by Jake Appleman / @JakeAppleman
“That’s what writing stories is about, no matter how deep you get. You don’t want to sugarcoat somebody’s life. You want to say, ‘This is what his life was and this is where he is now.’” — Gilbert Arenas, on Mike Wise and himself, as told to Dave McMenamin.
I was on the phone with my dad when the Gilbert story blew up, and in the middle of some concise analysis I started rambling about how I didn’t want to write anything about Agent Zero because I’ve already read so much. Via Twitter, blogs and my daily intake perusing the web, I’d decided that when it came to Gilbert-related drama a) “opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one” and b) absorbing all of this information, like rapid osmosis, without devoting any real time to truly stopping to think about it, was completely desensitizing.
Then, in the middle of my rant about how I didn’t want to write about him I started listing Gilbert pranks off the top of my head so my dad could get a more complete psychological profile of Gazo The Prankster, as his short-lived cartoon character was dubbed.
He stole his teammate’s rims, he took a game of paintball way too far, he took a shit in his teammate’s shoes…
The good thing about being sensitive is that you’re only desensitized to things that matter for so long.
In the early summer of ’94 I was 11 years old. I wasn’t quite The Wackness but The Articulate Corniness isn’t far off. Shots fired by an enigmatic gunner (John Starks) made me cry a lot. I watched Game 6 of the ’94 Finals at my aunt and uncle’s house in Gaithersburg, MD. The day after Hakeem Olajuwon blocked a potential New York Knicks championship from happening, I went out on to the court in the park behind their house to vent. I shot. And shot. And shot.
White boy with a jumper…that old chestnut.
A few weeks later, I was on my way to West Point for soccer camp. One of my roommates was a teammate from my travel team. Our fathers thought that it would be a good idea for us to room together because we played on the same team and carpooled together.
Here’s a scene from one of our indoor practices earlier that winter:
“Hey Jake, do you know what a c*nt is?”
“Do you have a c*nt, Jake?”
“I don’t know.”
“Jake, do you have a cl*t?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe.”
And so on and so forth until, in attempt to get them to quit, I inadvertently and incorrectly admitted that I was something resembling Jakey Lee Curtis. Ugh, I was never good with the double reverse psychology.
Flash forward a few months and I, The Articulate Corniness, am stuck in a room, on the campus of the fucking United States Army, with the Napoleonic ringleader of this conversation and a small Asian kid with amazing comedic timing.
You can make it through this week, I thought. So what if you have to be “Applejacks aka Jack Applescratch” for a week; at least it’s kind of funny. Just roll with it and you’ll be home in no time. Work on your game. Forget about your hoop dreams, and remember that before you picked up a basketball, you wanted to be Paolo Maldini, the dogged, skilled AC Milan left tackle. Make the drill sergeant instructors appreciate your heart so that when the elves go hard at you, you won’t even care, you’ll just fall asleep.
That was probably my biggest mistake on the second to last night of the ’94 West Point Soccer Camp for 11 year-olds: I fell asleep.
I woke up because I felt like something heavy was clinging to my face. I heard snickering when I woke, but I thought it was related to a dream. As I stood up, gravity accentuated the sticky weight on my face.
I walked into the bathroom and flicked on the light.
A thick layer of glistening blue. Spread evenly, spread beautifully. Toothpaste. Graffiti’d on my face.
Santa’s mini Maradonas cackled gleefully. They got me. And there was nothing I could say or do to change the situation. I’d done everything right: ignored them, channeled my anger, quietly and with dignity, into the best soccer of my childhood.
I scrubbed my face like a madman’s son. It took a little while, but the toothpaste came off. Finally, back to sleep. It would all be over soon.
There was a knock on our door. It was the cadet patrolling our hallway. He heard a disturbing scream and laughter in the room. We were up and had broken curfew.
“But…” I explained what happened. They couldn’t hide from the truth, their pride was immense.
The punishment: all three of us would do wall sits–when you sit on an imaginary chair with perfect posture while leaning against a wall. Try it some time. It’s so much fun; you get to trade thighs with Amy Winehouse. It didn’t matter who had done what. We had all broken curfew and had to be punished. In fairness to the cadet, he let me get up a minute or so before them, so I could watch them in pain for a little while.
Even so, if anybody asks you why we invaded and bombed Iraq following 9/11, you tell them that story.
