Gilbert Arenas' biography will inevitably mention his 2009 foray with firearms in the Washington Wizard’s locker room, and how it cost him a significant portion, if not the rest of his career as an NBA player. While so much of this bio has yet to be written, one thing is clear:
Arenas' career has been spiraling out of control for years. More specifically, ever since May 5, 2006.
If only suspended for the remainder of this season, Arenas would turn 29 in the middle of his first season back. While that is not old by any stretch, he’d still be a guy nearing 30 who has only been able to play 47 games over the past three seasons. His last meaningful and best season of 2006 would then be four years in the past. That’s a long time off for another team (as the Wizards continue to erase him from memory) to bank on an impact season.
So let's say this movie is over—when was the climax?
Arenas began his career as somewhat of an inspirational character. He was one of those hard working, never say die, second-round draft picks who wasn’t born a great NBA player, but made himself a great NBA player. He developed into one of the game’s up-and-comers his first two years with Golden State. A year after joining the Washington Wizards he helped them improve by 20 games from the 2004 to 2005 season.
In 2005 he became a team captain, earned the first of three consecutive All-Star nods, and not only helped the Wizards reach the playoffs but win a series over the Chicago Bulls.
With his career and popularity on the rise, and an Adidas endorsement deal in hand, Arenas went on to have the best statistical season of his career in 2006 averaging 29.4 points per game (good for fourth in league) along with five assists and two steals. His name was being mentioned in the same breath as the other elite young talents who were taking over the NBA, and he was revered as a unique league personality, a quirky-funny and fresh quote.
Entering the 2006 playoffs, Gilbert Arenas was on top of his game. It’s funny to think that back then he and LeBron James were considered contemporaries, the building blocks of their respective franchises and equal talents facing off in what was sure to be a memorable playoff duel. As different as their careers have gone since, in 2006 they were the marquee first-round matchup the world was watching.
And the world saw a dandy of a series. Each team alternated victories and traded blows to the other’s home court advantage, until the Cavs were finally able to pull-away by winning Games Five and Six. Three games were decided by one point and two were decided in overtime, forging the beginning of a new Eastern Conference rivalry. Arenas was simply masterful, averaging 34 points and more than five assists per game, but his most lasting and significant contribution to that series came in the form of two missed free throws in the Game Six finale May 5.
With the Wizards up 113-112 in overtime, Arenas stepped to the free-throw line with two shots to give the Wizards a 3-point lead with just 15 seconds left to play. Literally with the game on the line and a chance to force Game 7, Arenas missed both free throws, leaving the door open for the Cavs in the final seconds. This sequence was highlighted by LeBron James whispering something to Arenas just before he took and missed that last crucial free throw.
The Cavs took full advantage, with Damon Jones nailing a 17-footer on the ensuing possession to give the Cavs the 114-113 win, the series, and the Wizards overall.
It was only later that we found out LeBron whispered to Arenas "If you miss this shot, it's over." It’s only now that we understand the ultimate meaning of that statement: he meant the game was over, he meant the series was over, and he meant Arenas’ career was over.
Was LeBron wrong? Gilbert played well in the following 2007 season, but severely injured his knee and was lost for the playoffs, another loss to the Cavs. He was averaging 28 points per game and was voted a starter in his third and final All-Star game, but never got the chance to amend what happened a year earlier in the playoffs.
Next year in 2008, he managed to play only 13 games after suffering additional and self-imposed setbacks to that injury. He returned for the Wizards' third and final playoff elimination (in a row) at the hands of the Cavs. In that series Arenas averaged 23 fewer minutes, and 23 fewer points per game than the last time he was able to suit up. His image had slowly been shaded as flaky, vain, selfish, and eccentric.
He played only two games for the Wizards in 2009. Their record plunged 24 games and they missed the playoffs. Then this year, Arenas made it through just 32 games before getting suspended for what many believe will be the rest of the NBA season, if not more.
Which brings us back to his peak, the climax, and the last time he was relevant on the court instead of in court. He was an NBA star—a tall guard who could set the arena on fire, had trademark “sizzle,” and who gave the Cleveland Cavaliers all they could handle in LeBron’s first postseason experience. He played over 47 minutes per game that 2006 series (including overtime) and averaged 34, 5, 5 and 2... but… In just one breath, LeBron James was able to break Arenas and the Wizards forever.
It’s probably why the Wizards have come to hate the Cavs and LeBron so much. They brutally robbed the Wizards of any future through a magical curse James cast on their franchise's best and most charismatic player. In fact, LeBron was celebrated for having the gall and gamesmanship to utter a series/career-ending ultimatum on the court to another player. When the Wizards tried the same thing they were warned not to again. They tried everything in fact, but could never get over the Cavs—and as it turns out this was to be their destiny.
The Wizards always fought hard, they even fought dirty, they even tried the same trick of whispering something cryptic in LeBron’s ear during a free throw, but in the end, those two shots were as close as they ever got. Those two shots were as close as Arenas ever got.
January 10, 2010 will forever be etched in Gilbert Arenas' bio as the day he was deemed no longer fit to take the court in an NBA game—but the cracks began to show three-and-a half years earlier. While this might not be the last we see of him, whatever it is we do see from him, if anything, will be considered a footnote in the twilight of a career not the renaissance of it.
RIP Agent 0: 2001-2006