Gilbert Arenas, kicked out of the star factory

January, 11, 2010
1/11/10
4:46
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The tide of media washed in, full of froth and accusation for Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards, gun culture, and everything else.

Now it is slowly receding, leaving a fresh batch of bric-a-brac on the sand. This story exits leaving unanswered questions like hunks of driftwood and assorted plastic bags: Why is the player with the unloaded (and, in another incident, playful and imaginary) guns in more trouble than the one who reportedly loaded a gun in anger? What kind of kook is Gilbert Arenas anyway (defecating in a teammate's shoe)?

And, the one that stuck in my head all weekend: Did the NBA really create the conditions for Arenas to make these kinds of grave mistakes by celebrating his eccentricities, especially in his NBA.com blog of yesteryear?

Hmm ...

Did Gilbert Arenas communicate too much with the public? Too freely? Was a mistake made in giving him a microphone, a platform and blog software? Have we learned too much about him? Did that somehow inspire him to be a nut?

The more I think about it, the more I think the opposite is true. Gilbert Arenas wasn't in the spotlight being unguarded too much. He wasn't in the spotlight enough.Why do I say that? Because all kinds of people who know him well swear he's a pussycat. A goofball. His contemporaries accept that he deserves to be punished for his ignorance of normal safe behavior, but also say he is -- if you really know him -- no threat to willingly hurt anyone.

"Any guns he has owned," says one friend, "were more for show and tell. Never for protection."

And yet the idea is circulating, among those who don't know him, that he may be a violent maniac.

The ink was barely dry on the earliest version of this story before Michael K. Ozanian of Forbes wrote: "Many NBA players carry guns and the league is full of thugs."

That was about the time Howard Stern (PG-13 post with transcription) was saying that “Sometimes, you can’t take the ghetto out of the guy."

"Ghetto" and "thug." When those words are mentioned in conjunction with the NBA in the national media, I like to imagine the scene at the League headquarters. I picture the P.R. team sprinting and jumping over desks, spilling coffee everywhere as David Stern's voice ("Man your battle stations!"), backed by a siren, echoes through over the public address system.

They bathe the League's superstars in light, like Greek gods, heroic in everything they do. The rule-breakers? Those who fuel misguided notions of the NBA as a league of maniacs -- they not only can not be embraced, but will be taught Stern lessons.

But the great untold story of the NBA is that a ton of players are pretty much just like you and me -- rich with contradictions and nuance, and generally pretty boring. That message might not sell tickets, but is the antidote to a big mess of assumptions people make about NBA players.

The NBA, meanwhile, acts like its viability as a business depends on casting players into camps of "good" or "evil."

Manicured images
A few years ago I saw an NBA executive in a snit. She was the poor soul who had to tell some NBA superstars they had to take off all their jewelry before appearing in TV commercials. There was some "push back" from at least one of the players. In the aftermath, it was clear she was not having a good day. She was miffed. The League had focus-group evidence showing that Americans simply did not like to see their rich, young basketball players in jewelry. The whole point of the ads was to make Americans like NBA players. If they succeeded, TV ratings and ticket sales would be higher, and owners, players, teams and the league would all be more profitable for it.

Or, she had argued, players could show up in platinum and diamonds, undermine the whole marketing mission and slide back into how the NBA always used to be viewed. She didn't spell it out, but it was , economically, a minor league, populated with young, mostly black stars too decadent to relate to white suburban Americans. What won't happen in those ads, however, is the natural evolution of things, such that someone might get the message that the guy with the earring actually seems to be very nice, and maybe earrings aren't so bad after all.

This jewelry issue, the dress code, the way players are packaged ... The NBA has been pushing a certain brand of outward conservatism on players for decades. It's hardly out of "Leave it to Beaver" traditionalism, though. The key NBA people -- working in a racially diverse office in a racially diverse city -- aren't knee-jerk social conservatives. (Though he certainly believes in the power of a suit and tie, in his political giving, and many of his public statements, Stern is a big ol' lefty.) That's not their hangup. The League is pragmatic and business-oriented.

Remember, the people running the NBA now remember when the League was barely viable, and was not truly one of the major American sports. Dozens of the best versions of the tale agree on the key point: White fans couldn't embrace such a black league. Monolithic though the NBA may seem today, the people at the top of any business ... especially these days ... know you can't take anything for granted. This is no time to rest on their laurels.

David Stern, when he took over that sideline league, went about packaging the players with a celebrity-driven approach. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan weren't just the best players of their day. They were stars, with fame far beyond the sport. Characters who mattered on and off the court, of the kind that were welcomed into the hearts and minds of people of all colors all over the globe. There was no small amount of work in crafting such portraits, a process that was perfected by Nike, with Jordan. There is a way myths are made for the screen -- it's what Hollywood does -- and it involves airbrushing and image-tweaking, whether those are athletes, actors or musicians in the bright lights. Botox, plastic surgery, makeup artists, camera angles, digital photo enhancement ... maybe even glossing over a gambling habit and the like. These kinds of manipulations are part of TV because almost no one is perfect enough for the camera.

Executives (like that woman in a snit at the commercial shoot I saw a few years ago) have long since been dispatched to conjure a certain kind of tale. Michael Jordan took off his gold chains, wore suits, starred in an animated children's movie and carried the League to new heights. Lots of people, probably including yours truly, owe their jobs in no small part to the success the NBA, Nike and others had in getting Jordan to stick to the plan.

