By Mike Wise and Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 15, 2010; D01
The differences between Gilbert Arenas and the Washington Wizards may have reached the point of being irreconcilable regardless of the outcome of Friday's proceedings in the criminal case against Arenas, according to people close to Arenas and the team's management.
Multiple sources close to the criminal case have said Arenas will plead guilty in D.C. Superior Court on Friday to a single felony count of carrying a pistol without a license in exchange for avoiding jail time. Such a plea would not be enough to allow the Wizards to void the $80 million remaining on the six-year, $111 million contract Arenas signed with the team in July 2008, other sources said. Yet neither side may be interested in reviving the relationship if and when the NBA reinstates the three-time all-star guard, whom Commissioner David Stern suspended indefinitely Jan. 6.
A person close to Arenas said Thursday that Arenas believes President Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards management failed to support him following his locker room confrontation on Dec. 21 with teammate Javaris Crittenton. The two players were feuding over a gambling debt stemming from a card game on a team flight back to Washington from Phoenix two days earlier.
Arenas, the person close to the player said, has told NBA investigators that his flippant behavior following the incident, including the pantomiming of pistols before a game that led to an indefinite suspension from Stern, was because he felt the Wizards organization had turned its back on him.
"If your own franchise, the people you considered family, weren't there for you when you needed them most, would you want to play for them and be around them anymore?" said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Arenas "was wrong for bringing guns into the locker room, and it's going to mean pleading guilty to a felony. It's serious business. But the way this came out and how Ernie and the organization handled the facts makes you wonder if he will ever play for them again."
The Wizards issued a statement Thursday withholding comment, except to pledge they would continue to cooperate with law enforcement and NBA investigators.
The collective bargaining agreement between NBA players and owners provides a specific penalty for players who bring firearms into an NBA facility, and that penalty is that a player may be disciplined by the commissioner with a fine or suspension. The only way a team can terminate a contract, in addition to the league suspension, would be to meet a very high standard, according to a person close to the players' union.
Grunfeld declined to comment on Arenas's felony gun charge. But sources close to the situation said that if Arenas cannot be traded and his contract cannot be voided, brokering a peace between the team and the player would be difficult.
"Until Gilbert realizes none of this would have happened if he hadn't brought guns in the locker room and accepts responsibility for his actions, he won't be welcomed back anywhere," said an NBA official on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Because Arenas's incident occurred in an NBA arena and his behavior afterward led Stern to say he believed the guard was "unfit to play," he will most likely serve the longest suspension for a gun-related offense in NBA history. He has served five games of his indefinite suspension. Stephen Jackson received a seven-game suspension in 2007 after pleading guilty to one count of felony criminal recklessness after firing five shots into the air after a dispute outside an Indianapolis strip club in 2006.
In the interview with NBA investigators, the person close to Arenas said Arenas grew emotional while explaining his actions and his sense of betrayal by the organization.
Thursday's news of the charge against Arenas provided an additional jolt to a team that has been performing poorly all year and has threatened to come unraveled since the gun incident. Wizards players, who were in Chicago where they play the Bulls on Friday night, had hoped to enjoy a day off from basketball. But as Coach Flip Saunders and several players trickled back to the team hotel from shopping and dining excursions in the city, they were greeted with the latest news in the case.
Saunders, carrying a few shopping bags, was unaware of Arenas's felony charges before a reporter informed him. Brendan Haywood was also unaware, reading the news on a BlackBerry. Both declined to comment, as did other players who were approached in the hotel lobby.
After the Wizards lost their third game in a row, 94-82, to Atlanta on Wednesday, Saunders said the time away from Washington and the Arenas gun probe would be good for his players, "but I don't think it's ever going to be out of our minds," the coach added. "It's been a rough, rough time."
The Wizards remain uncertain about when -- or if -- the suspended guard will return, how they can win games in his absence or whether they can cope with the fallout of a disastrous season. The team record has fallen to 12-25. The situation involving Arenas has moved beyond mere distraction to what could possibly cause a rupture in the locker room.
Several players grumbled about how the experience of speaking to law enforcement officials and NBA investigators in the past week broke up their regular game-day preparations and rituals. One Eastern Conference executive wondered if a losing culture has so permeated the Wizards organization that the team's problems could only be solved by breaking it up.
The players are expecting trades will be made between now and the Feb. 18 trade deadline. When asked how the team can focus on basketball moving forward, one player said, "It won't matter. We all going to be out of here anyway."
Lee reported from Chicago.