It played out like a scene from a spaghetti Western: a beef over a card game escalating into threats and guns and promises of violence. That the showdown took place in an NBA locker room and the dueling adversaries were highly paid athletes gave the NBA one of the biggest controversies it had ever seen. ¶ As improbable as the affair seemed at the time — Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton, two teammates for the Washington Wizards, brandishing guns at work — everything that has transpired since has been perhaps even more difficult to predict. What happened was shocking; the chain of events that followed, extraordinary. ¶ “It changed the dynamics of a lot of people’s lives,” said Flip Saunders, the Wizards’ coach at the time. “Like they say, for every action, there’s a consequence.” ¶ The two players argued aboard a team flight Dec. 19, 2009, and at a practice two days later, Arenas laid out four guns in front of his teammate’s locker, prompting Crittenton to reveal that he, too, had a gun. The news became public on Christmas Eve, and immediately the league office, local law enforcement agencies and national media were all investigating.
Five years later, Arenas, who famously made light of the situation by mimicking gun play with his fingers shortly before the Wizards played the 76ers in Philadelphia, is out of the league, Crittenton is in jail facing murder charges and the Wizards have been built into an NBA contender with an entirely new cast.
It’s hardly a Disney-sanctioned Cinderella story, but the Wizards managed to leverage calamity. Barely a year removed from giving Arenas a $111 million contract, in December 2009 they suddenly had no anchor. Change was already afoot; longtime owner Abe Pollin had died just one month earlier.
Arenas was suspended for the remainder of the season for his role in the incident, and team officials, conferring with incoming owner Ted Leonsis, decided they needed to start from scratch, a house-cleaning decision that had the added advantage of distancing the team from the national headlines and late-night punch lines Arenas and Crittenton had inspired.
By season’s end, the team had parted ways with Arenas’s supporting cast: Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. The team lost 20 of its final 25 games — including 16 straight at one point — and in May 2010 won the NBA draft lottery. The transfer of ownership to Leonsis was completed in June, the same month the Wizards made John Wall the No. 1 overall pick and the organization’s cornerstone. Within a year, General Manager Ernie Grunfeld shipped Arenas and his burdensome contract to Orlando, and Leonsis changed the team’s colors, uniforms and logos from teal and bronze to red, white and blue.
The franchise bore little resemblance to the one that had tied its hopes to Arenas, and still today, team officials not surprisingly prefer to talk about the changes that happened after the guns surfaced in the locker room rather than the incident itself.
“We had to be patient as we were going through this rebuild,” Grunfeld said last week. “As we kept moving forward, we kept adding different pieces, so our young players were maturing and developing.”
Arenas and Crittenton, meanwhile, were struggling profoundly, albeit in much different ways.
Arenas was just 28 years old when NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended him, but his knees already were hampering him. He went on to play a reserve role in both Orlando and Memphis and would start only 16 games after the gun incident. With no NBA teams calling, in November 2012 Arenas signed with the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association. He appeared in 14 games there and hasn’t played professionally since.
Even though Arenas hasn’t dribbled a ball on an NBA court in 2
“I lived in Washington longer than I have lived anywhere else, so it’s considered home even though I moved back to California,” Arenas told 106.7 The Fan in the spring. “When you grow up as a kid and as an adult — from 21 to 29 I lived in D.C. — I mean, it’s my home team. Right now I’m a fan.”
Crittenton did not have as much money to fall back on, but at just 21 years old when the confrontation happened, he also felt he had more years left in his career. He, too, was suspended for the remainder of the 2009-10 season but would never appear in another NBA game.
He had brief stints in China and the NBA Development League before alleged criminal activity wrecked his basketball dreams.
He was charged in the August 2011 shooting death of a 22-year-old Atlanta woman. Police say Crittenton was targeting a man he believed had robbed him but accidentally killed Julian Jones, a mother of four, instead.
Prosecutors have alleged gang ties and say he was also involved in a separate 2011 shooting. When Crittenton was out on bond earlier this year, police charged him for his alleged role in a drug ring that was busted for moving several hundred pounds of marijuana and cocaine.
His defense attorney, Brian Steel, has maintained Crittenton’s innocence, and the former player, now 26, is in a Georgia jail and scheduled to go on trial to face murder charges next month in Atlanta.
Team officials have a difficult time processing the disastrous path Crittenton’s life took. Five years ago he was young and quiet and just trying to find a place in the Washington locker room. “I really didn’t have a good feel for what he was all about,” Saunders said.
The entire Wizards roster has since changed, and none of today’s players shared a court with Crittenton. Arenas was teammates with Wall for less than three months. In many ways, these Wizards have nothing to do with that time — and yet they’re also very much a product of it, descendants of disaster.
As for Arenas and Crittenton, later events might have been more definitive, but neither would recover — certainly not professionally — from that airplane card game gone awry.
“I don’t think anyone envisioned how that whole thing went down, but it changed the whole dynamics of the whole franchise,” Saunders said. “For the two guys that were involved, it’s a sadness for them. One instance can change the dynamics of your whole career, your whole life. And it did for them.”
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