Arenas's Summer: Bizarre and Absurd
Monday, October 30, 2006
The coal-black Ferrari pulled into Southeast Washington just short of 8:30 p.m. It was a humid, late-August night, and Gilbert Arenas was determined to leave his chaotic offseason behind for one memorable evening at the outdoor basketball courts known as Barry Farms.
"Maybe I can get off the bench here," he said, his voice thick with sarcasm.
On the night LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony -- Arenas's former teammates on the U.S. national team and the NBA's newly anointed torch-carriers -- were playing in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Championships in Saitama, Japan, Arenas was playing in the quarterfinals, too:
The quarterfinals of the Goodman League at Barry Farms.
He pulled the Ferrari through an opening in the chain-link fence, parked and made his way through the crowd, which buzzed with anticipation and delight.
"Gilbert Arenas is on the premises!" Miles Rawls, the commissioner of the Goodman League, announced. Arenas raised his hand to the man at the scorer's table, and Barry Farms' most prominent sixth man was getting a run again. His bizarre summer was almost over.
* * *
When the arresting officer put Arenas in the back of a patrol wagon May 28 in Miami, he asked the star of the Washington Wizards for his name. Arenas declined, demanding to know why he was being arrested. The officer grew impatient. "Then what's your street name?" he asked, oblivious to Arenas's profession or fame.
"Street name?" Arenas said, chuckling under his breath. "Street name?
"Zero to hero."
From worthless to wunderkind -- and back. Seldom had the recurring theme in Arenas's life and career played out like this past offseason.
After the most tumultuous summer of his adult life, his sixth NBA season begins on Wednesday. In May, he dueled James in a riveting Eastern Conference first-round playoff series, hitting an improbable 40-foot shot to send Game 6 into overtime before inexplicably missing two free throws in the final seconds that enabled the Cleveland Cavaliers to close out the Wizards at home.
Memorial Day weekend, there was the almost comic arrest in South Beach, in which Arenas spent a night in jail for allegedly interfering with police while they were arresting a former teammate, Awvee Storey, for blocking traffic. Charges against both players were later dropped.
In late July, Arenas traveled to Las Vegas to try out for the U.S. national team. He made the traveling squad to Asia, but somehow Arenas fell out of favor with Coach Mike Krzyzewski's staff. Before the world championships, he was encouraged to leave the team in mid-August after suffering a slight groin injury.
Back home. Back to the District, where extremes kept shaping his offseason.
In September, he fired his agent, Dan Fagan, after two of Fagan's employees he was close to left the firm.
"It started with the free throws," Arenas said. "Then the arrest in Miami. The whole Olympic team ordeal. This has been a rough, rough summer. But you know what? I read a passage that said, 'The fish that swims upstream knows how strong he is.' That's what I did this summer. I swam upstream."
All the way to Barry Farms.
* * *
Thousands of miles and one continent away, the U.S. national team was taking on Germany. Arenas wanted badly to be playing in that quarterfinal. But Krzyzewski, the Duke icon hired to coach the team, and the rest of the U.S. coaching staff, had settled on Kirk Hinrich and Chris Paul to run the team.
After the injury, Arenas was encouraged to return home by Jerry Colangelo, the head of USA Basketball. Neither Colangelo nor Krzyzewski would use the term "cut." Being one of the 24 players selected for the national team means Arenas would be eligible to represent the United States in future international competitions -- including the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But that's essentially what happened in Arenas's mind. The treatment he received went much deeper than basketball.
"I'm not going back," he said that night at Barry Farms. "If I'm not good enough for you now, I'm not good enough for you in two years." Arenas relented a day later, saying he was emotional and frustrated about his experience, and that he did, in fact, want to be considered for the Olympic team.
But deep down, he felt he had been betrayed again. He had joined the elite club, the players believed to be the world's greatest basketball players, only to be told his services weren't wanted, that he didn't fit in. Less than two weeks later, Barry Farms beckoned. If he couldn't put on a show being televised to millions, if he couldn't compete for a spot in the final four overseas, Southeast Washington would do just fine.
* * *
DeMatha High School's famed prep program and the great summer runs at Georgetown's McDonough Gym are well known. But the asphalt at Barry Farms is the authentic proving ground for the District's basketball players, the court where playground legends are sculpted as quickly as they are shattered.
Rawls is the longtime commissioner of the Goodman League, and every summer since Arenas signed with the Wizards, Arenas has responded to Rawls's requests to play. The run is for the quick and the strong, like the player nicknamed "The Mangler," a beast of a pivot with gargantuan shoulders and gold teeth. Every player has been given a nickname by Rawls, including the Big East's all-time leading scorer, Lawrence "Poetry in Motion" Moten.