Now, would a young Gilbert Arenas have handled that prank differently? I want to believe that he would have. That he would have prevented my scream somehow. That he would have handed me a clean, wet towel to wipe my face off. That he’d talk to me about why the prank was funny. That he would explain why Crest is better at creating a sticky crust than Colgate, but not Tom’s of Maine because he wouldn’t know what that is.
He’d explain how he did it, and why I was a good sport for dealing with it. Then, he’d mention his absent mom briefly, and I’d realize there was a deeper person behind the mask; and then he’d run off, climb a fence, and sneak into the mess hall in the middle of the night, as the moonlight beamed brightly and beautifully off of giant the “SINK NAVY” sign, to steal some chicken nuggets for us because I hadn’t snitched.
I want to believe all of that because there’s a part of me that still loves Gilbert Arenas, or the person that the media has made me to believe he is.
Now, if you believe I’m just another guy with in an Agent Zero Mothering Hut hoodie that fed into some strategic personality marketing, understand: It goes so much deeper than that.
It’s 13 years later (2007), and we’re back at that court in Gaithersburg. A good 40 minutes from the Verizon Center, where Gilbert likes to loft jumpers at 4 a.m. It’s where I dreamed SLAM would shoot (photographs of) Gilbert Arenas for a cover story I’d write. The court has a great, natural open light and there are two halfcourts, side by side. The park has a cozy, suburban feel to it, but it’s a little bit hood, too, as the other side of the train tracks (literally) and a foster home define court’s northern and western borders, respectively. It’s also the only court I’ve practiced on periodically throughout my entire basketball-playing life.
The cover story isn’t just going to be a cover story. It’s part of a bigger idea. I wanted to write a book about all of the different types of basketball media through the context of Gilbert Arenas. It was going to start out with a discussion of how Mike Wise’s eye-opening stories proved journalism wasn’t dying, and continue on to Michael Lee and Ivan Carter, who would help me enlighten the masses with a discourse that discussed how covering this enigmatic personality redeemed the overworked beat writer. From there, Tom Chiarella’s brilliant psychoanalysis in Esquire and Chuck Klosterman’s fascinating New York Times Magazine piece would open up a forum to meditate on thought-provoking, intellectual profile writing and the need for more interesting athletes to give us something more than tired cliches.
The book would move on to SLAM and I’d talk about how Gilbert both did and didn’t represent what SLAM was about, and how SLAM simultaneously did and didn’t represent what the rest of the media was about, including the halcyon days when SLAMonline was a single page.
The tale would then leave the printed page and move to Dan Steinberg’s DC Sports Bog to discuss how the newspaper world was adapting to necessary changes on the internet through the context of professional blogging. Then, NBA.com and the art of the as-told-to blog, and Gilbert representing the League as a unique new personality, before twisting and turning towards the emerging blogs like TrueHoop and Fanhouse, quickly becoming beastly brands and changers of how we consume information.
And then we would move underground, to websites so unique you couldn’t make them up unless you did, like Wizznutzz, and the high-quality team site Bullets Forever (run by a college kid at Brandeis, who lived down the hall from my girlfriend’s younger brother…strange but good karma there). It would end up with FreeDarko and how Gilbert is seen by individual, liberated fan(s). Because Gilbert is nothing if not an individual, and liberated. Or not.
It’s probably for the best this didn’t happen; it would have been dated by the time it was fully written and I don’t think I was ready to write something of such scope, though that didn’t stop me from making diagrams with concentric circles, taking plenty of notes and thinking of Gazo The Pranksta as the face of Aquafresh Fluoride.
I don’t believe Gilbert Arenas is a bully, except I do believe Gilbert Arenas is a bully, a natural hypocrite like many of the world’s most interesting people. He’s a prankster, but often, the difference between being a prankster and a bully is negligible. A prankster fires happily away from behind the three-point arc, thinking he’s safe from scorn because he doesn’t often play in the paint with the ruffians. But the second a prankster’s 23-foot three becomes a 22-foot brick, he’s crossed the line, even if he’s merely toeing it. Two points is two points, and human interaction and emotion are universal, no matter how closed off and pride-swallowing SPAR-TA warrior beast society wants you to be.
If you’re sitting there thinking, man, you’re standing up for these tough-as-nails youngsters who had the intestinal fortitude to make it into the League and play a child’s game for a living…well, you’re damn right I am. Think about the NBA. What percentage of its players come from broken homes, or made it out of the hood because they had the necessary narcissistic streak to build a protective shield around themselves that they pray every night will continue to provide failure’s antidote? Better yet, how many of them got their own high from being the big prankster cheese in high school or college?
