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Forgive, And Don’t Forget

December 24, 2010

When did the Gilbert Arenas era end in Washington? It was before he was unceremoniously dumped in a swap of terrible contracts with Orlando, his albatross contract deemed more burdensome than Rashard Lewis’. It was before the Wizards won the draft lottery and selected John Wall, proclaiming the point guard the new face of their franchise. And yes, it was before Arenas brought guns into the Wizards’ locker room in late 2009.

It’s tough to remember now, but Agent Zero was real once. Rebounding from the stinging six-game defeat to Cleveland in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, Arenas compiled the best season of his then-burgeoning NBA career in 2007. He hit memorable game winners to beat Utah and Milwaukee; he outdueled Kobe Bryant in scoring 60 points to lead the Wizards to victory in Los Angeles; he called out Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni over an national team beef, claiming he would score 50 points on him – and he did. His performance earned Wizards coach Eddie Jordan the right to coach the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He made the All-NBA second team. But he tore his MCL and missed the 2007 postseason.

After that, he played just 68 games for the Wizards. His scoring, shooting percentage, and minutes dropped precipitously. He was Hibachi – a bowl of fire – no more. He had a chance to regain his luster a year after the injury, in Game 4 of a series he barely played in. The Wizards were down 2-1 to Cleveland, needing a win at home to keep realistic hopes alive. Arenas played a series-high 32 minutes, and with less than a minute to go, he banked in the game-tying basket. But after a Delonte West 3-pointer regained the lead for the Cavaliers, responsibility again fell to the Wizards’ franchise player. Arenas’ 3-point attempt was the last of his Washington postseason career, and his miss put the nail in the coffin of both the Wizards’ postseason hopes and, while no one knew it then, Arenas’ career in Washington.

Arenas followed the 2008 playoffs by declaring free agency and eventually re-signing with the Wizards, inking a 6-year, $111 million contract. We all know what happened next – he played in two games in 2008-09, brought a gun into Verizon Center in 2009-10, and was traded to the Magic in 2010-11. Somewhere in between the end of Arenas’ short-lived on-court dominance and Dec. 18, we lost touch with our once-beloved superstar. The trade was neither goodbye nor good riddance – it was merely the last chapter of a book we’d already put down.

By December 2010, Arenas’ continuing presence on the Wizards sideline was, if nothing else, exceedingly awkward. Media members had written their Arenas obituaries last fall – he’s a fun guy who made some serious mistakes, if you missed the meme – and when your employer removes a gigantic banner of you from your place of work, it’s a rather obvious sign they wish you’d simply leave. There was speculation the Wizards would try to void his contract and widespread belief they’d have traded him by the start of the season, but when the season began, there was Gilbert Arenas – now No. 9 – overstaying his welcome because he had nowhere else to go.

I was at Verizon Center on Dec. 10 to watch the Wizards host the New York Knicks. The fans gave Arenas a respectful ovation upon his introduction. There was at least more enthusiasm for Arenas than for Al Thornton. But Wall was introduced right after Arenas, and the difference was palpable. Wall hasn’t done anything for the Wizards yet, he’s still a rookie – an oft-injured, poor-shooting one at that. But he’s a sign of what could be, not what once was.

Still, in their loss to the rejuvenated Knicks, what once was outplayed what could be. The Knicks forced Wall into jumpers, and while he had one dashing layup that brought the crowd to its feet, he scored only 8 points on 4-of-14 shooting. Arenas tantalized. Late in the fourth quarter, he knocked down in succession a long two, a 3-pointer, and a layup before drawing a charge on Amare Stoudemire. And with the Wizards down by five with a minute-and-a-half to play, he hit a jumper to make it a one-possession game. But just like Game 4 two-and-a-half years ago, he never broke through. After drawing the charge, he missed a three. And when the Wizards got the ball back after his late jumper, he missed again. Arenas was always good enough to make us remember not just once was but also what could have been. It was that feeling that made the 2010-11 Wizards an uncomfortable mix of past, present, and future – and it was that feeling that put the franchise in this mess to begin with.

The final three seasons of Arenas’ original contract ended in anguished what-ifs for the Wizards, and not just because each concluded with a loss to LeBron James and his crab dribble. Before the Bulls and Celtics played 73 overtimes in 2009’s first round, the Wizards and Cavaliers played a six-game tilt in which three of the final four games were decided by a point on late baskets. Of course, all three late baskets were made by Cleveland – the first two by James, the last by Damon Jones, whose go-ahead 3-pointer in Washington followed Arenas missing two free throws with the Wizards up one. The Wizards’ shot at redemption was spoiled in 2007 when Arenas and Caron Butler were sidelined with injuries, leading to a Cavaliers sweep of a team that was 10 games over .500 before two of its three best players went down. And in 2008 – without Arenas’ services for most of the season – the Wizards clawed to the five seed in the East, beat the eventual champion Celtics in three of four games, and lost another six-game series to Cleveland, with Arenas either injured or hurt for the entire matchup. It was after this season, which ended in an embarrassing blowout loss in Verizon Center (sound familiar?), that GM Ernie Grunfeld had a choice. Arenas had a lucrative offer on the table to return to Golden State. He would require near franchise-player money to return to the District. And he demanded the team also re-sign 10-year veteran Antwan Jamison.

Doubling down on Arenas was the popular choice with most of the fanbase (if not the most basketball-savvy portion of the fanbase), and it’s easy to understand why Grunfeld fell for the temptation. At the time, I did too. But just because the Wizards might’ve been the best team in an extraordinarily weak Eastern Conference in 2007 didn’t mean Grunfeld should’ve kept together a team that never won more than 45 games and had glaring defensive deficiencies. Faulting Grunfeld for not foreseeing Arenas’ injuries persisting or for the all-star thinking bringing a gun into the locker room isn’t a horrifically stupid thing to do isn’t fair, and we don’t know what pressure he faced to put a competitive team on the floor during owner Abe Pollin’s final years. But we can surmise Grunfeld was looking backward, not forward, when he locked into place a core that had little chance of competing for an NBA championship.

That wasn’t Arenas’ fault. He liked Washington, Washington liked him, and he even took a little less money to stay with a team that, had all gone according to plan, should’ve made the playoffs a few more times and had some fun doing it. As his time in the capital spiraled to an end that quickly became apparent and unavoidable, take a moment to remember where the Wizards were when Arenas found them. The team had made the playoffs once in the past 15 seasons, and not at all since 1997. The team hadn’t won a playoff series since 1982. And the team had just suffered the ultimate humiliation.

The Wizards in the two years before Arenas’ arrival were in the national consciousness to a surprising degree; Michael Jordan’s ill-fated comeback made Washington basketball a must-see attraction. But that attention only reinforced the underlying reality that Jordan’s decision to play for the Wizards was only theoretically feasible because of the franchise’s complete irrelevance: The Wizards were nothing, so Jordan could don their jersey for a few seasons and be only Michael Jordan, not Michael Jordan the Washington Wizard. The entire franchise was reduced to Jordan’s plaything.

Arenas, from the moment he signed his contract to when construction crews removed his banner from the exterior walls of Verizon Center, was Gilbert Arenas the Washington Wizard. With Arenas, the Wizards mattered, and of their own volition this time. So remember the game-winner against Chicago in 2005. Remember the intensity of those Cavaliers games. Remember the depths from which Arenas brought the franchise.

Remember it’s better to have loved and to have lost than to have never loved at all.

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From → December 2010

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