By Mike Wise and Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 10, 2010; A01
At Gilbert Arenas Sr.'s lowest, the three days in 1989 when he and his young son lived out of the back of his Mazda RX-7 in North Hollywood, Calif., he first began to notice the pattern. It didn't matter what his boy did -- smiled, pouted, acted silly -- people took a liking to him, wanted to help the child out.
"I don't know who you are or where you're trying to get at, but here, here's some money," a woman said after knocking on their car window. "She said, 'Good luck to you and your son,' and gave me $25," Arenas Sr. said. "True story."
His future boss was so taken by the 7-year-old who came to a job interview, because the elder Arenas could not find or afford a baby-sitter, Arenas Sr. found work without ever being asked a question in the interview. Within days of driving cross-country and having run out of cash, the single father somehow also found an apartment and summer day care. "Gilbert was my good-luck piece," he said. "Everywhere I went, people fell in love with him and wanted to do things for us."
Through grade school, college and on to the National Basketball Association, the trend continued: Gilbert Arenas Jr. seemed to extricate himself from any hard-knock predicament with his guile, smile and scintillating play on the court. When pranks on teammates obliterated the boundaries of good humor, becoming more dark and devious than funny, he could always say, "I'm joking," and go back to work.
The reservoir of goodwill was finally siphoned this past week. David Stern, the NBA commissioner, suspended the Washington Wizards guard indefinitely on Wednesday. Not so much for Arenas's role in a locker-room incident involving guns with teammate Javaris Crittenton on Dec. 21, which D.C. police are still investigating, but for his seeming disregard for the gravity of a situation that now threatens the career of the 28-year-old former all-star.
On Thursday, his likeness, displayed on a large banner, was taken down from the Sixth Street facade of Verizon Center. That same night, Arenas canceled his Twitter account.
The national perception of Arenas changed almost overnight. He was rebuked by the Rev. Al Sharpton and, after he drew mock pistols in a team huddle during player introductions before a game on Tuesday night, the Brady Group, the anti-gun violence organization named for Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was shot and critically injured during an assassination attempt in 1981.
The carefree, self-proclaimed "goofball" who employed tweets and an NBA.com blog to usher in the era of professional athletes who use the Internet and social media, now faces the loss of his reputation and millions of dollars because he peeled back the layers too far. An athlete known for his uncanny ability to charm basketball and non-basketball fans is suddenly being mentioned among modern sports outlaws such as Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick.Protecting the star?
There is a sentiment among people close to the Wizards organization -- few of whom spoke on the record, given the sensitive nature of the situation -- that the team's upper management, team President Ernie Grunfeld in particular, covered for Arenas and coddled him for too long. "There are a lot of people responsible for this, other than" Arenas, one person familiar with the situation said on condition of anonymity because the individual could not speak on behalf on the Wizards organization.
Former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan and his staff privately intimated they felt undermined by Grunfeld when it came to matters of discipline with Arenas. Arenas, a notorious practical joker, often crossed the line of acceptable decorum. The example often cited was how Arenas once defecated in teammate Andray Blatche's shoe during Blatche's rookie season. His behavior often went unchecked and unpunished, said a former team employee on condition of anonymity.
The employee said Arenas would get fined for breaking team rules -- such as being late for practices or team flights -- and Arenas would sometimes have his money returned. Jordan tried to push Arenas to be a better defender. But one former coach said Jordan inevitably felt that wouldn't happen after a game against Portland, when Arenas was held to just nine points -- coming 41 shy of his stated goal of reaching 50. After the game, Arenas complained that Jordan's focus on defense kept him from scoring the way he wanted.
Jordan called the called the criticism "ludicrous" and questioned Arenas's leadership skills. Jordan and Arenas met to clear the air a few days later, but instead of backing the coach, Grunfeld said at the time, "In the heat of the moment, a lot of things get said but Gil's won a lot of games for us and he'll continue to win a lot of games for us."
