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Gilbert Arenas's crimes deserve punishment, not a disappearing act

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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, January 14, 2010

We've gone too far now, the way we always go too far these days. We've made Gilbert Arenas Public Enemy No. 1, which is absurd. Look, Arenas has, by himself, brought about the trouble he's in. And in short time it could be deemed criminal behavior, having those guns in the District of Columbia.

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Still, is Arenas so evil that all the merchandise bearing his name and number has to be pulled from Verizon Center? And from the NBA Store in New York? And from NBAStore.com, where you couldn't even customize a jersey and have Arenas's name on it? Is what he did so heinous his likeness has to be scrubbed off of every building in downtown Washington, like he's Al Capone?

I'm not about to back away from my earlier position, that if I ran the Wizards I'd try to have the remainder of his $111 million contract voided, and that I understand the league-ordered suspension for that ridiculous pregame pantomime in Philadelphia of firing pistols and his overall cavalier attitude about the offense. But don't tell me we have to go as far as Sethi saying in "The Ten Commandments": "Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet. Stricken from every pylon and obelisk of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of man, for all time."

Is that really what we want to do with Gilbert Arenas, which is the direction in which the ridicule seems to be taking us?

Having those guns in his locker is inexcusable and apparently unlawful, and Arenas may have to pay dearly for it. But is it the worst thing we've ever heard? Please. It isn't close. I looked up some, let's say, transgressions today of some recent NBA players. And while a stupid act can't be justified by a doubly stupid act, we still need some perspective when judging these things. I passed right over all the "possession of a firearm" charges against various players over the years, figuring they weren't fired in the actual locker room.

But then you wind up looking at charges like "assault on a pregnant woman" and "assault of a female police officer" and "battery of wife," which have been leveled against professional athletes in recent years. Some of these charges produced zero games suspended.

And what exactly does this have to do with Arenas? Context. Yes, we'd all be happier if every player was a cross between David Robinson and Grant Hill, but it ain't the world we live in. Arenas did something incredibly stupid that's likely to cost him, but it doesn't mean he's 24-karat evil and needs to be treated as such.

In fact, and I say this with absolutely no hesitation: I like Gilbert Arenas, always have. I don't quite trust his judgment on serious matters but overwhelmingly I've found him an enjoyable person, reasonable, engaging, always a good listener and usually a good spirit about him. I generally don't read blogs but often enjoyed his, and I'm not talking about the occasionally outrageous portions, but the 80 percent meat-and-potatoes stuff where Arenas would talk about basketball and the league itself, dissect players and their personalities and give us his take on professional basketball or his team or living in greater Washington. I believe -- and told him this recently -- that Arenas has needed a governor but not a muzzle. He didn't seem to find that center.

Has Arenas needed a hands-on mentor, somebody older and smarter and charismatic enough to grab his attention and sometimes tell him to shut up, stop tweeting and listen to his coach? Yes, absolutely. He's still going to need that person (people) when he gets on the other side of this mess.

Because Arenas can be as charming as he wants -- and the people at the University of Arizona recognized this years ago -- he's gotten away with too much. That's not rare in sports or the performing arts. Yes, Arenas has enablers, and if we believe the recent reporting -- and I do -- the Wizards' president, Ernie Grunfeld, has been one of them. So have some of us in the media (I'm guilty), who have encouraged what seemed to be colorful behavior that was probably just silliness or immaturity that in the context of basketball tears at the fabric of any team. The true professionals in that locker room, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, probably wanted to scream because they knew that not everything, like taking a dump in somebody's shoes, is funny.

But I've spent too many hours talking to Arenas over the last six years to think he's beyond reclamation, that he has to go into exile. There's much too much intelligence and goodwill, skill and legitimate personality to, as folks used to say, just throw the baby out with the bath water. If some of these other jokers who avoided serious suspension or worse were worth our time, Arenas sure is. Whether he plays in Washington again or is dealt somewhere else for the next stage of his career, Arenas is bright and young enough at 28 to get it right . . . or closer to right.

So many people are in the business of banning Gilbert Arenas that it strikes me as too easy. What he probably needs more than anything is to earn a second chance, then come face to face with some tough, unrelenting encouragement, the kind that puts a premium on sincerity, not pranks. But the notion that he and everything associated with his name and jersey need to banished is far too severe a punishment.


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