Gilbertology 101: Why this Injury Isn’t the return of the Curse O’ Les Boulez
Despite Michael Wilbon’s wild proclamations to the contrary even with a healthy Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas the Wizards weren’t going to win the Eastern Conference title, let alone the NBA crown. They weren’t. As fantabulous as they are when they’re on, the Wizards, and their superstar playmaker Gilbert Arenas, are still a low-post presence away from seriously contending. That gaping hole inside aside, the Wizards have proven, during stretches at least, that they can play with and beat anyone in the league. They have three bonafide stars, three strong role players who will rise to the occasion over the next few weeks (Stevenson, Hayes and Daniels), and two of toughest, roughest garbage players in the conference (Ruffin and Etan Thomas). What they haven’t proven, and the primary reason Miami has been able to catch them after a sluggish start and with their superstar sidelined, is that they can – to quote eminently quotable Charles Barkely – “impose their will” on upper-crust teams in any consistent manner, Wilbon’s arguably valid point about the Pistons notwithstanding. At best, this Wizards team would’ve made it to the second round. At best.
With that in mind, I invite you to consider this: the Wizards will at last be a serious contender next season because of Gilbert Arenas’s injury this season.
Where did I come with such a seemingly inane argument, you ask? I just had to look at the intelligence we’ve (the sports community) gathered over the last three years. For all intents and purposes “Gilbertology” has taken on a life of its own. It’s become its own pseudo-scientific discipline, loose-knit cult— a kind of anti-Jordan Rules. Whereas his Airness once laid down his law as only a lovable dictator can: straight no chaser style; Arenas has so far blazed an unorthodox trail fraught with psychic potholes. (The irony that one’s career yawned into the night and the other’s burst into the limelight in Washington isn’t lost on me either). Whereas MJ was well-known for carousing big dog style, Gilbert’s guilty pleasure of choice is as harmless as they come: video games and hamburgers. While Jordan’s eccentricities stopped at the legendary wearing of his Tarheel trunks beneath his Bulls shorts, Gilbert has too many to count.
Peep the larger point I’m aiming to make, though: for all of its outlandishness, Gilbertology is as much a part of Arenas’s game as is any physical weapon he has in uncanny arsenal. Has any sport ever encountered an athlete with as much talent and as deep a personal need to perpetuate his underdog iconography? Arenas literally thrives off of the outsider identity he’s constructed for himself. It’s his bread and butter, the gristle that makes him sizzle— and it’s exactly why when he returns next year the Wizards will be a serious contender.
Before we unravel how Arenas will use his homespun Gilbertology to channel this latest set-back into his greatest motivating factor, let’s first consider the underdog history.
Agent Zero’s Underdog Highlights: ! Arenas was abandoned by his mother when he was 3 years old. The loss of his mother played a critical role in his identity formation. Check the quote: “All I asked for when I was younger was to meet her. That was it. I didn’t want to know why, I didn’t want to know all the things that happened. I just wanted to meet her. That was my only wish.”! After being named to the All-Los Angeles City three years in a row and averaging 33 points per games as a senior only a handful of schools offered him a scholarship. UCLA, his home school, was holding a scholarship for Carlos Boozer. When he signed with Arizona he was told he would never play. In response to the doubters he took to wearing the number “0” his freshman year at Arizona. He said he’d be a starter by mid-season and he was. Averaged 15.4 points per game. ! After leading Arizona in scoring at 16.2 points per game and shooting 48% from the field (18.5 and 58% in last 21 games), being named Honorable Mention A.P. All-American, First Team All-Pac-10, and First Team All-America by The Sporting News. His coach, Lute Olson thought he wasn’t ready. Scouts questioned his size, his defensive ability, his position on the court. Arenas dropped to #31 in the 2001 NBA Draft. Arenas took to keeping a list of every player drafted before him. Whenever that player exits the league, he marks their name off the list.! During his first NBA season he developed an unusual relationship with power forward Marc Jackson. Check the Quote: The guy who helped my career out, truthfully—it’s hard to believe—was