Anyone who saw Jordan's Hall of Fame acceptance speech knows he is not naturally a global icon. He was born a human, a more complicated guy. Freed from handlers in that speech, Jordan presents a saltier, angrier, less likable and less valuable -- but far more honest -- personality. That guy ain't carrying any sports leagues to new heights, but at least we know who he is.

Heros and demons
Ron Artest famously waded into the stands in Auburn Hills a few years ago, taking swings at the paying customers. This is bad for the paying customers, and catastrophic for the notion the NBA has been putting forth, that players are smiley characters from the movie "Space Jam," who like nothing more than to spend their free time reading children's books under trees in sunny parks.

To make sure the whole world got the proper message -- the NBA is not a land of thugs -- Stern didn't just deal with Artest. He also took the bizarre step of making every NBA player -- the vast majority of whom are upstanding citizens like Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Derek Fisher and the like -- come to work in business casual clothes. (Even as one NBA owner -- a blogger himself -- wrote at length about how much he loathes formalwear.)

This response does nothing to confront the crass assertion that all players are either "good" or "bad." Nor does it promote the truth: that most players are true adults who don't need to be told how to behave.

This matters, now that Arenas and Crittenton are together on the dumb end of a firearms cautionary tale. The NBA seems almost incapable of telling the story that they were nice young men who did something really stupid that you'd understand better if you knew them. Instead, Arenas has been deemed wholly unfit for the NBA. Even Stephen Jackson -- who fired a gun in public not too long after helping Artest take swings in the stands -- has been decrying Arenas' lack of judgment.

At least one team reacted by getting more conservative in appearance ... the New Jersey Nets are no longer allowed to play poker on the team airplane. I don't know if Brook Lopez, Yi Jianlian and Courtney Lee even play poker. But I do know they're all polite, friendly and hardworking. But now cards are out, even though no Net had anything to do with that Wizards story. Order will be restored!

The NBA excels at romanticizing certain players' heroic images. That's job one. But when you fall from grace in the NBA, you don't just fall into mediocrity. You fall into the place where the NBA must use you to define, to fans, what it is not.

That's not to say there's much evidence the NBA does much to expose players falling out of line. It's more like politicians obsessing over approval ratings.

If you want an example of a situation that smells of actual danger, that the League did nothing about publicly, look no further than Arenas' teammate. DeShawn Stevenson was home when someone was shot on his property. He's not a big star, it never made much news, and the event did little to hurt the image of the League. As such, Stevenson didn't cause the League much trouble, and the League has, publicly at least, left him alone.

Is Stevenson really dangerous? I have no idea. Probably not. But I don't expect the League to take the lead in explaining the nitty gritty of his character to me.

The NBA's PR mechanism doesn't exist to explain what NBA players are actually like. The teams and the league have the inside track on player behavior (they're there every day, behind closed doors, with the players) but media and police wipe the floor with them when it comes to exposing players doing just about anything. Press releases from the NBA or its teams paint the most unbelievably simple view of the world, in which NBA players never do anything but make charitable appearances, win player of the week awards or get traded.

When the media makes a big stink about egregious misbehavior, the League has traditionally gone along with the hero/demon concept. If they can't prove he's the former, and people are paying attention, they'll treat him like the latter.

Arenas is the test case in the limitations of that approach. Suddenly, now, it would be really handy if every NBA fan knew what Gilbert Arenas was really like. If they knew everything, they'd like him more, and be more willing to accept the theory put forward by those who know him: That this was just a dumb moment.

Instead, people get to paint the picture that mishandling a weapon once is evidence of a cultural failing, which is not how every gun mishap story is told. For instance, a recent horrible gun accident in Tennessee resulted in a 19-year-old being killed with a bullet to the head from a 16-year-old friend who had wrongly assumed the gun was not loaded. The story has no commentary about the shooter's culture, but it does, quite sensibly, come with a short video on gun safety tips. Or consider the case of a lawyer who brought a grenade into the courtroom to make a dramatic point. Reports say that only after he had left it on the edge of the jury box for a while -- scary! -- did he disclose it was a dud.

To date, neither the grenade-toting lawyer nor the 16-year-old shooter have gotten in legal trouble, in part because neither was believed to have had any evil intent.

What if Arenas similarly had no evil intent? That's tough to establish without a nuanced view of his character, which is tougher than ever to assess now that the NBA has signaled that he is unfit for public consumption.

There are plenty of players around the NBA who should be celebrated for their nuanced character and leadership. Tim Duncan, Derek Fisher, Grant Hill, Steve Nash etc. Those kinds of players should be held up as shining examples in moments like this. The cameras should be on them, as they articulate how that is not how we do things. One day, maybe even Gilbert Arenas could make that list.

Instead, when the League is in trouble, those guys are treated like fourth-graders, and told to tuck their shirts in.

It reinforces the racially-tinged notion that the NBA does have a cultural problem, instead of a few bad actors or bad moments. We don't need more reading events, or less jewelry. My conviction is that we need reality, warts and all. Some players are jerks sometimes. More aren't. Why not show the public see what really happens in the NBA? It's not nearly as scary as the malinformed fantasies of Howard Stern.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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