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For Gilbert Arenas and Wizards franchise, latest incident sheds light on entitlement

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 10, 2010

At Gilbert Arenas Sr.'s lowest, the three days in 1989 when he and his young son lived out of the back of his Mazda RX-7 in North Hollywood, Calif., he first began to notice the pattern. It didn't matter what his boy did -- smiled, pouted, acted silly -- people took a liking to him, wanted to help the child out.

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"I don't know who you are or where you're trying to get at, but here, here's some money," a woman said after knocking on their car window. "She said, 'Good luck to you and your son,' and gave me $25," Arenas Sr. said. "True story."

His future boss was so taken by the 7-year-old who came to a job interview, because the elder Arenas could not find or afford a baby-sitter, Arenas Sr. found work without ever being asked a question in the interview. Within days of driving cross-country and having run out of cash, the single father somehow also found an apartment and summer day care. "Gilbert was my good-luck piece," he said. "Everywhere I went, people fell in love with him and wanted to do things for us."

Through grade school, college and on to the National Basketball Association, the trend continued: Gilbert Arenas Jr. seemed to extricate himself from any hard-knock predicament with his guile, smile and scintillating play on the court. When pranks on teammates obliterated the boundaries of good humor, becoming more dark and devious than funny, he could always say, "I'm joking," and go back to work.

The reservoir of goodwill was finally siphoned this past week. David Stern, the NBA commissioner, suspended the Washington Wizards guard indefinitely on Wednesday. Not so much for Arenas's role in a locker-room incident involving guns with teammate Javaris Crittenton on Dec. 21, which D.C. police are still investigating, but for his seeming disregard for the gravity of a situation that now threatens the career of the 28-year-old former all-star.

On Thursday, his likeness, displayed on a large banner, was taken down from the Sixth Street facade of Verizon Center. That same night, Arenas canceled his Twitter account.

The national perception of Arenas changed almost overnight. He was rebuked by the Rev. Al Sharpton and, after he drew mock pistols in a team huddle during player introductions before a game on Tuesday night, the Brady Group, the anti-gun violence organization named for Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was shot and critically injured during an assassination attempt in 1981.

The carefree, self-proclaimed "goofball" who employed tweets and an NBA.com blog to usher in the era of professional athletes who use the Internet and social media, now faces the loss of his reputation and millions of dollars because he peeled back the layers too far. An athlete known for his uncanny ability to charm basketball and non-basketball fans is suddenly being mentioned among modern sports outlaws such as Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick.

Protecting the star?

There is a sentiment among people close to the Wizards organization -- few of whom spoke on the record, given the sensitive nature of the situation -- that the team's upper management, team President Ernie Grunfeld in particular, covered for Arenas and coddled him for too long. "There are a lot of people responsible for this, other than" Arenas, one person familiar with the situation said on condition of anonymity because the individual could not speak on behalf on the Wizards organization.

Former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan and his staff privately intimated they felt undermined by Grunfeld when it came to matters of discipline with Arenas. Arenas, a notorious practical joker, often crossed the line of acceptable decorum. The example often cited was how Arenas once defecated in teammate Andray Blatche's shoe during Blatche's rookie season. His behavior often went unchecked and unpunished, said a former team employee on condition of anonymity.

The employee said Arenas would get fined for breaking team rules -- such as being late for practices or team flights -- and Arenas would sometimes have his money returned. Jordan tried to push Arenas to be a better defender. But one former coach said Jordan inevitably felt that wouldn't happen after a game against Portland, when Arenas was held to just nine points -- coming 41 shy of his stated goal of reaching 50. After the game, Arenas complained that Jordan's focus on defense kept him from scoring the way he wanted.

Jordan called the called the criticism "ludicrous" and questioned Arenas's leadership skills. Jordan and Arenas met to clear the air a few days later, but instead of backing the coach, Grunfeld said at the time, "In the heat of the moment, a lot of things get said but Gil's won a lot of games for us and he'll continue to win a lot of games for us."


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