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The decline and fall of Gilbert Arenas

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; D01

When the Miami Heat eliminated the Washington Wizards from the 2005 NBA playoffs, the end of the season felt more like the beginning of a new era of professional basketball in Washington. Led by all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, the Wizards appeared poised for a breakthrough, having won 45 regular season games and beaten the Chicago Bulls in the first round for the franchise's first playoff series win in 23 years.

Nearly five years later, Jamison is gone, traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Also departed are Larry Hughes, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson -- all key blocks in what once appeared to be a solid foundation. All that remains in Washington is Arenas, the public face of both the team's captivating success and its embarrassing implosion.

Arenas is scheduled to be sentenced Friday for a felony charge of carrying an unlicensed pistol to the Verizon Center locker room in December. He entered a guilty plea on Jan. 15. In a scathing sentencing memo, prosecutors recommended three months in jail, though the judge could sentence him to up to five years. Regardless, he is suspended from the NBA for the remainder of the season, and whether he will again play for the Wizards remains unclear.

Just as Arenas's arrival in the summer of 2003 signaled new hope for a Washington franchise mired in mediocrity, his experiences since that 2005 breakthrough -- from the departure of his close friend Hughes to his signing of a lucrative long-term contract to his injury and subsequent surgeries to his gun escapade -- have mirrored the team's downward arc.

As Arenas heads to court Friday to learn his immediate future from a judge, the Wizards are 21-49, the fourth-worst record in NBA.

Jamison, like many others, left town with one main question: "Where did it go wrong?"

Hughes departs

In the summer following the Wizards' second-round loss to the Heat in 2005, Hughes bolted in free agency to sign a five-year, $70 million deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The on-court loss to the team was significant; the off-court loss to Arenas was irreparable.

Hughes and Arenas had formed a special connection, dating from their lone season together in Golden State. When the Warriors drafted Arenas with the 31st pick in 2001, Hughes was among the first people the front office contacted to help him with the adjustment. He would invite Arenas to his house to hang out, and offered him clothes that were piled up in his closet.

His influence on the mercurial, unpredictable Arenas was profound.

"I'm pretty quiet and I'm pretty calming," Hughes said. Arenas "just figured that I was real."

In their two seasons in Washington, they became almost interchangeable at point guard and shooting guard.

"I could tell everything he was doing. I knew every movement, I knew why he did something before he did it," Hughes said. "And that's why it made us tough in the back court because we fed off each other. We always talked. We had that respect that we could do that for a whole game and there wouldn't be no problems."

When Hughes left, Arenas followed with his two most explosive offensive seasons, but he often pined for a back-court mate who could provide a similar connection.

"Larry, somehow, he had that connection with Gilbert, where if he went off the deep end, Larry would always seem to bring him back," Haywood said.

"Larry leaving, that really hurt us. Larry was really the leader of our team," said forward Jared Jeffries. "We all felt like it was the start of something good for us, but we also understood that guys were free agents and guys might not be there. I don't think anybody was shocked with how it came out. When guys started leaving it was tough."

Loss to Cleveland

Nonetheless, the Wizards won 42 games the following season -- overcoming the absence of Hughes with Butler, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in a deal for former No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown -- and opened the 2006 playoffs with an epic series against Cleveland. The Cavaliers' LeBron James provided some of the first real hints of his eventual greatness, averaging 35.4 points in the series, but Arenas matched him nearly basket for basket as he averaged 34 points. Three of the Wizards' four losses came by one point.

"To me, that series, the first, was the most focused I've ever seen" Arenas, said Jeffries, who signed with the New York Knicks as a free agent in the summer of 2006 and has since moved on to Houston. "He was playing great defensively, as well as shooting the ball at a high level. Whenever you reach that level as a basketball player, they look for you to take your team to that next step, and that's carry your team to a championship. I think Gil had those expectations."

In Game 6, the Wizards were in position to force a seventh game when Arenas stepped to the foul line with the Wizards nursing a one-point lead with 15 seconds remaining in overtime.

Arenas, an 80 percent foul shooter that season, missed his first attempt and stared at the basket, dumbfounded. James, a playoff neophyte, suddenly looked like a seasoned gamesman as he walked up to Arenas, patted him on the chest and told him, "If you miss these free throws, you're going home."

Arenas missed the second free throw and Cleveland's Damon Jones made the game-winning jumper in the Wizards' 114-113 loss. Arenas said afterward, "You feel you let your city down."

He has yet to make another playoff appearance at full strength.

First serious injury

Initially the disappointment from the Cleveland loss seemed to only inflame Arenas's passion for the game, and when he was cut from the U.S. national team before the world championships that summer, his fire burned even brighter.

