Just past Christmas, and still Gilbert Arenas(notes) was smug in his certainty that somehow this would all go away, that a wink and a smile could charm the trouble. All that had come out was that he had stored unloaded guns in the Washington Wizards' locker room. There was something bigger and bleaker on the way, the truth working its way out of the darkness and into the public light, and someone had suggested to Arenas that maybe he ought to be careful with his public words, that he needed to cling close to a stranger called restraint.
Arenas dismissed the advice with a roll of the eyes and a cocksure insistence. ''I'm smarter than everyone else,'' a witness heard him say, and no one needed to tell Arenas how to handle the public, the media, the storm closing fast on him.
Arenas started to talk and refused to stop. He started to act out, and practically begged for someone to stand in his way and, finally, NBA commissioner David Stern did.
''I'm saving him from himself,'' Stern said privately upon suspending Arenas.
The misjudgments and miscalculations that escalated into a felony plea and an NBA suspension of 50 games were born out of Arenas' and Javaris Crittenton's(notes) complete foolishness, but not restricted there. There were larger stakes here for the NBA, the players union, the specter of leverage won and lost with looming labor talks and a possible lockout.
This is a sport in which owners and front-office executives have mismanaged franchises into financial ruin, but the fall-back plan never changes: The public always wants to believe the worst of the NBA's players, and they're given the ammo to validate stereotypes. As much as anything, Arenas and the union gave the commissioner the pulpit to grandstand on gun control when past punishments were arbitrary and modest.
From Sebastian Telfair(notes) with a loaded gun on a team flight, to Stephen Jackson(notes) playing shoot-'em-up outside an Indy strip club, Stern never reacted so much to the severity of the transgressions as he did to the severity of the publicity. Stern doesn't always play to the problems, but the public outcry. He's a master manipulator of the message and the NBA messengers. Feel free to pound away on players, coaches and executives on NBA.com, but don't you dare criticize the commissioner and his owners.
Stern talked tough about sending a message to his players, but he ought to think about sending a message to his lousy ownership groups with lousy management: The Wizards were one more permissible culture in which Arenas had come to believe he could walk into the locker room with a satchel of guns for a gag, for intimidation – whatever – and no one would come down on him. The Wizards were one more enabling franchise in Stern's NBA, one more ownership structure that cut and ran on accountability. Washington played the ''Oh-if-Abe-Pollin-was-alive-to-see-this'' card on Wednesday and that's a tired, exploitive farce that needs to end.
Abe was alive when the Wizards signed Arenas to a $60 million contract, alive when Arenas crapped in a teammate's shoes. He was alive when his general manager was undermining his past coach's authority with Arenas, and he was alive when they gave him $111 million after a horrible knee injury. Abe was a pillar of the D.C. community, but also an owner with such judgment that he once offered a coach $5 million a season, the GM job and a percentage of the franchise after meeting and talking to him for less than 30 minutes.
In the end, this isn't about David Stern and the Wizards and the union. It's about Arenas and Crittenton, who deserved punishment. The rest of the season? Had Jackson and Telfair been hit harder, maybe. Still, some are left to wonder how much of this scandal could've been pre-empted had Arenas allowed himself to be surrounded with smart, shrewd people from the moment he jammed himself up.
Make no mistake: The union's excuse that Arenas didn't return an initial call to them was no reason for them to fail to get down to Washington and get in his ear. Union head Billy Hunter neglected to get Arenas a clear, orchestrated plan to manage the crisis. Arenas had skipped union meetings in the past, had showed little interest, but this was the point: He was a big star, and the burden of his acts would reflect on the rank-and-file players. Hunter should've had a rep on the next plane to D.C. When whispers of a locker-room confrontation surfaced, Arenas needed crisis PR, a strategy out of the union – out of someone competent – and that never happened until it was too late.
Eventually, Arenas turned back to his old agent, Dan Fegan, who became a confidante again. This gave him a savvy advocate, but most of the damage was already done and irreparable. The union negotiated a deal with Stern whereby Arenas would agree to a 50-game ban without appeal. The alternative was a full 82-game suspension, and perhaps even Stern didn't have the stomach to go that far.
Together, the union was right to push Stern for a clearer, more comprehensive gun policy. Guns had been in locker rooms long before Arenas and Crittenton, and there never seemed to be much fear from players that teams, or the league, would come down on them. Now, Stern says he and Hunter will work together to strengthen the policy. In the end, Stern likes his ideas best and that never changes.
All the way, Stern controlled the conversation and many in the league management – and agent community – believed this was his first salvo in labor negotiations. For the players, this episode has been a reminder they need to surround themselves with brighter public strategies, with more vigorous public defenses. Now, the Wizards could try to void Arenas' contract, and much of their ability to do so could come with the results of a March 26 sentencing in D.C.
The Orlando Magic, with GM Otis Smith, an old Arenas ally, is intrigued with the possibility of a deal down the line, but it's too early to tell. The Golden State Warriors drafted Arenas, bid to lure him out of Washington as a free agent and are maybe just screwed up enough to bring him back to the Bay Area. It's almost impossible for Arenas to return to the Wizards, where there's much animosity, so much disdain between the franchise and its franchise player.
''It just got so ugly,'' one official familiar with the NBA's investigation said. ''You had guys all throwing each other under the bus. I don't see how Arenas can play there again, after what's gone on behind the scenes. I don't know how he walks back into the locker room.''
Before Gilbert Arenas walked out for good, he was still so sure he could get out of this mess. And why not? The Wizards never held him accountable for anything. Agent Zero never believed this would be a big problem for him. He was so sure he was smarter than them all. He never realized his comedy act was over, and that suddenly the commissioner cared about guns, because the headlines told him it was time. Gilbert Arenas goes away now, and that ultimately falls on his failures, on him.
Just remember something, though: All these lousy owners under Stern, all these soft franchises, enable and encourage a league in which the stars have always been able to do whatever they want, however they want to do it. Gilbert Arenas walked into work with a bag of guns and had good reason to believe no one would've done a thing about it. That's how the Pollins ran a franchise in Washington, how little Stern's past punishment on guns scared everyone.
These big suspensions were no victory for the league's tough-talking commissioner on Wednesday, but a failure of his regime. All Stern did was win the press conference again. All Stern did was give up a couple boogeymen to the public. He deterred little, and solved nothing. The NBA doesn't have a thug problem, but ownership issues. Stern knows who he works for, and that'll never change.