By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007
LAS VEGAS -- The idea came to Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas while he was driving his Escalade one afternoon in Washington. Jay-Z's words and music blared, "The takeover, the break's over . . ."
It was shortly after the U.S. men's national team had sent him home from South Korea, where it was preparing for the world championships, and Arenas was furious that he was cut after he had altered his game to fit the team's needs.
Despite being a two-time all-star, Arenas still felt like only a pseudo-star. He wondered what he had to do to be included among the elite of the National Basketball Association and become a household name like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. After listening to Jay-Z's "The Takeover," Arenas decided that he wasn't going to sit back and wait for it to happen, and he wasn't going to blame anyone else if it didn't.
"I'm going to will myself," he remembered saying. "I'm going to will my personality on you -- like it or not."
Six months later, the success of "The Takeover" can be spotted all over Las Vegas. Fans voted Arenas a starter in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game, and his oversize image is on two billboards covering the sides of hotels on the Strip. He shares a massive, 300-foot-wide by 180-foot-high Adidas advertisement with fellow all-star Tracy McGrady on the MGM Grand. His other sponsor, Glaceau Vitamin Water, has mobile billboards driving up and down the Strip.
"It's amazing to me," Arenas said after seeing his billboards in Las Vegas. "I dreamed of having 'The Takeover' this year, and so far, it went well."
Arenas didn't get here by accident. He has been among the top scorers in the league all season, and has led the Wizards to their most successful first half of a season in nearly three decades. But that doesn't completely explain the surge in Arenas's popularity, especially because he jettisoned his agent in September and, unlike most of the game's elite, lacks a major corporate-driven marketing engine behind him.
Arenas instead has been both the agent and beneficiary of a largely Internet-based publicity machine. His well-documented idiosyncrasies and personal charm have turned him into a darling of the growing pro basketball blogosphere.
As Arenas himself put it, "I'm a one-man marketing machine!"
His first tangible success came last month, when he received more than 665,917 votes in the last two weeks of balloting and was named an all-star starter for the first time.
All-star starters are chosen by fans who vote on the Internet and at NBA arenas, and incumbent all-stars usually are reelected. Arenas's chances increased when popular guard Allen Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets, who play in the Western Conference.
When the penultimate set of returns was released on Jan. 11, Arenas trailed seven-time all-star Vince Carter by 214,460 votes. Arenas pushed on with a full-fledged media onslaught that included interviews with countless magazines, newspapers, radio stations and television programs (including San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker's radio talk show, which is broadcast in France). He also urged the video game team he sponsors, Final Boss, to blog about him on its Web site. He asked friends to spread the word.
When the final all-star voting results were released on Jan. 25, Arenas nipped Carter by a mere 3,010 votes.
A second-round pick in the 2001 draft, Arenas was anything but a prepackaged star when he entered the league. His nontraditional methods to promote himself include an oft-quoted blog on NBA.com (which really is a phone interview with an NBA staffer). He also has a MySpace page named after one his many nicknames, "Black President." And a recent shooting contest against teammate DeShawn Stevenson became a smash hit on YouTube.com.
Arenas leans on his inner circle, which includes his father and friends, for his marketing ideas. And he has a personal marketing consultant, Paisley Benaza, who helps Arenas with business and media dealings, but doesn't negotiate contracts as an agent does. Arenas maintains more control in this arrangement.
He "brainstorms" by himself late at night, often inspired by conversations and pop culture references from music and movies. Vitamin Water's "Vote for Gilbert" campaign, which featured signs at Metrorail stops and bus banners, was inspired by the movie, "Napoleon Dynamite," in which the star character's friend runs for class president under the slogan, "Vote for Pedro."
Before this season, Arenas told Adidas and Vitamin Water that they needed to become more involved in promoting him. And Benaza said Arenas did his own "organic marketing" for the brands. During the season opener, a nationally televised game against Cleveland, Arenas said he strategically took drinks of Vitamin Water in the huddle whenever the cameras came near. He also would switch the style and color of his signature shoe during games and watch it play out on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
Arenas said that one of the reasons he decided to terminate his agent, Dan Fegan, was because he wanted to be in complete control of how he was presented, flaws and all.