In response to those who say he had coddled Arenas, Grunfeld said: "We treated him like we treated most of our other players. If it was something that needed to be dealt with strongly, we did."
Grunfeld added he could not recall giving back any fines to Arenas.
Asked if he regretted any situations and how they handled Arenas and his antics, Grunfeld added: "People are responsible for their own actions. If someone takes their own actions, they have to be ready to accept the consequences and not look to deflect blame elsewhere."
In a recent interview, Arenas said he had only remembered being late for one practice during Jordan's tenure, and that he was taken out of the starting lineup as punishment.
Asked if his son was enabled by the organization, Gilbert Arenas Sr. said: "It depends on what it was that they allowed him to get away with. Not being serious about certain things that they needed, not being the leader they wanted him to be, it depends. It all boils down to him signing that large contract," he added of the $111 million contract Arenas signed in July 2008. "Before he signed that, he was a major investment they didn't want to lose.
"Now, did Ernie try to protect Gil in this case? That's an interesting question. And as much as I love my son, at some point the franchise is more important than Gilbert."
An NBA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the team provided support to Arenas -- including professional counseling.
Another prominent player on the Wizards, who spoke on condition his name not be used, said all of Arenas's erratic behavior and pranks the past few years had been addressed by the organization in some manner. But the player added: "There is only so much you can do to discipline a star before you start making him want to go somewhere else. I think every team walks that line. And we did that with Gilbert."
Conversely, the player added, "Gilbert did more than walk that line."Elaborate pranks
After former Wizard Awvee Storey and Arenas got into a wrestling match during practice two years ago, Arenas promised revenge. Posing as his teammate on the road, he entered Storey's hotel room, copied his car key and express-mailed the key back to the District, where his friend promptly put Storey's car up on blocks in the arena garage.
When Storey returned to the locker room, ashen-faced over the theft of his wheels, Arenas rolled one of his rims across the locker room. He did the same to Nick Young during the Wizards guard's rookie season, "until I pleaded for him to give me my wheels back," Young said Friday night after the Wizards won their first game since Arenas's suspension. "That's just Gilbert. You have to know him. He's not a malicious guy, he's a good guy that just does some crazy things."
"Gilbert was like the kid in class the teacher liked too much to send to the office," Jason Richardson, Arenas's former teammate while with the Golden State Warriors, said during a 2007 interview.
No over-the-top prank, though, had ever been taken to the level of dangerous absurdity as when he laid four unloaded guns in the Verizon Center locker-room cubicle of Crittenton on Dec. 21, with an accompanying note that read "Pick One." Arenas had said he took his guns to Verizon Center because he didn't want them in his house after the birth of his latest child, in early December. Crittenton responded by brandishing his own gun and chambering a round, according to two eyewitnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Before the Wizards' victory over the Orlando Magic at Verizon Center on Friday, Antawn Jamison, a Wizards team captain, took a microphone, walked to the center of the court and apologized for the team's part in Arenas's mock-pistol display earlier in the week.
A person close to Arenas said Stern's suspension might have been a blessing in disguise, saving Arenas from further condemnation. He had apparently scripted an even more elaborate -- and uncouth -- opening for the next night in Cleveland, in which he would affect a gimp-legged walk like John Wayne and draw at 10 paces with Young, his also-playful teammate.
"We talked about it," Young acknowledged Friday night.
Instead of being with his teammates, getting ready to play the Magic at the time, Arenas -- inarguably the most popular athlete in Washington just three years ago -- was home, preparing to take his children to Chuck E. Cheese, awaiting his legal and professional fate while pondering the irony:
"He feels like everybody turned his back on him," said Arenas Sr. by telephone Saturday afternoon. "It's sad, because there's a real sense of, especially with the media, you helped create this person.
"I told him, Don't even Tweeter right now. You trying to show people being funny is how you deal with this and it's not working. The only part they're hearing is you had guns. You just have to keep your mouth closed. You have to accept that right now. Move forward and eventually they will get a chance to see your heart again."