Arenas responded with the best season of his career in 2006-07 and earned his first all-star start in Las Vegas. He hit game-winning shots against Milwaukee and Utah, erupted for two 50-point games and scored a franchise-record 60 points in an overtime win in Los Angeles against the Lakers. His popularity expanded as he wrote an effusive NBA.com blog -- which became an Internet phenomenon -- was given the nickname "Agent Zero," and threw a $1 million 25th birthday party in D.C. hosted by hip-hop mogul Diddy.

Butler also made his first all-star appearance, and Eddie Jordan coached the Eastern Conference all-star squad as the Wizards had the best record in the East for a week-long span from Jan. 26, 2007, to Feb. 2, 2007.

But after Jamison sprained his knee on Jan. 31 in Auburn Hills, Mich., things began to unravel. Arenas made it a personal goal to score 50 points against Portland in an attempt to make a statement to Trail Blazers Coach Nate McMillan, an assistant on the Team USA squad Arenas felt had snubbed him. Instead, he finished with just nine points and afterward blamed Jordan for placing too great an emphasis on defense.

Jamison believed Arenas had crossed the line.

"He's like a little brother you've got to spank every once in a while," Jamison said at the time.

Later that season, Arenas missed a mandatory pregame shoot-around, and Jordan benched him for the start of a game against Charlotte. Arenas entered the game and within minutes, Bobcats forward Gerald Wallace crashed into his left knee and Arenas crumpled to the floor, tearing the medial collateral ligament in the leg. As he walked back to the locker room, Arenas glared at Jordan.

Arenas quietly held a grudge against Jordan for most of the summer that followed, telling those close to him that his injury occurred because he was on the floor during a first-quarter stretch when, as a starter, he normally would have been resting on the bench.

"People criticize you for disciplining him or for not disciplining him. He didn't run roughshod over the rules that we had as coaches," Jordan said in an interview last October. "And when he did, we disciplined him. That's the way it was then and it was only a few times that he really broke the rules. And one of those times was when he got hurt."

Without Arenas and Butler (whose season also was ended by injury three days before Arenas's), the Wizards won just two of their final 10 regular season games and barely made the postseason as a seventh seed. The Cavaliers then swept them in the first round on their way to the NBA Finals.

Slow comeback

Having never dealt with a serious injury before, Arenas admitted that he didn't initially approach his rehabilitation properly. He failed to understand what it took to regain strength in his leg and he was at times spotted walking and carrying his crutches. Before the start of the season, Arenas staged a training session for reporters, which included him riding a bicycle and running with a parachute attached to his back.

Arenas had his knee drained twice -- during training camp in the fall of 2007 and early in the regular season. Then, just eight games into his comeback, Arenas's knee faltered again and he was forced to have a second surgery, this time including a more serious microfracture procedure. Without Arenas, the Wizards still managed to win 43 games in 2007-08, as Butler and Jamison became all-stars.

But the Wizards were again unable to upend the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, losing in six games. Arenas had rushed back to assist with the playoff run, but he tweaked his knee, landing on Jamison's foot in Game 3 in Cleveland and was limited to just four games.

"It's pretty hard to advance in the playoffs if you don't have your leading scorer," Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld said.

After the season, the Wizards faced some tough decisions regarding Arenas, who had become a free agent. There wasn't a consensus among the team's management about whether to bring him back. Arenas's questionable approach to his training and knee rehabilitation, plus his antics and goofy behavior, had already worn on some members of the front office. But Grunfeld came up with $111 million -- $16 million less than the maximum amount Arenas could have been offered under the NBA collective bargaining agreement -- and Arenas turned down a five-year, $100 million offer from his former team, Golden State, to stay in Washington.

"Believe me, there are other people who would've gladly taken Gilbert," Grunfeld said before this season. "All along we wanted to keep Gilbert, and it wouldn't have been a question if it wasn't for the injury. But our medical people told us, he was going to come back and be healthy."

Arenas said he seriously considered returning to the Warriors because they didn't appear to fear his knee troubles. "I was just happy that somebody else wanted me," Arenas said last December. But Wizards owner Abe Pollin convinced Arenas to stay with the team as Arenas prepared to take a flight for a promotional tour in China. He returned to sign the contract that clearly designated him as the franchise's bedrock.

He had a third surgery on his knee two months later.

Internal tensions

With Arenas's return uncertain, the Wizards' prospects for 2008-09 quickly went from shaky to dismal when Haywood tore a ligament in his wrist during training camp. Tensions between Jordan and Grunfeld bubbled over -- Grunfeld felt Jordan too often abused his pipeline to Pollin through Susan O'Malley, the former president of Pollin's Washington Sports and Entertainment; Jordan felt Grunfeld undermined him at times when he tried to discipline Arenas.

So when the team started the season at 1-10, both parties felt it was time to move on. Grunfeld fired Jordan, who had guided the team to its most successful four-year run since 1979. Grunfeld tapped former director of player development Ed Tapscott to finish the season and the Wizards went on to tie the franchise record for the worst 82-game season at 19-63.

