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Gilbert Arenas, 'just a leaf on a tree,' made the most of his time in Washington

Dan Steinberg
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; D02

I have a very clear memory of the day in February 2008 that I bought a copy of Men's Journal for the Gilbert Arenas interview. I heard there was some good stuff in it. I wasn't disappointed. Here's the passage that most caught my eye:

"When I was new in the NBA the team veterans convinced me to shave, you know, down there, because they said the hair stinks," Gilbert said then. "I used my girlfriend's razor, which was rusty and gave me keloids. The doctor prescribed medicine to dab on, but I just poured it all over. Three days later I woke up screaming."

I thought that was quite funny at the time. That wasn't quite three years ago. And somehow, between then and now, I turned into an old man. I don't think it's funny any more. I no longer really care about the grooming of Gilbert Arenas's private parts.

Here's the thing: Sports are silly. Sports are grown men (or women) from all over the country (or world), purportedly advancing the cause of civic pride by engaging in childish games while wearing funny costumes for exorbitant pay in front of a crowd that's often primarily fixated on getting a free burrito that would cost, at retail, a fraction of the price of a game ticket. That's not very serious, all in all.

And yet if sports are a distraction from our everyday lives, Gilbertology was a distraction from the distraction, and that couldn't really last.

The guy jumped off trampolines during exhibition games and built himself a ridiculously expensive swimming pool, featuring a mural of himself in front of the Capitol. He read Harry Potter books, plagiarized stand-up routines about shark attacks, got a tiger tattoo on his chest to honor the King of the Jungle and an Obama tattoo on his fingers to honor the black president. He gave out stuffed monkeys to promote a cartoon series that never happened, rode his bike around the city, drove his Maybach to a Southeast playground, befriended ballboys, sponsored video game teams and took them for dinner at Denny's, where he left $100 tips behind. He did one commercial with a stuffed chicken, and another with a pretend lobster. He read video-game message boards, posed with wax sculptures, talked about swagfests and nekkidnism, charged teammates to come to his Super Bowl party and wore a satin boxing robe to a season opener.

But what will we remember in 20 years? Arenas said it better than anyone in a 2008 interview with Dime.

"I'm just a leaf on a tree right now," he said. "We're just passing through, but in that time when you're passing through, get what you can out of your time here. What can you stamp on that tree that will make you special, you know? And some people's marks are bigger than others, but no one is bigger than the tree. No one's the tree."

Then came the Finga Gunz, which sort of withered that leaf in which Gilbert was the Big Silly Kid, the boy who doesn't have to act like an adult. The distraction from the distraction became something sad and pointless, and his keloids weren't a break from life; they were life. We all have our own keloids, metaphorically speaking. We don't need any more.

At their core, sports exist for the sport of it. For fans who care, the marks people leave are measured in playoff wins and championships. Gilbert's identity was about having fun, and we all had fun with him, at least for a while. But when you look back on it, the fun stuff mostly slips through your fingers, like dust in the Hibachi. What you're left with is one playoff series win, and a franchise that's again struggling for attention and success. No one is bigger than the tree, you know?

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