Gilbert Arenas can’t escape his past.
His jersey number is a constant reminder. The faces that surround him — old teammates and foes — are too.
But instead of running away, forgetting it all and starting fresh, Arenas is taking the formula that made him an NBA All-Star — the cover athlete of a video game, on magazines and posters all around the nation’s capital — and reinventing himself in the second half of his professional life with the BIG3.
The former face of the Washington Wizards understands he has a marred history as one of the league’s most prolific scorers. Despite becoming a glimpse into the future of scoring guards that now dominate the NBA, Arenas will forever be connected with the chaos that ended his career prematurely.
Arenas, 37, looks back on those times — feeling misunderstood, sometimes angry, but without any regrets. And he’s not afraid to talk about it.
Embracing a new role on the court
When Mike Botticello got the call that Ice Cube wanted to be on “The No Chill Podcast,” he knew what was going to happen.
Ice Cube was going to present Arenas with a contract to play in the BIG3 — and knowing Arenas’ competitiveness, the former Wizards star wasn’t going to turn it down.
At that point, Arenas didn’t play professional basketball in seven years, his last stint being a 17-game cup of coffee with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011-12.
Arenas had played in full-court leagues to stay in shape and worked out every day, but he still weighed 250 pounds.
Unlike other BIG3 players — like Cuttino Mobley, who travels to each game even when he doesn’t play but makes his presence known by staying vocal on the sideline — Arenas said he didn’t have an “itch” to play professional basketball again. For him, playing in the BIG3 was a way to get back into shape — and build on his expanding brand.
“So when Cube came on — I was like, alright, I’ll play in the BIG3,” Arenas told Bullets Forever in Providence, R.I. on July 13. “And then as soon as I went home, I said ‘shit, why did I just say that?’
I had to lose weight and get in shape. I saw what [Allen] Iverson looked like and I wasn’t going to do that. Then boom — it took off. I had to drop the weight.”
Arenas had about four months to drop the excess weight before the start of the BIG3 season — and he did.
Like Iverson, Arenas was never the kind of player to lock himself in a weigh-room — he preferred the hardwood, where he could practice the seemingly impossible shots he became known for making. Along the way, Arenas released videos of himself working out, drilling countless threes effortlessly.
The BIG3 — a league comprised of former NBA players, some old and quenching their desire for competitive basketball, and others looking to re-establish themselves with hopes of again being in the NBA — plays its games up to 50 points.
After signing his BIG3 contract, Arenas said he wanted all of his former Wizards teammates that didn’t shoot the ball to join him, listing off Etan Thomas, Brendan Haywood, Kwame Brown and DeShawn Stevenson.
“They know my style,” Arenas said on the podcast. “I ain’t trying to pass the ball.”
That, though, was just another way to get eyes on the league.
Arenas had no desire to dominate the game with his scoring.
That desire died long ago back in Memphis, when head coach Lionel Hollins brought him in as a sixth-man and go-to scorer for the NBA Playoffs.
Point guards Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby were on the bench behind Arenas, playing scrap minutes, if any.
Arenas saw the fire they had — the same passion he played with for the Golden State Warriors and Washington, when all he wanted was to make a name for himself.
“The first game, I think I played 20 minutes,” Arenas said, referencing his time with the Grizzlies.
So I’m playing — I don’t want to take time away from the younger players. I got my contract, so this is just a bonus. I had two young guys working out, I could see the fire in them. And I didn’t want to be the guy sitting in their way.”
In their Week four win against the Aliens, Arenas scored just four points for the Enemies — barely looking at the basket when the ball was in his hands. When NBA legend Rick Mahorn asked Arenas to come out of the game, he remained engaged — encouraging NBA veteran Craig Smith to continue posting up and scoring over the smaller Brandon Rush.
“Right now I’m just taking my time, trying to adjust and get my team involved,” Arenas said. “The way I picked the team — I picked it for a reason. We’re going to have nothing but scorers and guard-like players. These are guys who can still post up too and hit open shots. We don’t have any dead weight on this team.”
The Enemies — an expansion team that Arenas plays for — is aptly named.
