NBA at 75: A Gilbert Arenas retrospective


When he arrived as a rookie with the Golden State Warriors, the NBA had never seen anyone like Gilbert Arenas. It may never see anyone like him again.

Here’s a truth: before the 2001 NBA Draft, Gilbert Arenas — who would potentially become a hoop star, but was still a college student at the time — took out a bank loan to buy a custom-initialed chain and Cadillac Escalade with 5 TVs and top-end stereo system. Dude was so confident that he’d be selected as a first-rounder that he purchased his shine in advance, planning to immediately cash in on his generous NBA salary to pay it off. Instead, he fell to the first pick of the second round. As the 31st overall selection, he didn’t get the payout he expected, and couldn’t afford the lifestyle he had boldly envisioned as a rookie. His reported $300,000 salary had already been spent before he played a single game. Pissed off, he threw away his gold chain. Literally. Out the window.

Another truth: widely known as a locker room prankster, Arenas was involved in multiple strange incidents throughout his career. Andray Blatche, the Washington Wizards’ center at the time, once had his suit cut to pieces by teammates, and assumed it was orchestrated by the clownish Arenas. Blatche retaliated by tossing Arenas’ clothes into a Jacuzzi (this isn’t even the weird part). In response, Gilbert Arenas took a literal dump in Andray’s shoes — and laughed about it afterward (…that’s the weird part).

True? Rumors about Arenas’ wild lifestyle abound — from exorbitant casino betting to exotic tastes in home decor. Among his quirks, Arenas was apparently obsessed with owning sharks, so had an aquarium installed in his living room. There are stories that report how simply feeding and maintaining the sharks cost upwards of $80,000 per year.

Definitely true: easily the most notorious moment in Gilbert Arenas’ career — which was notoriously memorable in its entirety — involved bringing guns (plural) into the Verizon Center locker room after getting into an argument with teammate Javaris Crittenton during an intense card game on a chartered team flight. But that isn’t exactly the craziest part. The craziest part? According to Arenas, who later spoke about the incident, Crittenton had gotten so angry from losing money on the escalating bets that he threatened to shoot Arenas and teammate, JaVale McGee. Arenas responded by telling Crittenton he would personally supply the guns to be shot with. So, Arenas brought four guns to the team’s facility that week and told Crittenton to pull the trigger. The situation was diffused, and though Arenas and Crittenton were both eventually suspended, the team continued to make jokes about it — Arenas would point and shoot his fingers at other players during warm-ups.

Sadly, Crittenton’s career tapered off after that, and he later went to prison for shooting and killing an innocent mother of four during a gang-related incident. A terrifying and tragic outcome for a player who clearly needed support that his teammates didn’t recognize, and one of the saddest NBA endings to occur. For Arenas, fortunately, his career rebounded, but he never quite regained his top form after that.

Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images
Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images /

Also true: Gilbert Arenas was a three-time All-Star in consecutive seasons, averaging an impressive 20.7 points per game in his 12-year career — with a high of 29.3 during his 2005–06 campaign.

Also true: Gilbert Arenas was so special that he had two nicknames — Agent Zero (a world-class undercover gunman), and Hibachi (a Japanese cooking device that heats up instantly).

Truer than true: While playing against the Seattle Supersonics on the road, in a 106–106 tie, Agent Zero gets the ball at half court, assesses the defense, incises his way into the paint, has the entire opposing team collapse on top of him, rises above every atom on the floor by fully extending his body in the stretchiest possible way — with his shooting wrist extended towards the ceiling’s heavens — and banks the shot off the backboard for a game-winning deuce.

Truest of them all: on his way to a potential Hall of Fame enshrinement, Hibachi’s career ended after enduring a left knee injury, eventually forcing his early retirement from the NBA at the relatively young age of 30.