Marc Jackson from Philly. Not the guard Mark Jackson. The big Marc Jackson. The year after he signed his contract with Golden State, he wasn’t playing, either, so we’d come to the gym, eight o’clock, and we’d play full-court one-on-one. Me, him, and Dean Oliver. We’d play twenty-one, one- on-one, two-on-one, full-court one-on-one. From eight until practice started. Three hours. Every day. Every time we drove past him, he’d clothesline us. He was like, “Well, you’re in the NBA now. You’re going to feel pain.” He just hammered us every day. So I learned how to be tough. And once I started playing, I was like, Okay, I’m used to this already. ! Wizards fans won’t say it now but when Arenas was signed in the summer of ‘03, the word on the street was “Gilbert Who?” After an injury plagued first season, the city who’d seen more than its share of busts (the list is honestly too long but a few highlights: Pervis Ellison, Mel Turpin, Kwame Brown, God Shammgod, Tommy Hammonds, LaBradford Smith, a geezerly Mitch Richmond for Chris Webber, and various other lopsided trades) was anything but sold. ! After Larry Brown didn’t vote for him to make the All-Star game, Arenas scored 46 points to punish the New York Knicks coach. Arenas scored 23 points in the first quarter. Wizards 110, Knicks 89.! With the Wizards nursing a one-point lead Cavaliers guard Larry Hughes fouled Arenas, sending him to the free throw line. Arenas’s first attempt rolled off the rim. Arenas dropped his head in disbelief. LeBron James walked up to him afterward, patted him on the chest and told him, “If you miss both of those free throws, the game is over.” Though Arenas didn’t acknowledge James, he looked distraught. His second shot was even more off, clanking off the back of the rim. Game over. Season over. Twelve hours later Arenas was back in the gym, working out and shooting as if his life depended on it. ! After being cut from the USA Basketball team and complaining that he was never given a fair opportunity to make the team in the first place, (he claims he was the only player Coach K. didn’t personally speak during “tryouts” for the team) Arenas goes on a rampage. Although he torches Phoenix (Coach D’Antoni) for 54 points, his performance against Portland (Coach McMillan) is less than stellar— 3 for 15 from the floor; 9 points. Ultimately, the crux of his frustration lies not just in being cut, but in not garnering the respect Lebron, D. Wade and Carmelo had despite performing as well, if not better at times. According to author Fred Barnes, Wizards teammate Antwan Jamison believes Arenas is in the “fourth and final stage” of a successful basketball career.
The first was to show he could play at the highest level and had been undervalued as a second-round pick in the 2001 NBA draft. The second was to get money, which he achieved in 2003 with his six-year Wizards contract at nearly $11 million a season. The third was to become an NBA all-star. He’s done that twice—in 2005 and 2006 (three times now). The fourth is the toughest: carry the Wizards to a championship.”
I respectfully disagree with Mr. Jamison. There’s still one more step in between becoming an all-star and winning a championship that Gilbert needs to go through, and that’s overcoming an obstacle that keeps him off the court for an extended period. The old adage ‘you never miss a good thing ‘til it’s gone’ has added meaning with Agent Zero. For a player who thrives on adversity, who searches for hardship, who literally lives to beat the odds, a knee injury is the golden fleece. Am I being cynical? Maybe. A little ridiculous? You could argue that. But we only have to look at the pattern and trajectory of Arenas’s career so far to realize that the Bizarre is a central tenet of Gilbertology. Within that labyrinthine mind of his resides the ultimate weapon the Wizards need in order to catapult from pretender – which they are now – to contender – which they will be next year. He will watch the playoffs and stew; he will see his team fight valiantly without him, discover the latent talents of his sidekicks and back-ups and discover that he need not score 29 points per game anymore; he will realize he’s proven his greatness and that now is the time to ascend to new heights; he will change his diet from hamburgers to health shakes; he will spend the summer putting himself through such excruciating rehabilitation that his trainers will want to quit; he will return in November with a shaved head (maybe not) and the Wizards will decimate every team in their path.
My only worry is that Gilbert will one day run out of scores to settle. Somehow, though, I doubt that’ll ever happen.