By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Sep 23 2009 1:55PM
Did you see the Gilbert Arenas story in the Washington Times last week? It was a controversial -- well, let's say provocative -- piece by Mike Jones, who got Gil on record for the first time this summer. Most of the story was dedicated to Gil's offseason spent with training guru Tim Grover and how, after two depressing, injury-ravaged seasons, it's about to be on, again.
Gil's message is clear: Grover has him back to 100 percent, all his muscles are firing, the rest of the league should beware. Yet the Times headline read: "Arenas criticizes team, is ready to play." That's not controversy-mongering, though. Based on Gil's sentiments, the small nugget of team criticism really was the most compelling bit of news from the piece.
If you remember, Arenas made two ill-fated comebacks at the end of the two previous seasons. He returned around playoff-time in '08, his contract year, and looked sluggish as the Cavs knocked the Wiz out of the postseason. Washington signed him to a max contract that summer and last season, a virtually silent Agent Zero missed all but the final two games. When he returned, he was a slow, passive distributor. He definitely wasn't the Gil we remember, the dude that, for a good three seasons, was one of the three or four most dynamic players and personalities in the league.
Check out how Gil perceived the situation:
"If you have a kid that loves basketball, that eats, sleeps, drinks and thinks basketball and all he knows is basketball and he gets hurt and he's your franchise player, you need to hold him back from himself," said Arenas in the Times piece. "If I'm saying I feel good and you know it's supposed to take six months, instead of letting me at four months run ... they should have held me back. Rather than saying, 'Let's let this guy do what he wants and use him to sell tickets' -- sometimes you have to protect players from themselves. I don't feel like I got that type of protection. But, I don't judge them for that. Some things just happen. I told them I felt OK because I wanted to play, and they did what they did."
My first reaction was to dismiss Arenas' sentiments as whining. Gil called himself "a kid," but in '08, he was a 26-year-old, three-time All Star in his seventh season. That's not a kid. That's a veteran superstar that shouldn't need a team to protect him from himself.
But then I was reminded of that Pink song, "Don't Let Me Get Me." (Yeah, Pink, the one who had to be restrained from beating Kanye West to a pulp at this month's MTV VMAs.) When I think about some of those lyrics -- "I'm a hazard to myself" and "I'm my own worst enemy" -- Arenas seems like much more of a sympathetic figure. Players that love to play, as much as Arenas, will undoubtedly try to get on the court to their own detriment.
(In his Hall of Fame speech, when he recalled his dispute with Doug Collins about perilous summertime balling, MJ called his disregard "the Love of The Game clause." Call it an addiction, call it whatever -- players want to play.)
Still, Washington Post blogger (and old pal) Dan Steinberg, of D.C. Sports Bog fame, dug up one of Arenas' old blog posts, where Gil was recounting an exchange he had with a team doctor. The doctor wanted him to wait for a few weeks and a persistent Arenas was hitting the doc with retorts like, "Huh? Another week?! I was planning on playing today. My mind, my mental, is ready for right now!" and "Trust me, I'm mentally ready right now."
You can't push that hard and then blame the team a couple years later.
So there's this tango between player and team, which grows more tense when you have a superstar. The Wizards were under pressure to cave to Arenas' wishes and to the ticket-buying fans pining to see him on the court. Meanwhile, Arenas was, in effect, asking the team to take the decision out of his hands.
In the end, the Wizards should have known better. Teams have to make hard, unpopular decisions with their valuable assets all the time, many times against the will of the injured player. From Yao Ming and Houston to Andrew Bynum and L.A. to Jameer Nelson and Orlando to Kevin Garnett and Boston to Monta Ellis and Golden State, organizations have to be the ones with the foresight, because the players will try to get out on the court with two torn ACLs and no elbows.
Thankfully, all the finger-pointing and second-guessing and will-battling is about to become old news. The new season is quickly approaching and, despite last week's bit of blame-displacement, Gil seems to have turned the maturity corner. He's not making any grand predictions, he's not bumpin' his gums on Twitter. He's laying low. It's show-n-prove time.
The past two years and whatever Arenas did or the team allowed him to do will soon be old news, thanks to miracle-worker Grover. It's Ground Zero for Agent Zero. What now?
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.
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