Wizards begin the process of moving forward without Gilbert Arenas

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

When fans arrive at Verizon Center for the Washington Wizards' game against the Orlando Magic on Friday, they will see a barren wall along the Sixth Street side of the arena. On Thursday afternoon, workers pulled down a huge cloth banner of a dribbling Gilbert Arenas emerging from the team slogan with the words: "Character. Commitment. Connection."

Within minutes, the banner was on the ground, crumpled in a heap. The image was symbolic of Arenas's fall and murky future a day after NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended the three-time all-star indefinitely for his words and conduct after it was revealed that he had a confrontation with teammate Javaris Crittenton involving handguns.

After an incident in which Arenas cocked his fingers into fake guns and playfully shot his teammates before a game in Philadelphia, and some bizarre comments to reporters and on his Twitter account, which was shut down Thursday, Stern called Arenas "not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game."

Arenas received word of the suspension on his 28th birthday, only hours before the Wizards were to face once-hated rival Cleveland. After the Wizards (11-22) lost for the fifth time in six games, Arenas flew back to Dulles International Airport with his teammates, which could serve as his last contact with them -- outside of any personal interaction -- for some time. While Arenas still has access to the arena, a team spokesman said that the league and the Wizards both determined that it was in the best interest of everyone involved that he stay away from games and team-related functions.

DeShawn Stevenson said that the Wizards "might break" if some other tribulation is added to all that they have endured this season -- from the death of owner Abe Pollin, a woeful performance on the court, injuries to key players Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller, the circus that has followed Arenas since he admitted to bringing four unloaded weapons to Verizon Center, and now a suspension that puts in doubt Arenas's possible return before the season ends.

"David Stern is not taking this lightly, but we need Gilbert," Stevenson said. "It's hard to play through this. We're human."

When told of Stevenson's comments, Jamison said: "If my teammates start saying that, we're going to lose. We got to put it behind us. This guy is a special talent. So we're going to miss him, whether it's due to injury or whatever. We would love to have him, but a situation like this draws you closer as a team. We need to really just go out there and have fun again. We still got a long way to go for the season. No reason to say, 'It's a done deal and let's concentrate on next year.' That won't happen at all."

The Wizards had grown accustomed to playing without Arenas the past two seasons, as he was limited to just 15 regular season games while recovering from a troublesome left knee. But this situation is different, with the organization distancing itself from Arenas with strong statements from the Pollin family, the removal of the banner at the arena and the stripping of Arenas's prominent role on the team Web site. The challenge ahead appears more grueling, as Coach Flip Saunders tries to make do with Earl Boykins and Randy Foye trying to fill in for a player who led the team with 22.6 points and 7.2 assists per game.

"Not one person is going to put up those numbers. It's going to have to be done collectively, as a group, as a team," team President Ernie Grunfeld said. "The league took action. We supported it and it's something that we're going to deal with. I think [this season] has been difficult for everybody; it's been frustrating. We haven't reached the levels that we wanted to reach. We've taken a couple of steps forward and a few steps back. Obviously, it's going to be more difficult" without Arenas.

The Wizards could potentially look into voiding what's left of the six-year, $111 million contract Arenas signed in 2008, using the "moral turpitude" provision in the Uniform Player Contract. But that is unlikely to occur without a lengthy legal fight with the players' union, which would consider it a bad precedent. And, according to multiple sources it is not an option that the team has begun discussing.

One source said the team wouldn't seriously consider it until the legal process plays out. Arenas is being probed by local and federal authorities and the league for storing guns in what he called "a misguided effort to play a joke on a teammate."

Despite the serious nature of his circumstances, Arenas tried to combat it with humor, but the photo of his teammates laughing as he pretended to shoot them with his fingers has the team considering possible fines.

But according to a source, no decision would be made on the size of the fines until the team can determine if it was premeditated and more evidence surfaces. Some of his teammates referred to it as "Gil being Gil."

"I think it was perceived the wrong way," Nick Young said. "Through tough times, you can't just be so down on yourself. He was just trying to keep his head and amuse himself and have that good vibe. During the moment, people laughed and we didn't think about it until after it."

Said Stevenson: "It's not a laughing matter and we don't think it was a laughing matter. But at the time, the situation, that's who Gilbert is. We're not trying to offend nobody. At the time, if you know Gilbert and been around him, he always plays around."

But no one with the Wizards is laughing today.

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