Dear Gilbert, You've really blown it now

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; D01

An open birthday card to Gilbert Arenas:

Happy 28th, Gil. Some great b-day, huh?

A Superior Court grand jury is weighing whether to bring charges against you for bringing guns to work. Even if you plead guilty to a misdemeanor and get community service, NBA Commissioner David Stern will probably start with a 20-game suspension and go from there.

Less than five years after you brought so much magic to town, made pro basketball matter after Michael, it's about over.

You said it best when we spoke Tuesday night: "I should just steal a quote from Batman, when he said, 'I've been around long enough to see myself turn into the bad guy.' " The fans you play for, who used to clamor for your game-worn No. 0 jersey to be tossed to them, now want you gone.

Remember three years ago? The hottest ticket in town was that black American Express envelope, the one that contained an invitation to your 25th birthday party at Love, the club where Sean Combs and other hip-hop glitterati attended. Diddy came to Northeast for you.

The night you threw yourself that million-dollar bash, grabbing the microphone and yelling, "Get drunk and make bad decisions," everybody laughed and went home thinking, "That Gilbert -- he's one quirky cat, but he's got such a good heart. And, man, he can ball with the best of them."

Crazy, no? Those same people want to buy you a ticket out of town today.

Most of your teammates are shaking their heads in disgust, wondering when the turnaround season of hope everyone bought into is going to begin. They always wanted to be on CNN; they just never thought it would be under the heading, "Wild, Wild West in Wizards Locker Room."

Even the Rev. Al Sharpton is backing law enforcement. He told the New York Daily News in Tuesday's editions he wants you severely punished. Reverend Al!

The D.C. police. Fans. Teammates. The black community. And you thought LeBron and Shaq were out to get you Wednesday night in Cleveland.

Now your last bastion of support is wavering. When the franchise Abe Pollin bought in 1964 -- the one entity in town that had your back on every front, through every oddball act or quote -- is whispering behind closed doors -- some actually hoping -- that the Wizards might have the legal right to void what's left on your $111 million contract, there is only question left, Gil:

How did we get here?

How did the most original, authentic character in the game just three years ago -- the guy who lifted thousands out of their seats with his long-range jumpers that won games at the buzzer -- become the pariah of Washington sports?

I know. After you signed that deal, your contract became a target more than financial security. If things went bad on the court, you were to blame. If the cheerleaders had no rhythm, it was because the organization didn't have enough left over to pay better dancers. And when you missed the past two years because of knee surgeries, people saw that as money wasted.

But bringing guns into your locker room, it's so far beyond your health now.

The good things off the court -- offering to renegotiate your contract to secure better players, all the children you've helped through your Zero Two Hero Foundation -- no one cares today. All anyone is saying is, "Gilbert went too far this time. I'm done with him."

I know you didn't sound remorseful after the win in Philadelphia. But when I talked to you before the game, you showed genuine remorse.

You told me: "I feel very bad about putting those guns in the locker room. Even though I did it to protect my kids, I put other people's kids in danger, and those are my teammates. They have parents too. That's just a fact. I shouldn't have done that."

But that contrition -- and the apology through your lawyers Monday -- came almost a week after a series of nonchalant Tweets, hiding behind the "goofball" defense, acting as if you went too far with your humor instead of just calling it for what it was: breaking the law.

You didn't just toy with the "moral turpitude" clause in your contract; you flat-out endangered your NBA career.

If the chambers in those guns were loaded instead of empty, don't think for one minute that the commissioner would not have banned you for life. If not to set an example, then to honor the memory of Mr. Pollin, who was Stern's friend before business partner -- the same Mr. P who changed the team's name from Bullets to Wizards to honor the memory of his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated.

I keep going through stories I wrote about you over the years to find out what went wrong, play amateur psychologist one more time.

Did Bruce Bowen forecast a possible end in Washington two years ago? Remember, when I asked another NBA player, whose mother abandoned him as a child just like you, what's in store?

"In this game, so many guys want their credit, respect, their street cred," Bowen said. "For people like me and Gil, it goes deeper than that. We want people to recognize us for what we've overcome. We carry that around. When what you've been taught is what you won't be, what you won't achieve, that you weren't good enough, your whole work ethic becomes about proving people wrong. Which is great -- until you don't have anybody to prove wrong anymore.

"When people start treating him great, I wonder how he'll deal with that."

Once the underdog is on top, after all he knew was being on the bottom, how does he handle prosperity?

Is this about pushing away those who get too close to you, testing their loyalty to the Nth power, like the time you stormed out of an argument you had with the mother of your three children? Remember when you told her: "I'm sorry. I can't help it. Everybody I love, I push away. That's who I am."

When I asked you about that, you said: "It's true; I catch myself doing that all the time. I think that's the only way you know who's true. If you push them away and you push them to where they hate you, and if they're still around, those are true people. But if you push them away and they leave, it was never meant to be. You're just a leaf on a tree that just blew off."

When I visited your high school coach, Howard Levine, he told me of the conversation he had with your college coach, Lute Olson, after some of the childishness you showed back then left Olson exasperated.

He said he finally told Lute, "Gilbert has to know you're going to be with him all the time. In Gilbert's mind, he's thinking, 'I want to see if you let me go, like my mom let me go.' At some point, if you're going to get close to Gilbert you have to tell him: 'You can push me away, you can fight me, but I'm not going anywhere. I'm here for you. I'm staying.' " Do we all have to tell you, "We're staying," and say it over and over? Will the antics, the pranks that start out silly before morphing into sinister, stop then?

Come on. You're 28 years old. If you somehow finagle your way out of this mess, people in this town still want you gone.

When I look back and see the grin on your face after all those jump shots that fell through the net, when I see all those people smiling back in the stands, I think it's a damn shame one of the best stories of redemption I've ever covered has come to this.

You don't need that old creed anymore, the coping mechanism that took you from an abandoned infant in a Miami crack house to the unimaginable fame and wealth of an NBA all-star. You made it. Zero to hero -- and back to zero again -- doesn't fit anymore. It's an old song, playing in your head. Hit "stop" or it will stop you.

Look, I don't believe there was malice behind your actions. I don't believe we even know the full story yet. I do believe the people you pushed away this time might not ever come back.

And from the good place this all started, there is something so wrong about that.

I know you said Tuesday night you only wished for a win on your birthday. But I hope you get more two more gifts: peace of mind and a solemn promise to treat yourself better on your 29th.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company