With the first pick in the BIG3 draft, Arenas took Royce White — a former 16th overall NBA draft selection who quickly fell out of the league after expressing his displeasure with how NBA executives have failed to address mental health and related illnesses. He walked into the Dunkin Donuts Center wearing all white — with black letters across his t-shirt that read “Blackballed.”
White feels like he’s one of the most versatile forwards in the league, but has been ostracized by the powers that be and now finds himself with Arenas in the BIG3.
“I’m 6’8”, 270. I’m a point guard. It’s only two of me in the world. One of them lives in Hollywood, the other is standing with you,” White said after being picked in the BIG3 draft, likening himself to LeBron James.
Perry Jones — once a part of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s core with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — also finds himself catching passes from Arenas. Jones, whose career was plagued by injuries, is merely 27 and a spot on an NBA roster isn’t all that far-fetched.
Arenas, White and Jones all carry reputations for failing to become what they were envisioned to be — they’ve become a sort of “enemy” to the media that have largely kept them out of the public eye.
Similar to his time with Selby and Pargo, Arenas doesn’t want to step on their toes — he knows that his time is over and that they could have futures beyond the BIG3.
Other veteran players, like Amar’e Stoudemire, who also play in the BIG3, and Monta Ellis, want to get back in the NBA. They recently worked out in front of a handful of teams, including the Wizards.
Arenas favors the pseudo-retired basketball life, removed from the daily rigors of the NBA.
“The NBA, overseas — let the young guys get their turn,” Arenas said. “I had my turn. I had years to come back. As a veteran, you have to understand there’s other people having the same dream you had. Let them get the chance. That’s how I’ve always felt.”
The face of a league
With team names like The Enemies, Ball Hogs and Aliens, the BIG3 should have a gimmicky feel, yet it relies almost entirely on its on-court product to generate attention.
The league is proud of its fast rise — Ice Cube’s ability to recruit former All-Stars like Arenas, Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer to join the BIG3 for its third season, the national TV deal with CBS, and unique use of social media — but the last thing it wants to be considered is a publicity stunt.
That’s why BIG3 officials deactivated former NBA stars Baron Davis, Lamar Odom and Jermaine O’Neal, deeming them incapable of playing at a high-enough level to further legitimize the league at its infancy stage.
And that’s why fans — some too young to have watched the BIG3 talent play in the NBA and others, now with grey in their beards and salt-and-pepper atop their heads, attending games for nostalgic purposes — won’t see mascots parading around the court during game-breaks.
Wearing a gorilla-suit, sunglasses and a black “0” Enemies jersey, the mascot ran around Dunkin Donuts Center — carrying a poster for Arenas’ “No Chill Podcast.” It was the only mascot in the arena, but his job was different from a traditional mascot’s.
The gorilla wasn’t there to please the children or to get the crowd going during a t-shirt toss. The mascot was there to promote Arenas’ podcast — a small detail in the way Arenas has become one of the faces of the league, as he once was in the NBA.
Arenas recognized that his best playing days were behind him, so he’s reinventing himself as a media giant — the host of one of the most listened-to sports podcasts, and a controversy-creator that can’t help but stay out of headlines.
It’s the same tactic that shaped his image in the NBA — the way he went from being one of the league’s best-kept secrets to one of its lone players with an individual, captivating brand.
Arenas averaged 28.3 points per game halfway through the 2005-06 NBA season — but was left off the All-Star team. The Wizards were in the hunt for home-court advantage in the playoffs, too. There was no excuse for him getting snubbed — so Arenas took it upon himself to re-brand his image.
“If you think about it, my persona changed around 2005-06, when I got snubbed from the All-Star game,” Arenas said. “There’s no way I get snubbed. So I said I’m going to be ‘The East Coast Assassin.’ I’m going to kill the East Coast. Then all the cameras were all on me. I didn’t do anything different.”
People said, ‘oh, he’s living up to his word. He’s the man. Oh, Agent Zero! Hibachi!’ And I’m sitting there like — they’re attracted to words. So that’s where the quirkiness became my persona.”
It’s been almost a decade since Arenas last played for the Wizards, yet fans still reminisce about the way he turned the team’s play into can’t-miss entertainment — the buzzer-beating heroics, the 60-point thriller against Kobe Bryant, and his well-documented antics off the court.
