By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 11:40 PM
"I screwed up again."
- Gilbert Arenas, after admitting he lied to his coach.
Succinct. Pointed. Really, of all the epitaphs I've ever considered, "I screwed up again" pretty much says it all.
What, you wanted him to be the morose, bearded, sullen guy who showed up at media day like Joaquin Phoenix once showed up on David Letterman? How depressing.
You honestly thought the man was going to go an entire season being a model employee? You believed Mr. Mischief would not put his foot in his mouth about something before April?
Ha. He couldn't even get out of the pre-season without incurring people's wrath, without being judged and told to leave Washington for a fresh start.
Look, I'm not here to endorse Arenas lying to Flip Saunders about an injury so his teammate, Nick Young, could play in a meaningless exhibition game Tuesday night. I'm not here to minimize Arenas's most recent mistake in judgment.
I am here to say it is small potatoes next to his last mistake in judgment. And for all the impassioned pleas about Arenas needing to start over with a new team in order for the Wizards and himself to forge new identities, I finally agree with this premise.
Gilbert Arenas indeed needs to be in a different environment that will give him a new lease on his NBA career. In fact, he's already on that team; they're called the Wizards.
Of all the indignities of nearly throwing his career away, Arenas is about to appropriately suffer one of the most painful ones. He returns to a young, uneven team that has no shot of contending for a playoff spot, much less an NBA title. He returns as not the star, but a player thought of as a complement in the back court to the No. 1 pick in the draft, John Wall. He returns to skeptical fans tired of his bravado and still waiting on his humility, the moment when he picks up the microphone before the Nov. 2 home opener and says, authentically, "I'm sorry."
With four years and $80 million left on his contract, there was almost no way for the Wizards to trade him. But that exorbitant deal almost certainly guaranteed one thing: that Arenas was going to have to be part of the clean-up crew.
It's as if Arenas was held back a year in school to reap what he had sown. He has to be part of the rebuild because his matchstick ignited the fire.
The Wizards will be better and some nights entertaining to watch. But don't be fooled by some young kids who run, dunk and jump well.
Clarity came as early as Flip Saunders's slogan for the season, one of many strong hints of where we are with Washington's pro basketball team:
"Back to Basics," the coach of your 2010-2011 Wizards proclaimed.
Cutting edge, completely intoxicating, it is not. It basically conveys a simple, heartfelt message: "Man, Did We Screw Up a Year Ago Or What?"
Not until I surveyed the names on the plates above the dressing areas at Verizon Center on Tuesday night did I realize the depth of what happened a year ago.
There's a Wall where there used to be a Jamison, a Booker where there used to be a Haywood, a Palmer where there used to be a Stevenson and, before him, a Hughes.
If 10 months ago someone predicted that the first native New Zealander to play in the NBA and the pride of Glendive, Mont., would be sharing a cubicle inside the Wizards' locker room (because a star like Kevin Seraphin to their right needs his own, of course), even Sean Marks and Adam Morrison might have laughed at the absurdity.
That seemed as likely as a rookie who turned 20 in September being officially named a team captain - and unofficially asked to fix the things his 28-year-old teammate broke.
Wall isn't merely supposed to lead; he's supposed to soothe, calm, make amends for things he had nothing to do with. The kid is a part-time point guard and a full-time ambassador.
Their best two players are a window into who and what these Wizards are: Wall has no memory of the past and Arenas keeps being told to forget it, or at least not reflect back on it, lest people associate these Wizards with that mess.
He's been encouraged, by NBA Commissioner David Stern and others, not to talk about the details of the felonious gunplay last December that landed him in a Montgomery County halfway house this past spring and helped Grunfeld decide for certain that he needed to unload every core player with a big contract he could and start over.
And that's what the Wizards did.
Their owner is new. Their leader is new. Their roster is almost unrecognizable. In time, they won't even be called the Wizards. Heck, even their former star changed his jersey number. Agent Zero is now District 9.
For all the conjecture, the notion of a new beginning, moving on after the worst is behind, has a lot to do with why Arenas changed to No. 9.
Remember "The Shawshank Redemption," when the Andy Dufresne character played by Tim Robbins daydreams about where he would go if he were ever to get out of prison?
"Zihuatanejo," he says. "It's in Mexico. A little place on the Pacific Ocean. You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? That it has no memory. That's where I want to live the rest of my life - a warm place with no memory."
No. 9 is the last of the digits - representing, in some numerology circles, the beginning and the end of all human experiences.
A little like a rebirth, Arenas said Tuesday night - the idea that everything that came before needs to be left in the past.
Less than 18 hours later, Arenas was fined by the team for faking an injury.
"Obviously, no one's taken it well," he told reporters. "I screwed up again, so I just want to say, 'Sorry.' "
We're sorry it's come to this, that a three-time NBA all-star is thought of as a role player in his own backyard, on a team that is much closer to the lottery than another banner.
Now if he's genuinely part of the rebuild - essentially cleaning up much of the mess he made - that would be a decent tale of redemption.