Every part of the Gilbert Arenas basketball story strains credulity

This could be an easy segue back into Agent Zero’s career low-lights: how he failed to win a championship, or how he brought firearms into a locker room. The metaphor of gunplay works in so many ways for him; he was, after all, named after a secret agent, and he played with a franchise formerly known as the Bullets, so it’s most fitting that Arenas would be the one to cross that threshold in professional sports by bringing a weapon to practice.

I’m not sure there has ever been a modern player who brought the high-octane mix of high-drama and top talent on and off the court that Gilbert Arenas did — besides maybe Ron Artest and Dennis Rodman. But even then, those two dudes weren’t exactly offensive juggernauts; they were defensive Pitbulls and rebounding machines — ruthlessly intimidating and aggressive — but they didn’t put on the sort of in-game fireworks that GA could. So, in that sense, we’ve never seen such an explosive, controversial, and lovable enigma doing what Arenas did inside arenas nationwide.

But I don’t necessarily want to make this story about his demise. I want this story to be about the way Arenas — in his peak years — could score the rock like only a few players ever could. This is truly about his offensive wizardry, which was up there with Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson when he was locked in.

Initially drafted by the Golden State Warriors after two years at the University of Arizona, Arenas’s career started in relative obscurity. I know because I grew up in the Bay Area as a diehard Warriors fan, and although I remember the team drafting Arenas, I don’t recall him being the dominant, unstoppable baller he would later become in Washington when he left the Bay to sign a six-year, $60 million contract as a restricted free agent.

In retrospect, it was one (of the many) horrible decisions from the Warriors’ atrocious front office in those years. In fact, the deal was so bad, and such an egregious failure of League edicts and decisions, that the NBA instated a rule, known today as the “Gilbert Arenas Rule,” which would allow a team like Golden State to keep him, even if he wasn’t their first-round draft pick (which we’ve already established, he wasn’t; remember the preemptive gold chain?).

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images /

I wish I could say that Arenas meant something to me as a Warriors fan and that I’d seen him play in his rookie season at Oracle. But he didn’t, and I hadn’t. Instead, he was one of those names who came and went for us Golden State heads, who we would later look back on and say “goddamn, we let him go for what?” (He’s in the same category for me as Penny Hardaway, Chris Webber, and Vince Carter — all players who the Warriors drafted and got rid of immediately or very early in their historic careers).

But maybe the best thing to happen to Hibachi was leaving East Oakland — where the Dubs had struggled to become relevant for over a decade and had a tendency to sign washed-up veterans as our marquee players — and joining the Washington Wizards instead, who, granted, were equally shit-level, but at least were willing to assemble their roster around him by recruiting young (and often immature [see: shitting in each other’s shoes]) talent, which eventually started to contend against LeBron’s Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

That’s really when the Arenas we now know became a topic of conversation in barbershops. When we think of him today, we’re really remembering him in those teal and gold and white years in D.C. — not necessarily of him in Oakland or, later, in Orlando, or even in Memphis, where he managed to secure a giant contract in his final playing days that was so bad for the Grizzlies, that even Arenas himself admitted it was a bad deal for the team to sign him at that price (he only played in 17 total games for a cool $38 mil).

And that’s the funny thing about Gilbert Arenas, about basketball, about mythology, about memory: because even though Arenas was many things, over many years, in many places, we’ve boxed him into one moment, during one period of time, for one hand-gripped reason. We often remember him as criminal, or goofy, if we’re being nice.

Ok, so maybe I lied. I wanted this to be about Gilbert’s greatness on the court. But the more I did my research and watched dope highlight videos like this, the more I came to the conclusion that Agent Zero probably (most certainly?) had the wildest career outside the court’s baselines of any star player in League history, and I couldn’t just ignore that.

Still, the thing about Gilbert Arenas is that he never held back: not in games, and not in front of cameras. He sprinted his way through it all, and I respect the hell out of him for that. If anything, this tribute is a lesson on how to hustle a system that is trying to hustle you, and a reminder that when we aren’t given what we expect, to boldly take our shot until it eventually swishes in.

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