The 30 and 40-point scoring outbursts are missed in Washington nowadays. But perhaps more than anything, it’s Arenas’ personality and brand that the team has never recovered from losing — not even with replacing him with college basketball’s hottest name, John Wall, in 2010.
“Because I think outside the box, what I was doing was different,” Arenas said. “When something’s different, you don’t know how to react — but Abe [Pollin] embraced it. Think about Scores for Schools. He’s probably the only owner ever to team up with a player for charity. That’s the impact I had on him because he saw what I was doing.
It’s similar with Cube. My ideas that I bring — you can see. We have our own mascot, Instagram, our own therapist. We are a show. That’s what I bring. I bring attention here. We’re a show — a brand. And that’s what I don’t think everyone understood at the time. I’m a brand — and I bring it, like it or not. I’m going to get the attention of everyone.”
The goodbye that never was
NBA stars entering their final seasons can choose a celebratory ending if they wanted one.
Dwyane Wade had a “farewell tour” — a goodbye to loyal Miami Heat fans that included a ritual jersey exchange with some of the league’s top young players. Kobe Bryant had a 60-point night against the Utah Jazz in the final game of his career — one last mic-drop, confetti and matching t-shirts in a sold-out Staples Center to boot.
Wizards fans — those that celebrated playoff victories at the height of Arenas’ career — never got to say goodbye.
Instead, the Wizards wanted his contract off the books, and even more, new Wizards owner Ted Leonsis wanted Arenas, who dominated national news for bringing guns into the locker room, no longer a part of the team’s narrative.
Then-Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld was tasked with an unprecedented endeavor — find a way to salvage the team’s image after the locker room gun incident or tear the team to its studs. He chose the latter, trading All-Stars Antawn Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Caron Butler to the Dallas Mavericks and Arenas to the Orlando Magic.
Arenas never stepped back into what is now the Capital One Arena since a Feb. 11, 2011 match between the Wizards and Magic.
“I’ve been invited back for game openers and playoffs,” Arenas said. “Every year John Wall asks me, ‘yo, come to the opener!’” And I agree and then I just don’t. At first, it was obviously the anger — how the gun story was leaked and how it was portrayed towards me. But as I got older, business is business.”
Arenas is rarely mentioned by the Wizards — the only time he’s brought up is when his records are broken by the team’s current All-Star duo. And although the team might pretend to have moved on from the legacy he’s left behind, his fans still wear his jersey — to Wizards home games and BIG3 contests alike.
The number 0 will always be linked to Arenas — and players, like newly-acquired Wizards forward C.J. Miles, know that.
It’s why the number hasn’t been worn in Washington since Arenas departed — and why it will never be worn as long as the team’s equipment manager, Rob Suller, is still there.
Yet despite the loyalty of other players and those within the team, Arenas isn’t certain that the team will ever formally hang his jersey from the rafters.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Arenas said. “I don’t know if I did enough to be retired. You have to remember — it’s Ted Leonsis, not Abe Pollin. I was retired under Abe. I don’t hold any records or anything like that under Ted. So it’s one of those things where I probably won’t be retired because the owner I played for isn’t here.
Abe Pollin was my owner. I wasn’t Ted’s guy. I talked to Ted and we had great conversations, but it is what it is. I’ve come to understand that as I got older —I had to start understanding that as I got older. And once I did, it was better. That’s when I started supporting the team again — but I haven’t been back. I don’t have any hard feelings.”
Looking back, Arenas’ career is often talked about in a “what if” context — what if he never brought guns in the locker room, what if Gerald Wallace never fell on his knee, what if the Wizards let the team’s three stars run it back just one more time?
Arenas faces these questions on a daily basis — and it will probably be that way forever. But like those who’ve faced the grind of an NBA season, Arenas understands that there’s a lot more to success than what’s reported.
Grunfeld, who’s gotten more flack from fans than anyone, orchestrated most of Arenas’ career — he built a high-powered offense around Arenas and was ultimately the one that pulled the plug on Arenas’ career in Washington. Still, Arenas, who’s communicated with newly-named Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard, doesn’t harbor any animosity.
