By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, January 16, 2010; D01
This is the activity we engage in most frequently when it comes to professional basketball around here: looking back and trying to figure out how and why something went so horribly wrong. John Williams's eating, Chris Webber's underachieving, Gheorghe Muresan's aching back, Juwan Howard's contract, the trade of Rip Hamilton, drafting Kwame Brown, the firing of Michael Jordan and now Gilbert Arenas's felony plea bargain. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.
This latest episode, Arenas pleading guilty to the felony charge of carrying a pistol without a license, is the most scandalous of all, the most embarrassing, a franchise-altering development that very likely will lead to the dismantling of the team. Don't get me wrong, nothing Arenas did with guns is any fault of the team's; Arenas did this to himself virtually by himself. Still, here is the Washington basketball franchise, by whatever name, digging itself out of another avalanche of trouble.
Just five years ago the Wizards won 45 games, which was their most since 1979, beat the Chicago Bulls in the NBA playoffs and looked like a team doing all the right things. The best player, one Gilbert Arenas, was just 23 years old. Whether it was throwing his jersey into the stands or inviting everyday folks to hang out with him, Arenas connected with people here like no pro basketball player since Wes Unseld. He had charisma. And if he wasn't Kobe Bryant or LeBron James he wasn't far behind, and at the very least he seemed a threat to them, an all-star, a peer.
Unforgettable was the December night in 2006 when Arenas scored a franchise-record 60 points in Los Angeles to beat Kobe and the Lakers.
And now, with more unflattering details coming out, it all seems like just a dream. Arenas will never play for the Wizards again. No more Agent Zero heating up hibachi-style at Verizon Center. It's over. With a sentencing date not until late March it looks like Arenas is going to be on ice the rest of this season. Who knows how long NBA Commissioner David Stern is going to suspend Arenas in addition to the days he's already been inactive? And did you get a load of that statement released by the team Friday afternoon? The one that read: "Gilbert Arenas has been a cornerstone of the Washington Wizards for six years. We are deeply saddened and disappointed in his actions that have led to the events of this afternoon. Gilbert used extremely poor judgment and is ultimately responsible for his own actions."
I'm not saying I blame the club, but it is one cold-blooded statement. It might as well have read, "Don't let the doorknob hit you where the dog should have bit you, bro."
You know Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards want to distance themselves from Arenas as quickly as possible, and this is surely going to get worse considering management will very quickly seek to void the remaining $80 million or so of Arenas's $111 million contract that Grunfeld had no problem serving up only 18 months ago.
The difference between "misdemeanor" and "felony" could be worth nearly $100 million, which is a reasonable guess at how much Arenas could lose from his contract with the Wizards and his deal with Adidas, which was terminated after Arenas's plea bargain Friday. It's no given that the NBA contract will be negated, but copping to a felony makes it more difficult, as Adidas has shown. And if Arenas actually has to serve jail time, and his services aren't available, the Wizards' lawyers would be, shall we say, in an advantageous position.
I've come to like Arenas too much to just wave goodbye and not wonder what's going to happen to him. He's 28, still in his basketball prime. If people will have the likes of Zach Randolph and Stephen Jackson playing prominent roles on their teams, somebody sure as hell will want Arenas when his suspension is over, probably sometime next season. He's going to have to make as many changes as the Wizards. He'll have to convince a team that he's done with pranks and with taking too many shots, and certainly with guns, considering that in each of his NBA stops he's been charged with illegal gun possession. That's two strikes.
Arenas is going to have to sit down and, with help, assess how he's going to ask back into his chosen profession and then be an asset to a team, not the liability he became with the Wizards. The injuries, ill-advised rehab stints and prolonged absences created a moat between him and some of his teammates that simply could not be bridged. And that was before guns came into the picture. While I'm of the mind, choosing humanity over D.C. laws, that possession of an unloaded gun isn't close to the worst thing we can find in an NBA locker room, I certainly don't buy Arenas's assertion that this problem mushroomed because the team didn't support him.
Looking back and assessing what the hell happened in this case and whether it could have been prevented will cause plenty of hand-wringing, but that, after all, is what the basketball franchise and the people who follow it do every few years. Soon enough, the divorce will be official, each party will have another chance to get on with their lives and we'll find out whether either can do better the next time.