For a time, Gilbert Arenas was the brightest light in Washington, and one of the brightest stars in the NBA. A scoring machine with an equally entertaining personality, Arenas seemed to be the kind of star the Wizards had been seeking to build around ever since the franchise’s glory days in the late 1970s.
Those days, however, were short-lived, lost amid injuries and Arenas’s off-court issues — specifically the 2009 incident in which he and then-teammate Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the team’s locker room — that have become his lasting legacy both in the nation’s capital and around the NBA.
“Man, the highs … he was streaking,” said Golden State Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, who went up against Arenas multiple times during the apex of his career. “It was like a star streaking across the sky. He set the league on fire.”
Though many likely won’t realize it, Monday will officially sever Arenas’s last real connection to the Wizards — even though the franchise washed its hands of “Agent Zero” long ago. That’s because the Orlando Magic, which acquired Arenas from the Wizards for Rashard Lewis back in 2010, will send one final check to the three-time all-star guard, the final installment of the six-year, $111 million contract Arenas signed with the Wizards in 2008.
Focusing on those final years of his career — which ended as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2012 — clouds the brilliant peak Arenas enjoyed as a player in Washington. From 2004 through 2007, he was one of the most explosive scorers in the entire league, making three All-Star Games, averaging more than 25 points per game each season and captivating the league with his unique combination of size, strength, athleticism and shooting ability at point guard. He also became a fixture in the local community, thanks to the combination of his personality and his charity work.
“Oh my gosh,” said Antonio Daniels, who spent four years as Arenas’s teammate with the Wizards, serving as both his backup and daily competition in practice. “People don’t get it. People don’t get it. I mean that like, that dude was so good. He was so talented. Out of my 13-year career, as far as talent goes, Gilbert was probably the most talented guy I ever played with. I’m talking about pure talent.
“I played with Tim Duncan and David Robinson and Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. But I’m talking about pure talent. Tim was the best player I’ve ever played with, but he wasn’t the most talented. . . . There was nothing Gilbert couldn’t do. He could shoot from half court like he was shooting a free throw. He was fast, he was strong, he could handle the ball … people don’t understand how offensively talented Gilbert Arenas was.”
The way Arenas wound up in Washington — signing a six-year, $60 million deal with the Wizards in 2003 — led to the creation of the “Arenas rule,” which gives teams that draft a player — in Arenas’s case, the Golden State Warriors — an opportunity to match a contract offer for a second-round pick coming out of his rookie contract.
The Wizards were able to exploit that lack of protection, and he quickly became a star in Washington. In no time, Arenas developed a reputation for hitting game-winning baskets, being willing to take — and make — deep three-pointers in a time long before the likes of Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard made it commonplace, and for the many ways his effervescent personality would shine through on the court.
“Man, he would just go out and do stuff,” said longtime teammate Caron Butler, laughing as he thought about it. “He’d be out there like, ‘Hibachi Time! Hibachi Grill Time!’ Stuff like that. He’d be in the middle of a huddle, and I’d be like, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ He’d just make up stuff on the fly. It was just fun, man. I can remember those moments right now talking to you. Those were special moments.”
Arenas gave Washington several special moments — a game-winning basket to beat the Bulls in 2005, a three-pointer that sent Game 6 of Washington’s 2006 first-round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers to overtime, a 60-point explosion against the Lakers while being guarded by Kobe Bryant for basically all of overtime and game-winning “daggers” against the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz in January 2007.
One thing he was never able to do, however, was lead the Wizards past the Cavaliers, who knocked Washington out of the playoffs three straight years.
“It sucks to think about Cleveland putting us out of the playoffs, what, [three] years in a row?” Daniels said. “When you look back in the history of sports, you look at Michael Jordan, and he had to get past the Detroit Pistons. You look at certain guys that had to get over other teams, and get through other teams. Isiah Thomas had to get through Boston. The Cleveland Cavaliers were the team we had to get through, and we never could get through them.”
Arenas was never the same after Charlotte Bobcats forward Gerald Wallace drove for a layup on April 4, 2007. Wallace fell to the ground — and rolled right into Arenas’s left leg. The resulting injury — a torn lateral meniscus in the knee — ended Arenas’s run as a dominant NBA player. He sat out the playoffs that season due to the resulting surgery and played just 13 games in 2007-08.
Still, the Wizards offered him a massive $111 million contract in July 2008 to remain in Washington. And he signed it. He played just two games in the 2008-09 season, it quickly became a millstone around the team’s neck that remained until he was eventually sent to Orlando for the equally onerous contract of Lewis in December 2010.
By then, the Wizards were happy to be rid of Arenas, who was suspended for the final 50 games of the 2009-10 season over the Crittenton incident and also spent time in a halfway house after pleading guilty to a felony count of carrying a pistol without a license.
“All of us, we make choices,” Daniels said. “Our lives are full of choices … with Gilbert, you hear so many things about him. He was this and that and gun charges and all these things. I’ll tell you what: my locker was next to Gilbert’s for four years. Gilbert was a great guy. A fantastic guy.”
For all of the very public missteps, there are few players who have left as indelible a mark as Arenas did — both on Washington and the league as well.
“[From] the marketing, taking his shirt off at the scorer’s table after scoring 50 or 60, hitting game winners and turning around after buzzer shots, everything, and doing it as a villain?” Butler said. “You can’t tell the story of basketball from that standpoint without mentioning him, and he embraced it so well. He is one of the best guards to ever play the game of basketball … that does him justice just in that right.”