Zero Sum Game
The new SLAM China cover story: A Q+A with Gilbert Arenas.
by Karan Madhok / @hoopistani
That’s the number behind Gilbert Arenas’ newest jersey, right below Chinese characters that probably say his name, but Arenas has to ask his agent to confirm if that’s true. It’s his cover photo shoot for SLAM China and—despite the past few years away from the limelight—he’s as comfortable being a star in front of the camera as he’s ever been. It’s Shanghai in 2013, and it’s far away in space and time from the NBA world in which he once thrived. Like most foreigners in China, he has been assigned a different, Chinese name by the media and the fans: Gi Le. It’s a new country, a new fanbase, brand new teammates.
The injuries still haven’t fully healed, but this year, Arenas was back on the court, back playing big minutes for the Shanghai Sharks and back putting up big numbers. He had big scoring nights—like the time he put up 45 points against Fujian—and streaky scoring nights—like the time he scored 12 points in about two minutes against Guangdong. He averaged close to 10 rebounds a game and he’s had clutch moments, like the time he hit a game-winner on the road against Jiangsu. He was smiling on the court and punking his teammates off of it.
Gilbert Arenas seemed to be Gilbert Arenas once again.
The past five dark years seem forgotten. Here is a man re-embracing the game he loves, re-embracing the fans who love him back, and re-embracing himself. Here is a man re-embracing Zero.
The number that, when drawn, begins and ends at the same point, closing in a neat circle. 0. The number that by itself represents no value but in its completion represents a complete 360-degree journey that starts and ends at the same point.
In the NBA, there were All-Star appearances; Playoffs performances; a blog and social media outreach that made him so popular’ hilarious catch-phrases, nicknames and pranks; a dangerous jester who was jovial and happy off the court and a stone-cold monster on it. There was love and there was admiration. There was a rise from the NBA Draft’s second round pick to the NBA’s elite.
And then came the fall.
There were injuries. There was failure. There were losses. There was a gun in a locker room. There was a suspension. There was probation. There was a big contract that was never fulfilled. There was hate and there was criticism.
Arenas’ time with the Wizards was over, and he never seemed to recover from the injuries, the gun-incident with Javaris Crittenton, the suspensions that followed. He started the 2010-11 season by changing his jersey number to ‘9’, hoping for new beginnings.
Over the next few years, he played scarce minutes as a backup for the Orlando Magic and the Memphis Grizzlies. The fire was gone. The ‘Hibachi’ nights—where his shooting hand was so hot that he hilariously compared himself to a Japanese frill—were now few and far between. Gone were the scoring outbursts, the big shoe contracts, and gone was the jovial prankster. Number 9 became Number 1 and then Number 10. A superstar became a journeyman.
So he took a calculated risk. He followed the footsteps of other former NBA All-Stars who itched to continue playing the game they loved at a high level but were denied the opportunities they used to enjoy in their heydays. Like Stephon Marbury and, most recently, Tracy McGrady, Arenas came to China.
He was signed to the Shanghai Sharks, the team owned by the greatest Chinese player of all time, Yao Ming. Before his NBA accomplishments, Yao lead the Sharks to their greatest stretch in the CBA, making the Finals from 2000-2002 and winning a championship in his final year there. The Sharks have been on a steady decline since Yao’s departure, but in Arenas, the former-player-turned-owner brought in the team’s biggest ray of hope since himself.
Things didn’t exactly go as planned. Six minutes into his Shanghai debut against Stephon Marbury’s championship-winning Beijing Ducks, Arenas pulled out with a groin injury. He missed the next nine games, came back in mid-January, but three games later was sidelined with an aggravation to his groin once again. He ended up missing another eight contests, and during this time, he flew back to the US for regenokine treatment shots.
Ever since his return, Arenas has finally been able to string together a long stretch of games, and appeared for the Sharks in the last 11 games of the season. But it may be too little too late; the Sharks played 17 out of their total 32 regular season games without their star player. In a league that relies heavily on the contribution of foreign players, the Sharks stumbled to the bottom of the CBA rankings with only DJ White (now signed to the Celtics) playing consistent minutes all season.
Despite the failings, there seems to be a sense of optimism in the Sharks’ locker room, boosted by Arenas’ late season return and the energy that he has been bringing both on and off the floor. Former NBAers and other foreigners in China usually go one of two ways: there are the types who live alienated to the other Chinese players, using China just as a vehicle to get a shot back into the NBA; and then there are the types who make a concentrated effort to become a part of the culture around them and hint at the possibility of a long-term stay. Stephon Marbury—who has been in China four years and won a championship last season—is amongst the latter. Arenas has taken the early steps to become a part of his team, too, and not just a temporary-foreigner-for-hire.
