Posted Oct 14 2009 2:11PM
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- The traffic getting around the bottom of Lake Michigan was brutal, so I barely had time to throw my suitcase on the motel bed before seeking out the Wizards-Pistons preseason game. Not knowing the greater metropolitan Grand Rapids area, that meant searching for the arena.
Searching for the Arenas, too, as it turned out.
I hadn't seen the memo from league HQ Tuesday regarding Gilbert Arenas and the $25,000 fine for refusing to cooperate with the media this October. (The Wizards also got docked $25,000 for not enforcing the league's media policy.) So when the few reporters waiting for him after Washington's 101-98 victory came under unusual scrutiny within the team's locker room, I thought it was just for another episode of Gilbert being Gilbert. He always has rolled a little differently.
"We want Gil! We want Gil!" injured center Brendan Haywood mock-chanted as he provided a play-by-play of what usually is the most mundane activity: Media folks getting a few syllables out of a participant.
Behind me, Antawn Jamison loudly volunteered for his postgame close-up but no one budged. They were intent on waiting out Arenas. Me, oblivious to the silly suspense of this moment, saw that Jamison had more dressing to do and knew I could catch him post-Arenas. After all, Jamison is a former winner of the Magic Johnson "Good Guy" Award bestowed by the Professional Basketball Writers Association annually to a top player who deals well with the media.
To the right, Mike Miller tried to wave red meat in front of us hounds to distract us, saying, "You can talk to me. I'm wearing LeBron's shoes tomorrow. I figure you guys want to talk about that." More chuckles, no takers.
By this point, Arenas was methodically buttoning a black shirt, his back to the room as he worked his way down. Haywood teased him about eventually running out of buttons as a stall technique, which he did, so when Agent Zero finally turned around and the reporters edged closer, immovable object was about to meet unstoppable force.
(This transcript is courtesy of the Washington Post's Michael Lee, who -- given the minute-and-a-half exchange -- had no trouble banging it out in toto and still making his deadline):
Q: Do you have any comment on the fine you received today? (Here, I assumed he had shown up late for a practice or a team bus.)
Q: Do you think the game tonight was a sign of progress?
Arenas: "Yeah, both teams played hard." (This was Agent Zero latching onto a teammate's suggestion to go all Rasheed Wallace on us. Wallace once famously reacted to NBA prodding to speak to reporters by endlessly repeating that phrase at a postseason press conference. The league's media honchos wound up printing it on T-shirts as gag gifts.)
Q: How are you feeling out there on the court?
Arenas: "I feel fine.''
Q:"hat are your thoughts on Will Bynum? (The Pistons' young guard had pestered Arenas with his on-ball defense, forcing some of the Wizards star's six turnovers. Arenas also had 24 points and five assists in 28 minutes, his most complete outing yet in his comeback from a third knee surgery.)
Arenas: "He's coming along well."
Q: Anything else about tonight's game?
Q: Do you feel good about the way things are going right now, feel good about the way you are playing, feel comfortable about the new coaching staff?
Q: What can you say about Flip [Saunders], and how is he different than what you've experienced here before? (This was from me. Give me credit for this much: I learned a long time ago, the hard way, not to ask questions that can be answered "yep'' or "no.''"naware o"Arenas' boycott-and-forced-participation, though, I thought he was just feeling cantankerous.)
Arenas: "He's just bringing something different than the last coach."
Q: What in particular is he bringing that's different?
Arenas: (Six-second pause) "What was the question again?"
Q: What are your impressions of Flip? What has he brought to this team so far?
Arenas: "It's too early to tell. Maybe next month, I'll have a better answer for you."
Q: Do you have anything to say about the fine today?
Q: No comment?
And that was it. My own digital recording of the event will go into my archives alongside a 36-second interview I got from Michael Jordan when he was playing for the Wizards. My newspaper had picked up the tab to get my boots on the ground in Washington and all I got was a walk-and-talk from the locker room to a players-only elevator.
Jordan was slick enough to make it seem like he was cooperating, whereas Arenas' attempts dragged on for what felt like a long, unpleasant time. It was out of character for him -- this guy who was on the cutting edge of blogs among pro athletes, someone who seemed to have "irrepressible" surgically attached to his name the way other NBA players have "expiring contract of" on theirs.
In all other ways Tuesday, Arenas was his same self-conscious, fun-loving self. He heard comments from the Pistons fans in the stands at Van Andel Arena and gibed back. He Hula-hooped himself with the ball three times before each free throw. He hit nine of his 11 shots and, when he left the floor, he appeared to genuinely pause and listen to fans who crowded near the Wizards' exit aisle. Given Arenas' 15 meager appearances over the past two seasons, it was good to see.
And yet here was a guy so spontaneous as to leap off a mini-tramp during a timeout at the 2007 All-Star Game -- shocking his own coach, Washington's Eddie Jordan, over on the East bench -- declaring himself off-limits and unavailable to give-and-takes with reporters (and thus, most fans).
"I'm not the entertainer anymore," Arenas said at the Wizards' media day two weeks ago. "I don't feel like speaking anymore. I just want to go out there and play. If I'm not going to get fined, I don't think you're going to hear me again. I don't have a blog. I don't have a tweeter. When I was entertaining, all you guys focused on was my words. Now I'd rather you just focus on my basketball."
So much for that "not fined" stuff. Now that Arenas is back to talking again -- head nods and shakes won't cut it, and even someone with a $111 million contract doesn't want to incur the wrath of the NBA's escalating fine system, with a daily boost across eight months -- he really ought to drop the pose altogether and go back to being himself.
It's bad enough that Arenas would repress his own personality, depriving fans of his non-traditional-jock views that can break the tedium of a long season. Bad enough, too, that the Wizards -- courtesy of general manager Ernie Grunfeld -- are one of a handful of teams that make assistant coaches off-limits for interviews. Sam Cassell's adventures as a first-year Wizards assistant would make good reality TV, and not letting Sammy talk to the media is like not letting most folks breathe.
But Arenas' muzzling -- or now, reluctant acquiescence -- is unnatural. It warped the Wizards' postgame locker room Tuesday and, going forward, it will become its own little controversy. His comeback, which is a legitimate story, won't include honest updates from the central figure -- it will be like monitoring a gimpy Derby winner, no quotes from the athlete. Meanwhile, teammates will get stuck handling spokesman chores that properly fall to a club's best player.
Given Arenas' hyperactive and predictably unpredictable ways, this too most likely shall pass. The sooner, the better. We all know that Gil just wants to have fun.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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