“I can’t say anything bad about Ernie Grunfeld,” Arenas said. “What did he do bad? As a GM, everything that was put in front of him he handled. You can’t blame him for what I did. He got rid of me, the contracts and started anew. Everything you put in front of him he handled it. So when people say, ‘well, he hasn’t built a great team,’ you have to understand things happen. You’ve got luxury tax, injuries — and sometimes it’s just hard.”
Those questions are often asked by people who don’t understand Arenas — people who fail to realize that his persona was built with precision.
To last in the NBA as a second round pick, Arenas knew that he had to be different — that if he didn’t outwork his competition and find a way to separate himself in a league filled with players who were crowned kings in their teens, his name would be quickly forgotten, just like those that came before him.
Arenas created a blueprint for future under-the-radar players — a way to market themselves, embrace their personalities and watch their stocks grow in ways that it never could by simply scoring points and grabbing rebounds.
Now, players like Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook, both who wear 0, have used the status of underdog — whether valid or not — to boost their standing in the golden age of point guards. Others, like former Wizards forward Kelly Oubre, have used their off-court personalities to become household names.
“I liked what I was then because I was the only person doing it,” Arenas said.
“Like, people can say what they want — but you knew me at one point. I was there. Remember — I was a second round pick and ended up on the cover of magazines. I wasn’t ranked in high school. And I was talked about. No matter what your legacy is, when I scored my first two points, I was satisfied. When I scored my first two points as an NBA player, I was satisfied.
I made it to the f*cking NBA. I scored two points — no one can take that away from me. There was no more pressure. It was just work. Damn — now I’m most improved. And there was a reason.
There was no pressure on me. When I scored two points, I won. Everything else was a cherry on top. It’s your thought process that changes you.
If I tell you right now if you make 100,000 shots this summer, you’ll be a max player. How many NBA players will go there and shoot 100,000 shots? All of them. But in reality, if you actually shot 100,000 shots in a summer, you will be God-like. So why aren’t you doing it? It depends on your perspective and how you present something.”
Nearly a decade has gone by since Arenas played in the NBA. Some of the fans are too young to remember Arenas’ Impossible Is Nothing Adidas campaign, the Wizards’ beef with LeBron James and the Cavaliers, and scoring takeovers that made Arenas elite.
But the comparisons still happen.
James Harden — the economic approach the former MVP has with each dribble he takes — is often likened to Arenas. Colby White, the Bulls’ lottery pick, was talked about being the “next Arenas” by pundits before this year’s NBA Draft.
Still, due to an early NBA exit and the lack of a veteran’s mentality during the peak of his career, Arenas doesn’t think he paved the way for today’s players.
“I’m doing it more on my podcast now,” Arenas said. “People sometimes ask me if I could guard the top guards today — Curry, Westbrook — and I want to say yes, but then I remember I didn’t have to guard.
That guard wasn’t in. I was that guard. When I came into the league, those scoring guards were considered ‘ball hogs.’ People were calling Marbury a ball hog averaging 21 and 9. That was my competition — Marbury, Baron Davis. You didn’t have guys try and score 30 on you. I was that guy trying to score 30. There wasn’t those guards. I didn’t have that competition. Now every guard is high level.”
Arenas doesn’t spend much time thinking about the past, what could’ve been or how he would fare in today’s game. But his professional career, in a way, remains a massive contradiction.
Arenas has moved on with his life, but his past surrounds him — Brendan Haywood shared a laugh with Arenas before Saturday’s game in Rhode Island, and DeShawn Stevenson stepped onto the court shortly after Arenas’ game wrapped up. He stopped to take photos with fans wearing his golden alternative Wizards jersey. He doesn’t shy away from who he is or what he’s done.
You can think about him as the guy who brought guns into an NBA locker room — or a player who never really realized his potential for myriad of reasons. But inside the NBA — and on the BIG3’s summer circuit — his impact is still felt.
To Arenas, the generalized perception of him outside the NBA and among pundits is just a misunderstanding — one that he, admittedly, knows he created.
“I don’t have any regrets because being misunderstood was the point,” Arenas said. “If someone thinks they’re smarter than you, they treat you a certain way. But what I did show consistently is that I work hard and I’m nice to everyone — I sign autographs for fans and give back to charity, but they were never going to report that.
And I learned that.”