"I'm not going around saying I'm a good-old boy. I'm just like everybody. I make mistakes. I'm just your average kid. I'm not saying I'm this uppity guy who doesn't do anything wrong, who doesn't eat at Burger King. Hey, I eat Burger King before games." Arenas said. "You have these marketing teams and everyone is trying to create these golden images, these untouchable images -- and all of these untouchable images falter. Why? Because you've [portrayed] yourself like that, that means you're walking on eggshells. If you do anything wrong, you're down the toilet. You can't live your life."
Arenas often throws up a concept and Benaza sees if it can stick. More often than not, it does.
"This is a world where we're going through turmoil with the war, the New Orleans disaster. People want entertainment," Arenas said. "I'm an entertainer. People act like I'm going to fall off. I'm not going to fall off. I work too hard to fall off. This is who I am."
None of this would have happened if Arenas had not excelled on the court. Between Dec. 17 and Jan. 15, he scored a career-high 60 points in his home town of Los Angeles, came through on a prediction to score 50 points on Phoenix Suns head coach and U.S. national team assistant Mike D'Antoni (he actually finished with 54 points), and nailed two walk-away, game-winning three-pointers against Milwaukee and Utah. He's the league's second-leading scorer, averaging 28.8 points per game, and he has led the Wizards to the top of the Southeast Division.
He also boosted his profile with an expensive party on Jan. 5 at Love nightclub to celebrate his 25th birthday, which he threw mostly to bring the flash of red-carpet affairs in Los Angeles to the District. The bash reportedly cost between $1 million and $2 million, but Arenas wouldn't confirm the actual amount. The publicity from the event generated more buzz than two weeks of television advertising, and it made him known to non-basketball people, he said. "We had a joke on how much that was spent. Diddy: X amount. Flights for friends: X amount. Cost of renting Love: X amount. Gilbert's 25th birthday party and getting voted to all-star: priceless," Benaza said.
He wrote on his blog that he would give up one year in the NBA for the chance to play one game and score 80 points against Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach of the U.S. national team that had cut him. Arenas is like the prankster who crashed the cool kids' table at the cafeteria and started a food fight. "He's like a breath of fresh air," said Hall of Fame center and ESPN commentator Bill Walton.
Even when his bold predictions backfire -- such as last Sunday, when he came 41 points short of his stated goal to score 50 points against Portland head coach and U.S. men's national team assistant Nate McMillan -- he became fodder for talk radio.
"I don't know what it is about the NBA, but it always seemed like there was this charisma, personality vacuum," said James Morris, co-creator of Wizznutzz.com, which gave the nickname "Agent Zero" to Arenas. "People don't speak their minds in interviews. They look like they are managed. They have p.r. people. [Arenas] seems to have a confidence in himself that a lot of these athletes in the NBA don't seem to have."
And fans are buying in. Besides his all-star voting triumph, his No. 0 jersey jumped to eighth in sales at the NBA Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City and at NBAStore.com. Arenas wasn't in the top 50 last year, Benaza said.
Adidas spokesman Travis Gonzolez said Arenas's signature shoe for Adidas, Gil Zero, is selling better than those sported by McGrady and Minnesota forward Kevin Garnett. This time last year, Arenas staged a protest, using masking tape to cover up the word Adidas on his shoes during the All-Star Game in Houston. Arenas felt that his shoe company wasn't giving him the exposure he needed.
Gonzolez said Foot Locker recently requested the company's entire inventory of Gil Zeros. "Very rarely does that happen, with any shoe," Gonzolez said. "Who would've thought last year that this would be the case?"
Arenas's father, Gilbert Sr., explains: "The only difference between these two years is the 60-point game and the 50-point games. It was all a statement that [says]: 'Hey, I can do this, but I have a team also. I'm taking over my situation. I'm trying to get to certain levels. If that's the way you're going to recognize me, then that's what I'm calling The Takeover.' "