I'm not in the habit of feeling sorry for spoiled millionaires, but Gilbert Arenas's tumble from grace seems to merit more than the usual "just another NBA thug" dismissal.
As of today, Arenas has pleaded guilty to felony gun possession. He has been suspended indefinitely by the NBA. Formerly the face of the Washington Wizards, his image has been purged from all of the franchise's publicity. It seems to be a forgone conclusion that his stratospheric contract will be voided for cause. It also seems likely that the player's union won't put up more than a token fight on his behalf, since they need to save all their chips for the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the owners. Arenas is far too talented to be filed away forever, but the question remains: when will we see him again, and how far will he be diminished, both personally and professionally?
Arenas is not a thug. He is a spoiled, clueless idiot, but he is not a thug. He is a gifted athlete that has been shielded his entire life from the consequences of his decisions. He is, even more than most athletes, completely unaware of behavior in context . . . a notorious practical joker, it was initially reported (and never completely refuted) that the display of weaponry that got him into trouble had a practical joke at its core.
Arenas looked stunned as he entered the courtroom the other day. He looked stunned as he left. He had that gape-jawed "what the hell is going on here" look in every media shot from that day. Perhaps this is his come-to-Jesus moment, the moment he finally, for the first time, gets it. Or maybe he'll just recast himself as the victim, and continue to live in his own private world, away from any kind of responsibility.
And, while we can't absolve Arenas of responsibility for his actions (that's the problem in the first place, isn't it?), we do have to acknowledge the responsibility that we have in the matter. We cheer the cheats when they win for our teams, we overlook bad behavior as long as the victories are coming. We insulate our athletes and tell them they are special - until they do something so egregious that we can't overlook it, then we dump them straight into the garbage.
I like Agent Zero; I hope he can reconcile with his situation and find his way back into the NBA, and the sooner the better. He really seems to be a decent guy, and he's definitely entertaining. And frankly, given the chaos of opinion over guns in American culture, I can understand, at least to a small degree, Arenas's confusion in this matter: this kind of behavior in the hills of Kentucky would barely raise an eyebrow.
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Lost in the noise surrounding the Arenas story is the end of the line for another troubled NBA career: Shawne Williams was cut from the lowly Nets just before heading back to Memphis to face drug charges.
Williams was the first round pick for Pacers in 2006, and quickly found himself afoul of the law. Along with Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jamal Tinsley, he became the poster boy for the supposed moral demise of the beloved Reggie Miller-era Pacers. He was traded to the Mavericks in 2008, where he was asked to leave the team after police talked to the Mavericks front office about some troubling behavior on Williams's part.
I remember Larry Bird commenting, during one of Williams's suspensions while playing with the Pacers, that Shawne was a good kid who hung out with the wrong crowd. Current Pacers coach Jim O'Brien expressed sympathy for Williams as well. His subsequent employers (Mark Cuban and Kiki Vandeweghe) had no such consideration.
Of the troubled Pacers forever marked by the Auburn Hills brawl, only Jackson and Artest have maintained their career paths . . . ironic, considering Artest and Jackson were the most active players in the brawl. The Pacers franchise crashed and burned, and Larry Bird (responsible for getting and retaining most of the players who caused all the trouble) holds on to his job solely based on his status as an Indiana basketball legend. Jermaine O'Neal has never been the same since. Tinsley, after frequent gunplay around Indy, was exiled by the Pacers, and when he finally became a free agent, no one called. Williams, with more potential than Tinsley, nevertheless still finds himself out of basketball, likely never to return.
Artest and Jackson, despite always eccentric and sometimes troubling behavior, still manage to hold it together just enough to stay in the NBA. It is, perhaps, because both Ron-Ron and Captain Jack honestly try to "be good", though neither one really seems to know how. The good seems to counterbalance the bad with these two guys. That doesn't seem to be the case with Williams or Tinsley.
Or maybe it's just because Artest and Jackson get it done on the court well enough that they get just a little more leeway for their foibles off the court. As a fan of both players, I'm not willing to concede that fact, but neither can I dismiss it.