Arenas played in just two games.

Nonetheless, optimism was running high entering this season. Arenas and Haywood were expected to return healthy, Grunfeld recruited a successful coach in Flip Saunders, the team acquired Randy Foye and Mike Miller in a pre-draft swap.

But things derailed almost from the start. Butler simmered after failing to receive a contract extension of his own in the summer, Jamison started the season injured after dislocating his right shoulder in the preseason, and Arenas struggled to run Saunders's new point-guard-centric offense.

Arenas jockeyed for Alpha-dog status with Butler, who had become an all-star while carrying the team's scoring load for the previous two seasons but didn't have the nine-figure contract to show for it. Expecting to return to the same status he had left, Arenas eventually went directly at Butler, claiming that Butler wasn't on the same page as the other 14 players. Butler called Arenas to discuss their differences. While the feud settled down, it never disappeared. As one team insider said, "Those guys just flat-out didn't like each other."

The team continued to underachieve and when Pollin died in late November, the Wizards lost the primary force behind keeping Arenas, Jamison and Butler together.

When the Wizards' record dropped to 8-17 after losing three out of four games on a Western Conference trip in December, Arenas made a comment about team chemistry in the visiting locker room in Phoenix that proved to be ironic, considering what followed.

"When you hear teams around the league starting off this bad, there's fights in the locker room, but guys are getting along still," Arenas said.

Arenas boarded a flight back to Washington and got into an argument with teammate Javaris Crittenton over an unpaid gambling debt that resulted in both players bringing guns to the locker room on Dec. 21.

Within two months, Jamison, Butler and Haywood would be traded away. And Arenas, under a season-long suspension for the gun incident, would be preparing for his appearance before Judge Robert E. Morin on Friday after pleading guilty Jan. 15 in D. C. Superior Court to a felony count of carrying a pistol without a license.

"We was right on the cusp of doing something great here," Butler said before he was traded to Dallas. "We had a devastating injury to our franchise guy. I was in a situation where myself and Antawn, we carried the team for two years and we did a helluva year getting back into playoffs. But losing [Arenas] to another surgery, then coaching change. Then after the coaching change, roles changed. And after roles changed, another incident happened.

"It's a lot of stuff that happened, that as a player, you can only handle or absorb at once. Right now, I'm trying to recover from all of it."

Into the great unknown

Nearly three years after it was signed, the Arenas contract that seemed to stabilize the Wizards' identity for the long term is the most volatile element in an uncertain future. In the initial aftermath of his suspension, Grunfeld said the Wizards "would explore all options" relating to Arenas, but those options appear to be limited.

The Wizards could reach a buyout agreement for the remaining four years and $80 million of his contract, but any settlement would count against the salary cap. They could attempt to trade him, but almost regardless of what sentence Morin hands down Friday, it's difficult to imagine another NBA team willing to take on the contract, given the events of the past three months.

The team could also seek to void Arenas's contract by invoking the clause in all NBA contracts requiring players to conform to "standards of good citizenship" barring them from "engaging in acts of moral turpitude." This possibility at first appeared unlikely because the league's collective bargaining agreement specifically addresses gun violations and states that any punishment for such must be in accordance with the NBA constitution, which limits the maximum punishment to a "definite or indefinite" suspension and a $50,000 fine.

However, the prosecutors' sentencing memo released Tuesday detailed Arenas's actions in the aftermath of the gun incident as first defiant and then dishonest. Prosecutors say Arenas gave at least three differing accounts of the incident and, citing text messages in which Arenas wrote that he would "come up with a story," accuse him of trying to orchestrate a cover-up for his actions with teammates.

Arenas's "conduct since the time of the incident establishes that he has shown little genuine remorse for anything other than how this incident may affect his career," wrote lead prosecutor Christopher K. Kavanaugh.

Whether any of the details in the sentencing memo would strengthen the Wizards' case to void Arenas's contract remains uncertain. Whether the team even wants to pursue such action is also not known.

Recently, Grunfeld has spoken publicly about bringing back Arenas, while Arenas has said that he has no problem playing again in Washington.

"That was then; this is now," Grunfeld said, explaining his shift from his "explore all options" position two months ago. "He's under contract and he's a member of our organization. We plan on having him back."

Whether Grunfeld's comments are posturing or sincere, hard feelings still remain on both sides. The Wizards were upset with Arenas for embarrassing the franchise. Arenas felt betrayed when the franchise stopped promoting him and removed his image and jersey from Verizon Center and team Web site.

Morin will decide Arenas's legal future Friday. The next chapter in his professional future will likely be determined by a new ownership group. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is nearing a deal to buy a majority stake in the Wizards and Verizon Center from the Pollin family.

Whatever direction Arenas and the Wizards take next -- whether separately or together -- it will be vastly different from the path that appeared so encouraging just five years ago.

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