by Jim Litke
What apparently began as a practical joke would have turned out a lot funnier if only Gilbert Arenas brought a squirt gun to work instead of the real thing.
Now there’s no laughing it off.
The Wizards star is scheduled to meet with law-enforcement authorities to present his side of the story about a locker-room dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton nearly two weeks ago. Not only does Washington, D.C., have some of the strictest handgun laws in the nation, but federal authorities are investigating as well.
Yet even if Arenas’ legal headaches end there, he still could face a lengthy suspension from NBA commissioner David Stern and tempt the Wizards to invoke a morals clause in the standard NBA player contract and seek to void the remainder of a six-year, $111 million deal signed in 2008.
“I know Gilbert is a good guy,” Pacers guard T.J. Ford said. “I don’t think, like he said in his statement, that he was trying to hurt anybody.”
But Arenas has already tarnished his image as one of pro basketball’s more entertaining and eccentric personalities, and put the league on the spot. The NBA’s gun culture is no more prevalent than that of other leagues, nor the population in general, yet every time an athlete gets caught with a weapon, the publicity feeds the public notion that officials are incapable of policing their players.
That perception, in part, led to the NBA’s toughened antigun stance in the collective bargaining agreement, which bars league personnel from bringing weapons to league property, sites or charitable events.
Arenas has already admitted bringing three unloaded firearms to the Verizon Center—to get them out of the house and away from his kids—and storing them in a locked container. According to Yahoo! Sports, he took them out of the container before a Dec. 21 practice and laid the guns on a chair, then told Crittenton to choose one and make good on a threat that stemmed from a card game on a late-night flight from Phoenix back to Washington two days earlier.
As the game got more expensive, Crittenton joked about what could happen to people who didn’t honor their debts. Arenas has a well-deserved reputation as a prankster and laying out the guns apparently was his way of trying to diffuse any lingering tension between the two.
Instead, the gesture enraged Crittenton. According to a New York Post report, Arenas and Crittenton wound up drawing guns on each other.
“I can’t speak on that,” Arenas said Saturday. “But if you know me, you’ve been here, I’ve never did anything (involving) violence. Anything I do is funny—well, it’s funny to me.”
Asked if the accounts of what happened have been blown out of proportion, Arenas laughed and said: “A little.”
His standing with the Wizards was already shaky. Arenas missed almost two seasons because of knee surgery, and his problems with former coach Eddie Jordan have only exacerbated under new coach Flip Saunders. Arenas’ production barely justified his selfishness in seasons past, but he hardly resembles the scorer he was then.
Teammates who tolerated Arenas once now find him frustrating.
His defenders say the needling, as well as the need to laugh everything off, is Arenas’ way of coping—with insecurity, a tough childhood and being overlooked at the start of both his college and pro careers.
“I’m a goof ball and that’s what I am, so even doing something like this, I’m going to make fun of it and that’s how I am,” Arenas said. “Some people say I’m not taking it serious, but why be depressed at home when I can just make myself laugh?”
The problem with gunplay, though, is that it’s never funny and that a casual attitude toward violence only encourages more of the same. Arenas has already been suspended once, after pleading no contest to misdemeanor weapons and vehicle charges following a traffic stop in California 2003; he sat out Washington’s season opener in 2004.
No matter how this latest incident is handled by authorities, Arenas should know better than to expect leniency this time around.
Another former NBA player got off easy the first time he, too, was charged with a weapons violation, lecturing schoolkids and taking out ads in the local newspaper touting gun safety.
His name is Jayson Williams. As you read this, he is scheduled to be retried on a reckless manslaughter charge in the shooting death of a limousine driver during a party at his home.
(Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org)