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At the end of a lost road trip, aboard the Washington Wizards' charter flying from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., Gilbert Arenas(notes) and Javaris Crittenton(notes) were two teammates playing Bourré, one of the most popular card games among NBA players. The game goes back to the 1980s and resembles something between Spades and Euchre. The pots rise rapidly and millions of NBA dollars have been won and lost on Bourré tables across North America.
As the league's most disappointed and fractured team watched a late night turn to early morning, a forgettable card game would end up with unforgettable consequences. All around Arenas, this had been a season of tension and turmoil, and now these Wizards couldn't close out a card game without drama. Arenas and Crittenton had contributed to much of the pot, and eventually the franchise's $111 million man infuriated the young player with sarcastic taunts and teasing.
Arenas loves to needle, tweak, and still no one's sure the reasoning for his refusal to pay a debt that sources say reached into the tens of thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, Agent Zero's declaration delivered Crittenton into a rage: The payment plan was this: zero money down, zero money later.
Sources say Crittenton suggested Arenas could catch a beating for such belligerence, but "Gil could tell he was pushing Javaris' buttons," and that was too joyful for him to relent. Arenas is older, wittier and savvier than Crittenton. What would happen when the players returned for practice two days later on Dec. 21 is still a matter of some uncertainty. Whatever witnesses were in the locker room, including Arenas and Crittenton, have told friends and associates on the outside conflicting stories.
Some sources have described a practical joke gone awry, some have detailed a far darker, more frightening picture.
Here is the story that Crittenton and Arenas plan to tell police on Monday, sources said: When the Wizards returned to practice, Arenas unlocked three unloaded guns out of a strong box in his locker and laid them on a locker-room chair and instructed Crittenton to choose one. The Washington Post reported Crittenton had playfully threatened to shoot Arenas in his knee on the plane, and that offering him a gun to deliver the deed was a way of trying to diffuse the tension.
Only Crittenton, feeling belittled and bullied, tossed one of the guns to the floor in anger and the tone between the two players escalated again. One NBA executive, briefed on the investigation, said Saturday, "The law is going to start trying to isolate them. Once the entire interrogation starts, you have to wonder if the stories will start changing."
The New York Post reported in its Friday edition the two players drew weapons against each other. Sources say league attorneys discussed with NBA staff the possibility of Arenas brandishing a weapon in a threatening manner, but league officials hadn't dug deep enough to be sure, and ultimately are waiting for the U.S. Attorney's Office and D.C. police to conclude their investigation and make a decision on whether to bring charges.
Arenas has denied drawing his weapon on Crittenton and those who know him – even some with no apparent agenda to back him – have done so. Dan Fegan is one of the league's most influential player agents, but Arenas severed ties with him prior to negotiating his extension with the Wizards and a $30 million Adidas shoe deal.
"Gilbert Arenas did not point a gun at anyone," Fegan said Saturday. "I don't believe it. That's 100 percent inconsistent with the person that I've known. Gilbert is a born practical joker, and maybe this is a joke gone wrong … but there's no way he pointed a gun at a teammate."
No one's laughing among Wizards management, where jobs are on the line. And, assuredly, no one's laughing in the league office, where NBA commissioner David Stern is livid and forever sensitive to the public's profiling of his league as too gangster, too incapable of policing itself. Stern understands guns are an issue in his league, and some team executives will tell you they estimate 30 to 40 percent of their players probably bring guns into the locker room just like Arenas did with the Wizards.
Not only has Arenas denied he pointed the unloaded gun, he denies he was gambling. Still, sources insist Arenas is a relentless high-stakes gambler, that he loves the action of it. One league source told Yahoo! Sports he approximated Arenas had lost as much as $70,000 to $80,000 in an evening betting on PlayStation games against a friend of former teammate Donnell Taylor.
"The guy went out the next day, bought a real nice car in cash the next day and still had money left over. Gil gave him his money."
As for Crittenton, his agent, Mark Bartelstein, insisted his client never had a gun, and had done nothing to rise to the level of punishment. "I'm confident my client hasn't done anything wrong," Bartelstein said. "The fact will bear that out. It's unfortunate that rumors get going and inaccuracies come out before the facts are known, but all we can do is wait for the investigation to conclude.… Javaris will be exonerated of any wrong doing."
It's clear Arenas will try to use his charm and clownish antics as the cornerstone of his defense. Whatever legal issues could arise with the strict gun laws in D.C., there's still the matter of Stern's punishment. This story has engulfed the league, and several league office and team sources believe Stern will be harsh in his judgment no matter what the legal system decides to do. This could be a suspension that extends over months, possibly the rest of the season.
In a lot of ways, Arenas' return to the Wizards from microfracture knee surgery this season had been tumbling toward this bottom. He returned angry, isolated and unsure about his ability to be his old self. For a short time, Arenas tried to fit back into the lineup with prominent teammates Antawn Jamison(notes) and Caron Butler(notes).
Arenas barely talked to coach Flip Saunders in training camp. Sources say his trainer, Tim Grover, spent time in Richmond, Va., for training camp and became, in the words of one team witness, "a buffer" between the coach and star. After the team broke camp and returned to Washington, Arenas became increasingly belligerent and defiant of Saunders. Witnesses insist he began to purposely disrupt practices. Privately, Wizards executives were conceding to friends, "We've lost control of this thing."
Arenas has long had issues with authority. His relationship with past coach Eddie Jordan deteriorated over time. In fact, sources say Jordan often felt undermined by general manager Ernie Grunfeld when it came to Arenas. Jordan pushed Arenas to defend, to be a complete player, and never felt he got the backing he needed when Arenas grumbled to upper management. All that, and when Jordan needed a contract extension, it was Arenas who still lobbied management on Jordan's behalf to get it done.
Arenas has always been a contradiction, perfectly brilliant and perfectly maddening. Now, he's mostly a problem the Wizards don't know how to make go away, even if they wish they could.
Arenas' contract was untradeable before this incident and now it's an albatross of historic proportion. The best chance for getting out of the contract could be criminal charges and a conviction, but all that is so murky now.
The Wizards could void the contract and relieve themselves of the 4½ years and $90 million-plus left on it. Adidas is monitoring the case, too, and it must understand Agent Zero doesn't sell shoes the way he did two years ago. For now, the company is waiting to see what goes down in D.C. before it makes a decision on its deal with him and on their future together.
Arenas is trying to laugh his way out of something that isn't funny and isn't a joke to his franchise, to the NBA. Maybe Agent Zero tried to get one too many laughs, but whatever happened, however he tries to spin it now, the consequences promise to be immense for him. He has a story for law enforcement on Monday, and maybe it's the truth and they'll believe it. Eventually, he's going to New York for a most unforgiving judge and jury in Olympic Tower, for David Stern, and it will be a good, long time before Gilbert Arenas is back in the NBA.