Arenas has also taken an active role in his relationship with the fans in China. After flirting with numbers 9, 1 and 10, he gave the people what they wanted—Agent Zero—and adopted number 0 for his jersey in Shanghai. Always known to be an entertaining—if mildly controversial—presence on social media, Arenas opened a Weibo account even before he had a guaranteed contract in China, and has since been interacting with his fanbase directly and personally. For one home game in late January, he even bought 20,000 tickets to hand out free for his quickest-responding Weibo followers. He is seen around town in Shanghai regularly, from malls and electronic showrooms to expat-favorite restaurants.
“Not all American players in China can really immerse themselves into the team,” says Simon Cote, an assistant coach with the Sharks. “But Gilbert has been very open-minded about China. He has done a great job in really getting into the mix.”
Cote adds, “We definitely needed him this season, because in China, it’s tough to win with just one American in your team. But even though he couldn’t be on the floor all time, he has helped us in creating a great team atmosphere and given confidence to some of the younger guys.”
The CBA regular season ended in mid-February with the Sharks in the bottom rungs of the final standings. Like most foreigners in China, Arenas’ future here is still uncertain. But he seems to be comfortable in his new life in Shanghai—China’s most cosmopolitan city—and his rejuvenated role as his team’s primary scorer. Coach Cote remains optimistic about his future.
“I think that he wants to come back to the team,” Cote says. “It really depends on who the Head Coach is next season and what system he plays. Foreigners in China get better the longer they stay. It took Stephon Marbury three years to start playing at a championship level. Gilbert hasn’t been here too long, but I think that there is definitely a chance that he can return.
The circle seems to be nearly complete. The number 0 has returned to the back of his jersey. And the character zero has made its way around, a complete 360 degrees, from rise to fall to rise again. He may not be “Hibachi” any longer, but he’s still got a hot hand, is still capable of grilling defenders that stand in his way, still able to be the type of teammate that can bring joy to himself and the players around him.
He is back to Zero.
With a few weeks left in the season, Arenas spoke to SLAM in Shanghai about settling into his new city, forging relationships with his new teammates, his experiences in the CBA, interacting with fans via social networks, and much more.
SLAM: First off: How are you enjoying Shanghai?
Gilbert Arenas: It’s been going good. I’ve finally had a chance to enjoy myself over the last few weeks, and that’s because I’ve been playing. When you’re playing you get to actually go out and enjoy. But before I just stayed in the room—you know the whole time it was like, why have fun if you’re hurt?
SLAM: I’ve heard you have been out and about around town, which is something that foreign players don’t do too often in China. They usually just stay in.
GA: Yup. China is known for electronics and I love electronics. I’m usually at the DVD store. I’m always the mall, at the electronics store, buying video games and stuff like that.
SLAM: Well, it’s great to see you back, and back on the court. What is your role like with the Sharks? Are you looking to facilitate more or do you have a green light on offense?
GA: It’s a green light. I can go out there and basically do what I wanna do. But you still gotta win games and you still gotta help your teammates get better. It’s not about this year because we’re so far from the playoffs; it’s about getting them prepared for next season.
SLAM: I’ve also noticed that your rebound numbers have skyrocketed.
GA: It’s just part of the game. I’m just playing, being at the right place at the right time. I think I had four-to-five double-doubles in a row. I think my guys are boxing out against good big players, so someone has to rebound.
SLAM: You were known to always have a good relationship with your teammates in the NBA. From the looks of it, it seems that trend is continuing in Shanghai, too.
GA: Well, when it’s your teammate, you’re around them more than your family members. You’re there with them on long bus rides, in locker rooms. So if you don’t have a good relationship with them, you’re at a loss. Even though we have that language barrier, we still get our points across.
SLAM: Some jokes need no translation.
GA: Some jokes don’t!
SLAM: It’s been a tough season for the Sharks and for yourself, especially considering your injury layoff. The season is so short, you miss 10 games, and you miss a third of the season. How did you deal with being off the court?
GA: It was rough, man. You know, when I came, it was like everything was rushed. I didn’t get a chance to jell with the players, the trainers, the medical staff. So once I got hurt it was like, What? Am I going back home? Am I getting cut? It was going so fast. Only these last two weeks I’ve gotten to know the players on the court. Off the court I’ve already been hanging out with them and getting to know their vibe.
SLAM: And you did go back home for a while.
