By Mike Wise
Saturday, October 17, 2009
One of the most telling stories from Gilbert Arenas's mischievous youth featured his father, the only parent who cared for him growing up. Gilbert Sr., the original Gil the Thrill, tried to compete against his son in Tecmo Bowl, a relic of a video game by today's Madden NFL 10 standards.
"He didn't really know how to play," Arenas said.
So of course, his son showed him all he needed to know -- to lose.
After about 10 blitzes in a row, after a confounded, angry father learned his giggling son had tricked him, Gil Sr. punched little Gil in the arm. Hard.
"Gil ran into the bathroom," his father said when he first told me the story three years ago. "I yelled: 'Gil, you quit, you lose! Gil, you quit, you lose!' He never came out."
That was almost 20 years ago. Senior and Junior have yet to sit side by side to play another video game.
Then and now, it's all fun and games for Gilbert Arenas until someone gets hurt.
Or until an open, authentic player, embraced by Washington when he came to town six years ago almost as much as he embraced the city and its forever-suffering pro basketball fans, suddenly felt like the candor he freely showed was being thrown in his face.
Until the guy who displayed more keyboard courage than any elite athlete of his generation -- who, frankly, ushered in the interactive age of a superstar communing with his adoring public -- began to regret giving so much of himself when his honesty started to be turned against him.
You want to know why Gilbert Arenas isn't saying anything of real substance lately, why the NBA just fined him and his team $25,000 apiece because the Wizards' best player wasn't talking at all? (I know fans could not care less whether athletes talk to the media. Fine. But when Mr. Microphone goes underground, it's a big deal, okay?) You want to know why he gave what he called his last full-length, one-on-one interview all season during media day on a radio show I host more than two weeks ago? You want to know why he gave a very surly, un-Gilbert-like, Q & Arenas for 10 minutes after Friday's practice? That's easy.
Because the same people who kept encouraging him to obliterate the boundaries of public speech and thought -- mutter wild musings into a recorder, type the offbeat and borderline disturbing posts on the NBA.com blog he used to author -- are the same hypocrites now tired of his act.
Look, he doesn't get a pass for some of his most potent barbs, including one reported last month in the Washington Times regarding Arenas's claim that the Wizards mishandled his rehabilitation.
But we erected the platform. Shouldn't he be allowed to take it down?
"That was the whole thing with the blog and the reason I didn't do it anymore," Arenas explained. "Because the thing that made you popular is the same thing that's going to kill you. It's the two-[edged] sword. You're going to die by your own words. That's the reason I'm not speaking anymore.
"At first, everyone enjoyed what I was saying. Now it's just you pick and choose and try to kill the messenger. So now, you just play basketball and don't worry about entertaining off the court anymore."
He doesn't call himself "Agent Zero" and "Hibachi" anymore, though the team still uses his alter egos to sell tickets this season. Having played barely more than a dozen games in three years because of knee surgeries, dealing with constant backlash over signing a $111 million deal in the summer of 2008 and being physically unable to make good on his monster contract, he's literally starting over, back to having to prove himself again. Back, really, to the only existence Arenas has ever truly led.
From nothing to something -- and back again.
From the dilapidated Miami apartment complex he lived in as an infant to a 10-bedroom mansion off the George Washington Parkway in Northern Virginia. From a corn-silk thin, 15-year-old who didn't know if he even liked basketball to an NBA supernova who now wants to take the last shot at the end of every close game. From a refreshingly real millionaire athlete, shaming all the prima donnas rolling up their tinted windows as they eschewed any real connection to their fans, to an emotionally wounded 27-year-old who now sees his honest words being turned against him.
Zero to hero, his number is essentially his recurring theme of his life.
"That's about all I know," Arenas said. "Since I got hurt, I'm back at ground zero. Now I've got to work myself back again."
He said he understands much of the backlash: "The whole contract thing. Me being injured. It's like anything, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately theme," Arenas said.
"But I'm the one who's getting surgeries, I'm the one who's going through pain, I'm the one who's going through the rehab," he added. "As much as you guys are mad [I'm not playing] I'm sitting here mad too about the whole situation. At the end of the day, it happens to people. Some people get hurt. My favorite player, Penny, never gained his career back."
Asked if he feared winding up like Anfernee Hardaway, a tremendously skilled and exciting player whose body betrayed him, Arenas said: "I don't fear it anymore. When I first got hurt, maybe. And the second time I got injured, I thought, 'Damn, my career is going down the drain just from this injury.' But I've been gone for so long. Just got to keep playing what you love until you can't do it anymore."
Professional redemption aside, Arenas's life is actually very good. His wife, Laura, is pregnant with the couple's third child, a daughter who is due in December.
When I asked him if he planned to have a "Behind the Music"-style reunion featuring his father and video games, Arenas chuckled, adding: "Maybe Madden. You can be further back with the controls."
He reported to training camp at 209 pounds, 25 pounds lighter than the 234 pounds he was carrying around while rehabbing his knee this time a year ago. Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's former trainer, made Arenas promise he would keep his surgically repaired knee strong by lifting weights with it twice a week.
He feels good, looks good and has shown signs of the old Gil in the preseason, including playing back-to-back games without pain. But he knows there is only one way to win back support from the masses, the people who used to leap to their feet every time he squared and fired and swished the ball through the net at the buzzer.
"Win," Arenas said. "That's it. Win. The entertainer part of me, I gotta get rid of that. Or at least make it take a hiatus. I'm back to being strictly a basketball player now."
A suddenly quiet Gilbert Arenas seems to know best: When he's running the floor, when his shot is falling from everywhere, no one can use his game against him.