When it all changed for Gilbert Arenas, for better and worse

By Mike Wise
Sunday, January 17, 2010; D01

When did I know Gilbert Arenas had changed a franchise and a city? Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2007, almost three years ago to the day.

He had just let fly another deep rainbow jumper that won a game at the horn for the home team. Amid the pandemonium, two old-school players who had seen everything in Washington were sought out for comment.

"We finally got us one," said Steve, an arena security guard for the Bullets/Wizards the past two decades. "We finally got a bona fide superstar. Michael was nice, but that was different than this."

Dave, the reliable sentry next to the entrance to the team's locker room area, shook his head with delight after the player they affectionately called "Gil" had equaled Michael Jordan's 51-point arena record that day. "Woo-eee!" he said, surveying the box score. "That's definitely the MVP."

We finally got us one.

So many creaky-kneed stars had already passed through, someone else's stars: Michael. Mitch Richmond. Moses Malone. Bernard King. Spencer Haywood.

So many talented youngsters unable to grab the torch because they were either still too knuckleheaded to understand (Chris Webber), not quite gifted enough to live up to their exorbitant contract (Juwan Howard) or not appreciated enough when they were here (Rip Hamilton).

But Gilbert was different. He arrived in 2003, stopping and popping from beyond 25 and 30 feet, making aging hoopheads and new-jack kids believe in a franchise that had come to know two things well: losing and the lottery.

Halfway through that season, he had hit 11 shots to end either a quarter, half or game. He broke Earl Monroe's single-game scoring record by outdueling Kobe Bryant in overtime. Sixty points in L.A. -- followed up by a 54-point performance against Steve Nash and the Suns.

Then came that 51-point game against the Jazz. At the time, just two other players in the past two decades had had three 50-point games within a 15-game span: Michael and Kobe.

A Southern California kid, Arenas somehow became part of Washington the way LeBron James was always of Cleveland, the kind of player a fan would boast of to his South Florida co-worker on their break.

"You might have D-Wade, but we got Agent Zero."

Gilbert Arenas was an original source of pride for the District basketball fan, where old heads don't merely reminisce about Wes Unseld and 1978 or Len Bias. Or even "Hoya Paranoia" and what John Thompson Jr.'s Georgetown teams meant to the sporting history of this town by playing in three NCAA finals in four years; they still talk about the great high school team Big John played on at Archbishop Carroll 51 years ago, its 55-game win streak, how it beat Cardozo in the 1959 City Title Game.

Greater Washington will always seep burgundy and gold, but everyone I speak to over 40 knows D.C. proper is a basketball town at its core, waiting for the right player and the right team to embrace. And three years ago -- before the knee surgeries, before guns in the locker room sadly became a Google search -- this town opened its arms and a young kid with a magnetic smile and game jumped in them gleefully.

Arenas wasn't Jordan. And in the beginning, that was the best part. He wasn't corporate or imperious. He was just Gilbert.

When did I know he had changed a franchise and a city? A little more than three years ago, a few days after a 12-year-old kid had lost his mother, twin sister, great grandfather and a cousin in a fire in the 400 block of 17th Street SE, near Capitol Hill.

"One day you're sleeping with your parents and the next day, they're not there," Arenas said then of Andre McAllister, the boy he befriended and provided for, becoming his big brother. "It's going to be hard growing up without family in his life."

"Every year, he comes around for my son's birthday," said Andre McAllister Sr. Saturday night. "I can't thank him enough for being there for us. I know what he did was wrong, but . . . "

Two weeks ago, he brought Andre Jr. to Tysons Corner to the Adidas store -- the shoe-and-apparel company canceled their endorsement with Arenas on Friday -- for a shopping spree. "More than that," Andre, now 15, said, "he came along in my life when I didn't have no one."

Miles Rawls wrote a character-reference letter to the judge who will sentence Arenas in eight weeks, writing: "He's far from the thug and animal he's being portrayed. Now, I say he's a fool. But once he gets some strong people in his corner to set him straight, he'll be fine."

Rawls, the commissioner of the Goodman League at Barry Farm in Southeast Washington in his spare time and a federal police officer with Homeland Security during the week, welcomed Arenas back to the city's most famous playground courts this summer the way Julius Erving used to be welcomed back to Rucker Park in New York. "He's b-a-a-a-ck," Rawls said.

And now he's gone, a victim of his own hubris and denial.

"A big-time scorer like that, man, it will be a while before another franchise guy who took the city by storm comes here," Rawls said. "It's a sad story all the way around. I thought for sure he'd retire here, you know? He was perfect for the city. Stupid thing. It's just sad."

Arenas, the Barry Farm commissioner added, bought the rims and the backboards for the courts and donated thousands of dollars to children. He spent $19,000 at a Costco in 2005, going out and buying toiletries and personal amenities for Hurricane Katrina refugees staying at the D.C. Armory.

"You believe this?" Arenas once said to me, sitting on the bed of a movie trailer that Adidas had rented for him in Marina del Rey, Calif. He was filming a national commercial for the company in the summer of 2007, putting on a futuristic jumpsuit that helped computerize his moves amid lasers, lights, cameramen and a director, who kept intoning, in cornball fashion: "Okay, Gilbert. Action!"

"If you told me this would happen -- playing in the NBA, using my position to help others, filmin' Adidas commercials -- I would have said, 'Man, you got a better imagination than me.' "

He had grown up about an hour away, where his father had given up his own dream of becoming an actor to provide for his son. Gilbert Sr. showed me the park he took 7-year-old Gilbert while they were homeless and living out of his Madza RX-7 for a few days almost 21 years ago. The father pointed to the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter his young son used to climb up on, which still sits at Izay Park in Burbank, Calif.

The baby-blue jet arches toward the sky, its nose pointed toward the heavens.

As a teenager, Gilbert said he began dreaming about a big spaceship in a park. "My life was good when I saw that spaceship," he said. "I just wanted to ride away on it and I knew everything would be okay."

Told the jet and the park were not his imagination a few years ago, Arenas smiled in wonderment. "That wasn't a dream? The ship was real? That park is where we stayed?' "

When did I know Gilbert Arenas had changed a franchise and a city?

When he pleaded guilty to a felony weapons charge on Friday afternoon in D.C. Superior Court. He will most likely never play for Washington again.

Tears welled up in his eyes in front of the lead attorney for the NBA last week as he explained how much he loved his career, how his favorite players when he was growing up were Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, that he never intended to do anything to hurt the league that granted him his dream.

He also said he wouldn't complain if David Stern suspended him for the rest of the season, that he just wanted to move on from a franchise whose management scrubbed his likeness from their arena, a team that no longer wants him because of the irreparable harm they feel he has brought to the franchise.

There is genuine crime -- bringing four guns to the Verizon Center and foolishly provoking an already angry teammate -- and there are crimes against the game and the city that adopted him, the people who believed they finally had an NBA superstar to call their own for a decade or more.

For those who had waited so long for a transcendent young player, there is no sixth-month jail sentence, probation or community service. There is just emptiness and disillusion, the harsh realization that, in Gilbert Arenas, Washington did not get one.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company