Now imagine you’re Dominic McGuire or Nick Young, and a veteran you look up to is firing paint ball pellets at your metaphorical shield and your body, to the point that you ask him to stop, and you’re crying on the inside. (Just ask Gilbert: “So [McGuire]‘s laying in the car all mad saying, ‘I don’t want to play no more.’ So the war is still on.”) Or you’re Andray Blatche and you find his feces in your fresh kicks, which seems gross but innocent enough until you realize (or don’t realize) clean sneakers are the perfect representation of how you want to feel about yourself, a symbol of the fresh confidence you need to keep in the forefront of your mind. What can you say? Nothing. Your team doesn’t give a shit about you–no pun intended–in comparison, so you just smile and toe the company line with a tired “that’s just Gilbert being Gilbert.”
Meanwhile, you internalize the brunt of the post-prank emotional baggage you have to carry on your next “what city is this again?” six game road trip. Oh yeah, and you’re how old? 19? 21? 23? Your peers are getting drunk and growing up by learning about college mistakes and you’re taking this guff from a guy with the hundred-million dollar contract. You’re a “professional,” and you’d heard the stories, but nobody told you that you were actually pledging Gilbert Alpha Phi.
When Gilbert unleashed his flame fanning finger guns of fuck serious, the League and the Wizards took a temporary dry eraser to his existence with good reason: a true jester doesn’t know when to quit until he’s kicked off the stage. It’s often when he’s told he’s superfluous that the person inside the clown begins to come to terms with the real pain that is part and parcel of their personality’s brilliance.
Before we get to the real meat and potatoes and conjecture about Gilbert Arenas’ psyche, let’s take a quick trip back to November. Michael Lee of the Washington Post reporting:
Gilbert Arenas had an announcement to make as he walked through the locker room on Saturday. Arenas lifted his headphones from his ears, smiled and proclaimed, “I’m Zero. I’m not Gilbert no more.”
“Gilbert’s not working out,” said Arenas, who claimed he retired his Agent Zero and Hibachi personas on media day.
Asked why he decided to go back to Agent Zero, Arenas said, “It ain’t working if we lost five in a row. Coach told me he didn’t want the angry man no more. So, he’s back.”
Arenas’s personal trainer, Tim Grover, is in town visiting him during this long home stand. Grover walked into the locker room, tapped Arenas on the shoulder and said, “Let’s go, Hibachi.”
Arenas nodded, and they went to the weight room.
Mike Miller was getting dressed at a nearby locker stall and was grinning when he heard Arenas respond to the name, “Hibachi.”
“I’ve been waiting on Hibachi all year,” Miller said.
Now, everybody compartmentalizes. I view myself slightly differently when I’m around different people, just as you do. But to take it to the level Gilbert did–at his job, a place of responsibility where he’s watched by millions of people–is incredibly dangerous.
Let’s look at his three personas.
Agent Zero: the competitive athlete who has used every slight to his advantage and–through the miracle of the right skill set, right work ethic and thousands upon hundreds of thousands hoisted jumpers–has made his dream a reality. An assassin on the court and lighthearted, funny figure off of it. Loved by fans and teammates alike.
Gazo The Pranksta: Some would argue Gazo is part of Agent Zero, but I think he’s the archetypal devil on the shoulder, the counterpoint to the Agent Zero angel. Gazo, partly his fault, partly the fault of his employer, thought he could get away with anything. Like bringing guns into a locker room. Whereas Agent Zero was the face the public saw most of the time, Gazo was the mischief behind the scenes.
Gilbert Arenas: a serious man. A father and beacon of hope in the community. An undersized kid with an over-sized personality who has overcome tremendous adversity in his life, but an adult with serious real life baggage. Not compact baggage like that of a sleepless beat writer traveling light from city to city; metaphorical baggage that piles up in a dark corner away from fame’s limelight. Gilbert doesn’t have a lot of time for “Gilbert time”, so Gazo and Zero take the reins when it’s time for a defense mechanism to kick in. It’s survival mode. Everyone has one.
Three personas for one superstar…
Having said that, you must excuse the obviousness here, but Gilbert Arenas isn’t a persona. He’s a person. And therein lies the giant fucking problem.
