to Washington, Arenas became increasingly belligerent and defiant of Saunders. Witnesses insist he began to purposely disrupt practices. Privately, Wizards executives were conceding to friends, "We've lost control of this thing."

Arenas has long had issues with authority. His relationship with past coach Eddie Jordan deteriorated over time. In fact, sources say Jordan often felt undermined by general manager Ernie Grunfeld when it came to Arenas. Jordan pushed Arenas to defend, to be a complete player, and never felt he got the backing he needed when Arenas grumbled to upper management. All that, and when Jordan needed a contract extension, it was Arenas who still lobbied management on Jordan's behalf to get it done.

Arenas has always been a contradiction, perfectly brilliant and perfectly maddening. Now, he's mostly a problem the Wizards don't know how to make go away, even if they wish they could.

First of all, let's just clear some stuff up:

  1. There was no problem of Arenas and Saunders not talking during training camp.  How do I know?  I saw it with my own two eyes.  They were talking plenty.  So that claim is off.  
  2. Tim Grover was there, but not to be a "buffer."  He was there to check in on Arenas' injury recovery.  I was told (I forget by who) that Grover was passing on training methods to the Wizards' athletic trainers.  And he talked alongside Arenas a lot too.  There was one practice I remember particularly well that ended with Grover, Arenas, Saunders and other assistant coaches (can't remember who) huddled up on the sidelines for several minutes.  This was the same practice where Mike Jones, Michael Lee and I thought we saw Arenas limping during sprints.  The three men stood there talking for several minutes as we waited for the go-ahead from the PR staff to come down and talk to the players.  I don't know what they talked about, but they talked.  Point here is, Grover wasn't there to speak for Gilbert, he was there to consult with the team and Gilbert about his injury recovery.  
  3. I never saw Gilbert "disrupting" practices during training camp (and I could see through the window when we weren't let in yet).  Mike Jones wrote that he's never sensed any issues there throughout the season, and he's usually right about these things. 

Beyond that, though, aren't these accusations really just exaggerations of the struggles lots of teams go through with their stars?  Was Arenas "belligerent" or "defiant" of Saunders, or did they have issues of their own to work through?  Was Grover a "buffer," or did he just understand Arenas well enough to help the team reach him when he was struggling?  Did Arenas "purposely disrupt" practices, or were there just times when he got into disagreements with other players during practice, as Jordan did from time to time?  If Arenas' relationship with Eddie Jordan "deteriorated," how do you classify Michael Jordan's relationship with Doug Collins, the coach prior to Phil Jackson?

This is a long-winded way of saying that all that stuff was worth mentioning, but not in this piece.  Wojnarowski's attempt to tie them to the guns thing is pretty irresponsible, in my opinion.  The prior incidents shouldn't have anything to do with the current problem when it comes to judging Arenas in the court of public opinion.  Of course, asking many people to think that way is unrealistic, not when there are columns to be written and assignments to fulfill.  There will be logical jumps made, and it's our job to sift through them and point out when those logical jumps become too large.  I just caution everyone to try as best they can to separate Arenas from Arenas' action with the guns.  Let's not make this a full-out character assassination, because once again, nobody really knows the character they're assassinating.  We put Gilbert Arenas' character up on a pedestal that was too high, now we're tearing it down to a level that's too low.  No matter what Arenas did with the guns, that part of his punishment isn't fair.  It's never fair to any athlete, and it's not fair to Arenas.

Now, all that being said, while Arenas' "baggage" should play no role in the Wizards' decision on how to move forward with him, the Wizards have no choice but to also consider their own baggage.  First and foremost, it's clear now that Gilbert as the pointman of this franchise isn't working.  As Smith writes, athletes are paid to perform.  The Wizards were paid to perform better than they have right now.  Arenas was paid to perform better than he has right now, in terms of on-court leadership as the team's best player.  He was supposed to bring the Wizards places on the court, and he hasn't.  Whether he could ever become capable of doing so is irrelevant, because the Wizards put him in that position and he didn't come through.  This was true before the whole gun incident and it must be a consideration when deciding what to do about the gun incident.  

Second of all, there's the PR angle that needs to be considered.  Remember, Abe Pollin's death is only a month in the past.  Pollin was a man who deplored guns so much that he changed the team's name because the old one evoked memories of gun violence.  The Wizards would take a massive PR hit if they gave their franchise player a mere slap on the wrist for bringing guns into the locker room.  The Pollin family has already weighed in on this angle and it's not pretty.    

Thirdly, there's new ownership coming in that would likely want to change the culture that currently exists around the team.  Gilbert Arenas, for better or worse, represents the old culture.  It's a culture that could have worked, but didn't.  Now, the team needs a new culture.  People will lose jobs simply because they represent the old culture, even if they don't deserve it, but that's what has to happen to turn this organization around.  It's unfortunate, but it's a reality.

Finally, there's the locker room environment that is irrevocably shattered as long as Arenas remains.  As I mentioned above, guns in the locker room is a very, very serious thing.  The Wizards players may try to downplay it, but deep down, they are worried about their own safety.  Imagine being a player on that team and knowing that you have to play with someone who was crazy enough to bring three guns into your workspace.  That would make anyone uncomfortable, to say the least.  

Plus, this is a mix of players that has been together for a while, that has experienced all of those little mini-dramas that mean little on their own.  For Antawn Jamison, who has played with Arenas for every year but one, to say that this incident goes beyond Gilbert being Gilbert indicates how seriously everyone is taking it.  Nobody goes to bat for Arenas more than Antawn, and even he won't do it.  That's a good indication of how seriously the players take this issue.

Because of all those reasons, it's wise for Arenas and the Wizards to part ways.  Let some other team deal with all of those mini-dramas.  Let them get a superstar-caliber player for 40 cents on the dollar.  He could go to another team, be their missing ingridient, reform his image, and I won't mind.  Honestly, I'll probably be happy for him, because I've always liked him and he gave me some great years as a Wizards fan that I don't think any outsider fully appreciates because they've never had to suffer through this franchise's history.  But he's not going to reform things here, not with all the baggage the Wizards organization brings to the table.  This isn't Chris Webber, who merely displayed a ton of immaturity.  This is Gilbert Arenas, who brought a freakin' gun into the locker room.  In my opinion, the latter is far more serious.  

Arenas deserves a second chance somewhere else because his issues are workable.  We should be very careful to make sweeping judgments about his character that would require linking his lapse in judgment with the guns to his eccentric personality, his recent Twitter binge or his mini-dramas on and off the court.  That's unfair to Arenas, and it would be two-faced of us, who once celebrated his crazy side and told him never to turn it off.  

He just shouldn't get that second chance here, not when his working relationship with his peers here has been shattered forever at the exact time the Wizards were going to clean house anyway.