GA: Yeah, I went back to get the regenokine shots. It’s what people get to take away pain and help with arthritis. So I took them thinking that it could help my groin—take away the pain, at least. Heal a little bit faster. It basically took away the pain. The injury’s still there, it just took away the pain.
SLAM: Do you feel that there’s been a return to the spring in your step since you got those shots?
GA: Nah, nah. Not even close. With the tear that’s still there, I can’t push off or jump like I want to. I can’t move well side to side. It took away everything I built on over the summer.
SLAM: But it does seem like the joy in your game is back. Being back on the court, back with teammates…
GA: You know, that’s all basketball is. If someone loves something, and you take it away, it’s like, what does he do now? What does someone do? That’s what happened with me in the last couple of years in the NBA when I went to Orlando, and then I got benched. And I was in Memphis and I wasn’t playing. It was just like, why do I wanna keep doing this? So then when I got the chance to come to China to play…OK! As long as I get to play.
SLAM: You’ve always been a step ahead when it comes to your relationship with fans. For the Guangdong game, you gave away 888 tickets to fans in Shanghai. What’s your relationship like with the fans here? How have you embraced Weibo and your fanbase in Shanghai?
GA: Weibo started off difficult because of the language barrier. I can’t read any of the stuff on it in Chinese. So Gu Young [a trainer with the team] taught me basically how to text, change pictures, like the little things, so I can get by. Looking at it, I figured out more of it. I comment back to the fans who say things in English. The fans have been good, they make me wanna go out and play. They have always been positive; I haven’t seen anything negative at all. That’s a relief.
SLAM: But you’ve disappeared on Twitter…
GA: Yeah, yeah. Because you know what? Back in the States, I guess it’s just like, when you’re following somebody…[long pause]…As a fan, what do you expect them to do and say? You don’t want them to be who they are [laughs]. I’m a jokester, so when I was joking on Twitter, it kinda rubbed people the wrong way. And I was like, I didn’t make these up. I’m just letting you know they’re there.
And then they gave high fives to all the players who say like the most obvious textbook answers in the world. It’s like after each game, you already know what they’re going to say. If they lost: “Ahh… Tough loss.” It’s like, come on, how do you guys fall for that? And if they something that they really feel, everyone goes crazy. Like “Oohh! He’s spazzing out!” Now he gotta say sorry for saying something he really felt. It’s like, Oh lord.
SLAM: So do you have long-term plans in China? What do you see for yourself in the future here?
GA: 32 games a year. Maximum 36 minutes. That’s all I need at this point in my career. So as long as China teams want me, I’ll be here.
SLAM: Do you have any plans or hopes to tryout with the NBA again?
GA: Nah! [Shakes head vehemently] Because after this season I can enjoy my family. You know my kids are getting older. Being in the NBA, you don’t really get to enjoy your family life because you’re always on the road, you’re always gone. So, no. After this season will be the first time I’ll get to be with my kids for a long period of time.
SLAM: What’s your relationship like with Yao Ming?
GA: We have our NBA relationship. There are only a few players that you can respect and get along with. So somebody like Yao who’s lovable to everyone—I was going through my jersey collection and I realized that I had six Yao jerseys. I thing I got one jersey that had ‘Ming’ on it. It was his first year, and they got his name wrong.
SLAM: Tell me about life on the road here, about traveling around with the team.
GA: Umm…[Long Pause] Let’s just say some hotels are better than others. [Laughs] You have your ups and your downs. But that’s what you expect coming here.
SLAM: What do you foresee for yourself and the Sharks in the future? This season’s nearly over, but looking forward…
GA: Everyone’s just gotta get better in the summer. Everyone has to do their part to make themselves better. If I’m back here next year, we have to come to the training camp with a mindset of trying to win it all. Right now, you know we have glimpses of being good, and glimpses of being bad. We have our ups and downs just like any team, but we need to get our consistency level higher, and along with that will come maturity. Most of the players in the team are quite young right now. They just need one of those real good summers of working hard.
SLAM: You’ve sort of had a mini-resurrection of your career over here in China. Even though you missed games with injury, just to see you on the court and playing big minutes, it’s a great thing for the fans.
GA: Yeah, you know, that’s all that it was about. Even this year, in the beginning, I was thinking when I got hurt that this has been going on for the last three years of my career. Some little ticky-tack injuries been keeping me out for long periods of time and I’m getting benched. So when Yao decided that he wasn’t going to cut me, he was going to keep me, I was like, Thank you Lord! I can’t wait ’til I get on the court to show that I can actually play at a high level. So I’m just happy that he gave me the opportunity.