When you can publicly dismiss yourself, or a specific rendition of yourself, seemingly without consequence, you’re setting yourself up for a day of reckoning. Ask Daryl Dawkins about the last time he chilled on Lovetron. (For what it’s worth, NBA players are set up to fail in this regard: speak in cliches, don’t talk to reporters the way you might a friend or even an acquaintance; bottle up your feelings and leave it all out on the court. Gilbert’s compartmentalizing might have just been an extension of an already learned behavior.)
Now, if you’ve followed David Stern, you have to believe in lessons. If you think Charles Barkley threw a guy through a plate glass window, talked about not being a role model, gambled compulsively (still does), yet suddenly ended up as our favorite talking head, you’re kidding yourself. Gilbert has all the potential to make it as a public figure after he retires, if he so chooses, and all the horrible PR this incident has incurred can be turned. But he’ll never have the carte blanche he had before and he needs to learn about himself and his pain before he can segue into the next act of his life.
It won’t be easy. It’s hard to sacrifice some of yourself for the greater good. The Knights of the Roundball Table have kicked the Jester out of the Royal Court and have asked him to, not only learn about the man behind the mask, but come up with some new material. In that vein: Hey Gilbert, did you hear that Ice Cube and Eddie Murphy are starring in “The Nutty Professor 7: Are we There Yet?” It’s rated PG.
In ’10-11, wherever he is, Gilbert Arenas will have a mostly fresh cast of characters with which to work and a muddied slate to try and wipe clean. Because we want Gilbert to succeed, because his message has always been one of hope and hard work despite the pranks, we can only pray he has a new teammate we don’t see. Someone probably in a plaid sweater, reclining in a lazy boy and listening intently to a famous basketball player truly try and discover who he is–reconciliation between a man and himself.
Sure, it’s just a movie but maybe someone like this:
Maybe he already has one. Regardless, opening up to himself and treating his life–past, present and future–with the same respect that he treated his game growing up is the only way for him to truly get to wherever he wants to go.
The only time I spoke to Gilbert Arenas one-on-one was on December 29, 2006. I was doing a feature on Adam Morrison for SLAM 106. The story appropriately ended up being called Dazed But Not Confused, the “not” a nod to the scoring promise shown by Morrison’s good performances every third night or so.
Morrison never returned my 16 calls after a double OT game derailed any chance for an extensive in-person interview. This led to the only story in which I explicitly compare myself, as a human being, to a player in the NBA, for good reasons that were only strengthened by Morrison’s lack of interest in an interview. In the middle of the story, I was so lost that I cried–somewhat ironically–for the first time since an October night in Madrid over a year before. In retrospect, Morrison wasn’t playing well enough to deserve the interview and probably knew this. For his sake, I sincerely, sincerely hope he’s enjoying his time with the Lakers, crisscrossing his legs with the talented purple-and-gold bench mob. That’s the least of what he deserves: a left-wing radio show, Amanda Seyfried, partial ownership of an ABA team, etc.
I procured tickets to the Magic-Wizards game that night, as it was my aunt’s birthday, a day to celebrate my mom’s younger sister, the woman who fed me on visits to Gaithersburg before I’d run off to my favorite playground. Except it wasn’t an occasion for celebration. My aunt had died a little over a year before and I had missed the funeral because I couldn’t afford to fly home during my study abroad in Spain.
The tickets were a way of family coming together and enjoying something during an especially trying time, and enjoy it we did. I moved from a press seat to join my kin in the nosebleeds and we watched Gilbert go off for 36 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists. The Wizards won their fifth straight to improve to 17-12 and officially moved into first place for the first time that late in a season since 1978. None of that mattered, though, and I barely noticed any of it. I was somewhere else. Cloud 10. Mostly because my 12-year-old cousin was able to attend the game as an honorary ball boy and forget about the weight of the night because got to meet his one of his heroes: Gilbert Arenas.
That night, my uncle looked at me with a pride that I know is so rare and special in this world. Given the context, this might have been as special a night as he’d ever had watching a basketball game in the DC/MD area; impressive because he had courtside seats to the Bullets back the 70′s. I’ll never forget, as long as I live, how animated he got describing Bobby Dandridge’s buttery jumper to me when I was just a kid. His description remains visceral to this day, in part because I saw him cheering for the Bullets on ESPN Classic once.
After the game, I asked Gilbert what advice he had for Morrison.
His response, completely matter-of-fact: “I always say, ‘Speak your mind. It’s life. Do what you’re gonna do.’”
Your move, chief.