By dusk, metal bleachers were filled on each side, and the crowd standing around the perimeter of the court was nine people deep. Ribs, half-smokes, fries and soda were sold in one corner, and glassy-eyed men barely concealing brown paper bags kindly offered to fix drinks inches from the action. The smell of marijuana wafted across the crowd by the second half, and a pullout table stationed near the entrance, inside the chain-link fence, featured a fast-moving card game, with $20 bills changing hands quickly. A pair of dice sat next to an extra deck.
"For him to come out here, where people can't afford a ticket to a Wizards' game, tells you who Gilbert is and what he is about," said Sam Cassell, the veteran NBA guard and former Dunbar (Baltimore) High star who came to watch. Many of the locals spoke of how former Maryland star and Knicks guard Steve Francis was almost booed off the Barry Farms courts two weeks before because he settled for a few jump shots and left with his unfriendly posse of maybe 10 without hardly mingling. Arenas drove himself.
No police or security have been rented to protect the NBA millionaires from the riffraff. But while there is a hint of criminal element, Barry Farms also feels safe, self-policed by Rawls and other adults who have been watching the youngsters go up and down for 28 years. Midway through Arenas's game, three boys of maybe 12, all wearing white cotton tank tops, climbed the backboard support on the adjacent court. When they become unruly, Rawls stepped onto the court in the middle of play and stopped the game.
"Get down from there! I said get down from there!" he yelled as the boys slid down the steel poles like firemen. "Y'all know your mamas don't have health insurance!"
The crowd roared with laughter, and the game resumed. Barry Farms is the District's answer to Harlem's Rucker League, sans commercialism. The Rucker has become a tourist attraction, somewhere where everyone goes to see homogenized stars; at Barry Farms, they still make them from scratch.
Recently, Arenas purchased new basket supports for the league -- including rims, backboards and nets. His philanthropy has been well-documented in the District. From opening up his home and becoming a mentor to a youngster whose parents were killed in a fire, to personally delivering about $2,000 in supplies to Katrina survivors at D.C. Armory. Today, at Verizon Center, Arenas will hold a news conference in which he plans to donate more than $100,000 to selected schools in Greater Washington, money that will go toward computers, athletic uniforms and equipment and help fund after-school programs. He plans to select one school for every one of the 41 Wizards home games this season and donate $100 for every point he scores to the selected school.
* * *
On this night, Arenas joined a team called Alldaz. They played a team sponsored by the Baltimore apparel company known as H.O.B.O., an acronym for Helping Our Brothers Out. H.O.B.O. had its own stars, including Lamar Butler, the catalyst for George Mason's stunning run to the NCAA Final Four last spring. But it did not have three NBA players on its roster. Fellow Wizards Caron Butler and Andray Blatche started the game, which began soon after 8 p.m. Arenas entered the game after he parked his Ferrari. The commotion grew as the two-time NBA all-star took the court.
"Damn!" a hard-featured man of maybe 50 said at courtside. "Let's just make it H.O.B.O. against the Wizards."
* * *
In July, in the middle of his maddening summer, Arenas sat overlooking a golf course from his Las Vegas hotel suite on the 29th floor. He wouldn't let his current run of misfortune block the larger picture.
"I look back growing up," he said. "I think, 'Man, that kid was 10 times better than me. How did I get here?' I stay in my house sometimes and I look up and think, 'What if I didn't get that scholarship at Arizona? What if the two guards before me were accepted?' "
Arenas kept going, noting how he kept manufacturing something out of nothing.
"At Golden State, the way things worked out, God just moved players out for me to get in," he said. "There were 15 players on the team and I was No. 16. If they had a D league [developmental league] then, I would have been D league. I went from injured reserve to starting!
"It happened everywhere I went."
"That's why I'll never change my number," he added. "Zero says everything."
* * *
The first time up the Barry Farms court, Arenas sneaked behind the defense, leapt high for an alley-oop pass and dunked the ball with two hands. Later, he purposely missed a free throw and dunked back the rebound. He took a few jump shots, but mostly attacked the rim, absorbing hard fouls and a busted lip from lesser players without $65 million contracts. It was indeed the quarterfinals of the Goodman League, and a spot in the tournament's prestigious semifinals was up for grabs.
"The winner goes to the Final Four," Rawls bellowed. "The loser will be here tomorrow . . . pumpin' bottles."
Arenas dunked, talked junk and let out his frustrations afterward.
"You got D.C. love, Gil," a group of men listening to Arenas speak, shouted from a few feet away after Arenas's team had won.
A mother pushed her young daughter toward Arenas, asking him to sign the back of her right hand. He posed for pictures on the way out to his car, tore off his jersey and gave the people who came to watch everything on his person except his shorts and the keys to his Ferrari.