On the flight home the next night after we lost at Phoenix, Gilbert, teammate Javaris Crittenton, and several other players were in a card game that got real heated. While Gilbert was a dominating presence on the team, Javaris didn’t roll with some of his ways. The players were in seats facing each other with a pull-out table between them. I was in the seat next to them half asleep as we began our descent into DC.
My eyes popped open when I heard Javaris say, “Put the money back. Put the [expletive] money back.”
“I ain’t putting [expletive] back,” Gilbert replied. “Get it the way Tyson got the title. Might or fight or whatever you got to do to get your money back. Otherwise, you ain’t gettin’ it.”
When Gilbert put the money in his pocket, Javaris lunged over the table to grab him. Antawn Jamison, seated across the aisle, leaped up, shoved Javaris’s shoulder down on the table, and held it there with the full weight of his body while telling him to calm down.
I got up and yelled “Hey, everybody shut the [expletive] up. How much was in the pot?”
It was $1,100.
“It shouldn’t be that hard to pay what you owe him,” I told Gilbert. “We all make a great living, so just pay the money.”
A man who has a $111 million contract shouldn’t be fighting over $1,100.
Message not received. The two of them kept arguing as we buckled up for the landing.
They were still going at it when we all got on an airport shuttle van to take us to our vehicles.
Ernie Grunfeld, the team president, leaned over to me and said in a pleading manner, “Talk to them.”
“I did,” I told him, “but they keep arguing.”
Everyone could hear Gilbert and Javaris going at it as we rode along.
“I’ll see your [expletive] at practice and you know what I do,” Gilbert said.
“What the [expletive] you mean, you know what I do?” replied Javaris.
“I play with guns.”
“Well I play with guns, too.”
We had the next day off, but on the following day, December 21, practice started at ten o’clock at the Verizon Center so we all wandered in a little earlier.
When I entered the locker room, I thought I had somehow been transported back to my days on the streets of Racine. Gilbert was standing in front of his two locker stalls, the ones previously used by Michael Jordan, with four guns on display. Javaris was standing in front of his own stall, his back to Gilbert.
“Hey, MF, come pick one,” Gilbert told Javaris while pointing to the weapons. “I’m going to shoot your [expletive] with one of these.”
“Oh no, you don’t need to shoot me with one of those,” said Javaris, turning around slowly like a gunslinger in the Old West. “I’ve got one right here.”
He pulled out his own gun, already loaded, cocked it, and pointed it at Gilbert.
Other players who had been casually arriving, laughing and joking with each other, came to a sudden halt, their eyes bugging out. It took them only a few seconds to realize this was for real, a shootaround of a whole different nature. They all looked at each other and then they ran, the last man out locking the door behind him.
I didn’t panic because I’d been through far worse, heard gunshots more times than I could count, and seen it all before. This would have been just another day on the south side.
I talked calmly to Javaris, reminding him that his entire career, not to mention, perhaps, his life, would be over if he flicked that trigger finger.
I looked back at Gilbert. He was silent as he removed himself from the scene.
Javaris slowly lowered the gun.
I know that Gilbert was thinking, “I went too far. I had a gun pointed at me and it was loaded.”
Somebody outside the locker room called 911. Flip Saunders was the coach back then, but he was too scared to even come into the locker room.
I was under no illusions that many of the rest of us were not going to be affected by the gun incident. I knew this was the end of the Washington franchise as we had known it. With Mr. Pollin gone, a new regime coming in, and the image of the team shattered by guns that weren’t even fired, it was time to tear up the Wizards, wipe the roster clean, and start all over again.
Grunfeld warned me that was going to happen. “We might have to trade everyone,” he said. “Rebuild from scratch, looking forward to the future.”
All I said was, “Okay.” What else could I say?
Adapted from “Tuff Juice: My Journey from the Streets to the NBA,” by Caron Butler with Steve Springer. Published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, on Oct. 7, 2015.