Posted Jan 6 2010 9:17PM
The NBA on Wednesday suspended Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas indefinitely, without pay, in the wake of both a Dec. 21 incident at Verizon Center --when Arenas brought four guns into the team's locker room, in a supposed joke gone badly with teammate Javaris Crittenton following an argument between the two on the team's plane two days earlier -- and Arenas' subsequent conduct, including a pregame routine Tuesday night before Washington's game in Philadelphia in which Arenas pretended to "shoot" his teammates with his fingers.
NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement that Arenas' ongoing conduct "has led me to conclude that he is not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game. Accordingly, I am suspending Mr. Arenas indefinitely, without pay, effective immediately pending the completion of the investigation by the NBA."
Stern said that he was iniitally inclined to wait before administering punishment, as the league has done in similar cases over the years in which there was a pending investigation by law enforcement, until the legal issues were resolved. But he changed his mind because of Arenas' subsequent behavior.
"I initially thought it prudent to refrain from taking immediate action because of the pendency of a criminal investigation involving the office of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and the Metropolitan Police Department, and the consideration of this matter by a grand jury sitting in the District of Columbia," Stern said. "For the same reason, I directed the Wizards to refrain from taking any action."
But once the incident was disclosed late last week, Arenas' reaction has been scattered. He spent much of the weekend Twittering about the case and railing against what he termed inaccurate media coverage of the incident, frequently joking about how he was being perceived.
On Monday, however, he took a far more sober tone in a statement released as he testified before a grand jury. Through the office of his attorney, Kenneth L. Weinstein, Arenas apologized to the Wizards, his teammates and the NBA for his "serious lapse in judgment," and promised to do better in the future.
"Joke or not, I now recognize that what I did was a mistake and was wrong," Arenas said in the statement. "I should not have brought the guns to DC in the first place, and I now realize that there's no such thing as joking around when it comes to guns--even if unloaded."
But then came the pregame skit Tuesday. After the game, Arenas said he expected he would ultimately meet with Stern, and also said he hoped to receive an apology from unnamed members of the media for "slandering" him. He then proceeded to Tweet again about the case, taking exception with criticism he received from the Rev. Al Sharpton, who had asked Stern to come down hard on Arenas.
Stern added that when the legal investigation is over, Arenas faces "a substantial suspension, and perhaps worse" from the league. That would seem to indicate that the league is at least leaving open the possibility of terminating Arenas from the league. That would free the Wizards from the remainder of Arenas' $111 milliion contract, signed in 2008, which has four years remaining. And that would give Washington room under the salary cap next summer to pursue free agents from the celebrated class of 2010, which includes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amar'e Stoudemire and other top players.
"What did you expect?," asked a longtime associate and friend of Stern's, who's known him for decades. "There's a lot more at stake than just one player and one contract. You have a league, you have standards and rules, and you have a team that's obviously been hurt big time, on and off the court, by what's been done."
The Wizards have been silent on the issue other than a release Saturday night from the Pollin family, whose patriarch and owner of the team, Abe Pollin, died Nov. 24. But Wednesday, after Stern's decision was made public, they issued a release backing Stern's decision.
"Gilbert's recent behavior and statements, including his actions and statements last night in Philadelphia, are unacceptable," said the statement, which was signed by Pollin's widow, Irene Pollin, his two sons, Robert and James and by the Wizards' president of basketball operations, Ernie Grunfeld.
Arenas reached out to National Basketball Players Assocation Executive Director Billy Hunter, who was on his way to Portland Wednesday evening as part of his tour of teams to discuss ongoing issues with players.
Asked what advice he would give Arenas -- who does not have an agent -- Hunter said, "remain solid and say as little as possible and not inflame the situation."
The union issued a statement Wednesday saying it would "continue to monitor the investigation being conducted by law enforcement authorities and the Commissioner's office. At the conclusion of these investigations we will determine the appropriate action to take on Gilbert's behalf."
In a phone interview, Hunter acknowledged that Stern has authority under collective bargaining agreement language to "take immediate action" in certain situations involving player behavior, and does not have to wait until a pending legal issue is settled. In previous cases involving players and guns, Hunter said, the league didn't have jurisdiction because most of them occurred off the court and away from team facilities.
A suspension lasting more than 12 games can be appealed to an arbitrator.
A former prosecutor in Alameda (CA) County, Hunter said he didn't "want to, in any way, prejudice the investigation. I don't want them to overreact because of anything we do."
The suspension has ended what was supposed to be a triumphant comeback season for Arenas, after he had missed most of the last two seasons following three separate knee surgeries, including a microfracture procedure in November, 2007. He missed almost the rest of the 2007-08 season and all but two games of the 2008-09 season after his third operation, in 2008. He had started all of Washington's 32 games this season, posting averages of 22.6 points, a career-best 7.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds. But he was shooting just 41 percent from the field, and the Wizards were the league's biggest disappointment, with an 11-21 record going into Wednesday's game against Cleveland.
The league always has reserved the right to supercede an ongoing legal investigation to hand out a suspension of a player if it thought the evidence was clear. However, it had never previously done so, according to a longtime sports executive who's worked with the NBA on legal and other issues in the past.
"The question is, is this the case?" said the executive, who had not discussed the Arenas case with league officials.
This all began on the Wizards' flight from Phoenix to D.C. Dec. 19, when Arenas and Crittenton got in an argument on the team plane in what a source says was over $25,000 that Arenas supposedly owed Crittenton after a card game. The team was off on Sunday the 20th and assembled in Washington on the 21st for practice. Before practice, Arenas reportedly took the guns out and placed them in proximity to Crittenton, leaving a note telling the young guard to pick which gun he wanted. It is not clear what Arenas meant by the gesture, but it angered Crittenton. There were, according to a source, at least two witnesses to the incident
When Wizards management heard about the incident, it reported what had happened to both local law enforcement officials and the NBA. However, the incident didn't come to light until a CBSSports.com report on Christmas Eve indicated Arenas was under investigation by the league. Then, the New York Post reported New Year's Day that Arenas and Crittenton had drawn weapons on one another, a version of the incident that has not been verified by other outlets.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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