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Who is Gilbert Arenas? Even he doesn't seem to know

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010; D01

It's exhausting, this fight to believe that Gilbert Arenas is a better guy than he seems. Exactly when is he going to start acting like it? As opposed to the scattered, seven-faces-of-Gilbert split personality on display? When will he pull himself together into a whole, consistent, coherent person? Because so far all we have are versions of him.

Arenas bears a series of tattoos on his legs that he calls Black Rushmore: images of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and President Obama. When he first displayed them, they seemed nobler than the usual body art, more interesting than the inked tiger on his chest. They bespoke a guy who, beneath his teasing, was susceptible to meaning, conscious of things beyond himself. But now they just seem like costuming. The guy might as well have tattooed a feather boa onto his neck, for all the emblems seem to mean to him.

Two of those men, of course, were slain by gunfire. You would think that would have occurred to Arenas when he laid out four guns in the Wizards locker room over a card game called bourré, and rat-tat-tatted his fingers at his teammates the other night. But it obviously escaped him, perhaps because he was too preoccupied with his standoff with Javaris Crittenton, and seeing which one could act more facetiously street.

Is there anything more ridiculous than a soft guy pretending to be hard? Arenas had an admittedly painful childhood -- a mother who abandoned him, a struggling father who raised him in a Van Nuys, Calif., apartment -- but there is nothing in his background that suggests he knows anything about real gangsterism. He has played a game for a living since he was 19 years old. You get the sense that guns are adornments to him. Like jewelry. One of the weapons he pulled out in the Wizards locker room was patently absurd, a gold-plated Desert Eagle that is the same model used in the Austin Powers movie "Goldmember."

What a weak-willed, fraudulent gesture, to pretend to be someone lesser instead of someone better. And that's the deeper offense that Arenas has committed; it's what underlies our anger at him, and our sorrow for him, and our bafflement. The most winsome, talented young man in town is indefinitely suspended from the NBA, and facing a grand jury, because he stepped down instead of up. He didn't have a strong enough sense of self to shrug off a quarrel, and had to go one-up on the dumbest guy in the locker room.

Arenas shows no sign yet of understanding the outrage leveled at him, of why his gunplay was so unfunny. He specifically rejected the criticisms of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who isn't normally my idea of a moral authority, but who in this case absolutely nailed it. Writing about his own childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a Washington Post editorial, Sharpton observed, "Our ambition was to not submit to a subculture that would confirm the worst depiction of who we were and what our destiny would be."

There it is. Depiction is what this is all about. Specifically, it's about identity. You can almost sympathize with kids in gun-plagued neighborhoods who grasp at a powerful identity through a weapon because there doesn't seem to be any viable alternative: They don't have an obvious vehicle to lift themselves out of their lousy situations. But Arenas had a powerful identity: He was a sublime athlete with a nine-figure contract, who got to play a game for a living and call it work, who had surmounted his lousy beginnings, to become Washington's greatest goodwill asset.

When Arenas was embroiled in a child custody dispute a couple of years ago, he was supported by owner Abe Pollin with the following words: "We're proud of Gilbert as a player and as a person. He has overcome a great deal in his life, he has exceeded most people's expectations, and he has become an integral part of the Washington, D.C., community." That was the depiction of Arenas the Wizards bought into when they signed him to a contract worth $111 million in 2008: the Gilbert who led them to consecutive playoff appearances, who was striving to overcome personal unevenness, who loved attention but was never notorious, who was charitable as a Rockefeller and unfailingly giving to fans, and who they assumed would grow steadier over time.

So why does he need to always create some other persona? Why does Arenas seem to constantly shift his self-depictions? That's an urgent question for him, and it's the whole key to what he does with himself and his career from this point forward.

I don't claim to know Arenas. Like so many others, I've always enjoyed him from afar for his lightness of being. But looking backward, perhaps it was a sign of trouble. That lightness now looks like an empty vessel that he fills up with whatever version of a self pleases him in the moment, or that he finds expedient. This season alone, we have seen Strictly Business Gilbert and Vow of Silence Gilbert morph into Chattering Gilbert and Unstoppable Twittering Gilbert. He contradicts his own statements, one day he expresses regret for bad judgment and the next he's got nothing to be remorseful about. The emerging depiction is of a man with sharply veering moods, whose sense of self is highly unstable, and who has yet to adequately address or heal some inner divisions and fractures.

Arenas is in trouble because he doesn't know who he is, because he play-acted the most harmful depiction imaginable. He's a maker of manners in a city where violent crime occurs at three times the national average, yet he showed zero cognizance of that fact. He's in trouble because he seems profoundly disconnected from himself and his community. The District's gun laws have been headlined and debated incessantly, news he apparently found beyond his personal concern. He's in trouble because he didn't devote even a passing thought to the ideas held by men whose faces are tattooed on his body, whose profiles are stained and ink-scarred in his very skin. He's divorced from his own limbs.

Like most people who have watched Arenas over the last few years, I've always liked him immensely. I believe he's an essentially gentle man, edgy but not malicious, and that his lightness is genuine. Humor is an understandable and damn effective mechanism for coping with pain. But it's time he defined who exactly he intends to be in this world. The Gilbert we've had up to now is a figment, a sketch. He has all the substance of a tattoo.

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