Year after year, David Stern sits in his 15th-floor office of Olympic Tower and watches the stories unleash on the NBA like tsunamis – Latrell Sprewell, the Palace of Auburn Hills brawl, the debauchery of a Vegas All-Star weekend. All the footage of players reading Dr. Seuss to schoolkids and passing out holiday turkeys come crashing down under the wall of waves, buried beneath the debris of a public relentlessly eager for it to feed into broader stereotypes and profiling.
When trouble hits the NBA, it inspires a nastier public discourse than its peers in other pro sports; different than the NFL and baseball, different than hockey and auto racing. So much of that is the reason Stern seethed upon watching Gilbert Arenas(notes) stay true to his sanctioned job as the court jester.
As the NBA waited for law enforcement to bring charges, league sources say Stern's own investigation over a week ago uncovered the testimony The Washington Post reported on Wednesday night: Witnesses are testifying to law enforcement that Washington Wizards guard Javaris Crittenton(notes) loaded his own gun and chambered a round in the Dec. 21 locker-room incident with Gilbert Arenas. Stern had been waiting for the legal charges to be brought before he delivered crippling suspensions without pay for the players.
"Stern's jail is gonna be full," said one NBA executive briefed on the investigation.
It was just a matter of time until this spiraled out of control, until the disturbing testimony became public record and possible criminal charges toppled Arenas and Crittenton. The NBA could've survived Crittenton's alleged act, but the involvement of Agent Zero – one of the true creations of the NBA's propaganda machine, one of the blogging boons to its digital revolution – has contorted and compounded the story. Arenas had four guns in the locker room, laid them out on a chair and sent Crittenton into a rage.
Suddenly, Arenas isn't so funny and he's essentially wondering, Well, they've paid me a lot of money to be a comedian here. What's changed?
The NBA propped Arenas up as one of its good guys, the convenient class clown to balance the ferocity of those peers who somehow seemed to startle the general public. The league and the Wizards played a prominent part in the promotion and marketing of a cartoon character, and now they were kidding themselves to think Arenas would treat this investigation with the seriousness it commanded. What always won him favor was playing the joker, the town jester, and Stern had to suspend him indefinitely without pay to finally get the player's stand-up act to end.
The Wizards have marched around with the cover of Abe Pollin's passing, the belief that the death of the honorable old owner gives his family endless latitude to grandstand with disingenuous declarations of moral outrage over Arenas. After Stern delivered a suspension that will save the franchise nearly $150,000 per game in luxury-tax payments, the Wizards owners issued a haughty tsk-tsk for Arenas' "bang-bang" pregame act in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Suddenly, the Wizards' statement insisted that Arenas' air-gun act and smart-mouthed comments are "unacceptable," and sniffed that "some of our players appeared to find Gilbert's behavior in Philadelphia amusing." They punctuated the proclamation with pure mythology: "Under Abe Pollin's leadership, our organization never tolerated such behavior, and never will."
Sure, the Wizards never tolerated such behavior – all they did was encourage and enable and market and ultimately reward it. The Pollins never minded Arenas' comedy act when the Verizon Center was packed and the jump shots were falling, when the blogs were clicking and the jerseys selling. The Pollins never minded Arenas' act when his coaches pleaded he wouldn't listen, when teammates growled he wouldn't pass, when everyone understood it was impossible to ever stand up to him because Abe would always side with him.
Whatever Arenas wanted, they gave him. They handed him a $111 million contract while he was still recovering from his knee injury. Arenas was a hell of a showman and scorer – maybe the best in the sport – but turning the franchise over to him was never rooted in leading men, in winning.
As franchise players go, could you imagine the undermanned San Antonio Spurs losing two horrific games in the playoffs, returning home for a Game 3, and Tim Duncan(notes) calling a news conference to congratulate himself for getting selected for the cover shot of a popular video game? Agent Zero did, and the Wizards didn't say a word. Now, the franchise is abandoning him, and wants badly the chance to void the $80 million remaining on his untradeable contract, on a basketball comedian whose act has dried up. Privately, Arenas knows the Wizards are hell-bent on voiding his deal; he knows they've abandoned him. Arenas is a political pawn now. On the cusp of the upcoming collective bargaining talks, when the owners will try to bring the union to its knees with take-backs, this gun investigation becomes an important bargaining chip. The commissioner can insist this is one more reason why revenues have dropped for the league; why its public standing continues to be unstable; why long, guaranteed contracts should be shortened to protect owners.
Crittenton could be in the biggest trouble, but it won't matter: This story is about one of Stern's cover boys, a relentless blogger and showman who had been marching the NBA into the digital age. Stern has made him go away with a suspension, but Arenas told Mike Wise of The Washington Post that he wants a chance to sit down with the commissioner sooner than later.
"I just want to remind him of who I am," Arenas said. "I'm the kid who jumped off the trampoline at the All-Star game, the kid who throws his jersey to people in the stands. I'm not the hoodlum that's being written and talked about right now."
Agent Zero is right. He's no hoodlum and never was. Only it's too late. Stern doesn't care who he is – just who the public believes he is now.
Yes, Gilbert Arenas was a comedy act, a Globetrotter, sanctioned and sanitized by the NBA and the Washington Wizards. Through the years, there have been a lot of players who've done much worse with weapons, with violence, and they paid a far smaller price than Arenas must pay now.
His job as the court jester is over, and the commissioner and the Wizards can milk it no more. They know who Arenas is, and always did. The league and team can dispense mock outrage and moral indignation to the public, can void his contract and pocket his $80 million, but they know the truth. They helped create Arenas. They helped hatch this whole, sad, sordid mess.