Orien Greene did not get a second chance. Not yet, anyway. Len Bias did not get a second chance. Ron Artest did. Many players with mistakes worse than Gilbert Arenas have gotten second chances and many players with lighter misdeeds have not gotten such chances at redemption. There’s no rhyme or reason to second chances in the NBA. They just sort of happen.
Gilbert Arenas has gotten his.
He’s gone from a team that fell under frustration due to his injuries, then turmoil due to his locker room behavior, to a contender. A team with an established hierarchy, a coach that drives the cart, and a real chance to make a run at the East. Well, okay, a slight chance to make a run at the East (the big bad wolf is still running the game). Arenas has a chance to change the narrative of his career from “the boy who cried ‘Hibachi’ and then faded into a trivia question” to “the man who brought joy to the Amway Center.”
What happens next is up to him. For his part, he’s saying the right things:
“This is a new beginning for me,” Arenas said late Saturday night in a gray Magic practice T-shirt and black shorts, finishing a workout in the team’s practice facility. “This is a true new beginning. Changing my number was a new beginning, but this is a real new beginning with a new city, new people and new team, and I get to start fresh.”
Okay, so it’s not exactly contrition. You take what you can get. More interesting is the scene set in the story. Gilbert Arenas packed some stuff, said goodbye to his protege Nick Young, and hopped on a plane. He landed, and later wound up at the Orlando practice facility, alone. He spoke with reporters and watched his new team fall to Philadelphia shorthanded. There’s something dramatic about that image, isn’t there? Gilbert Arenas, Agent Zero, stripped of uniform and guns and crowd, just hanging out in a gym shooting baskets and watching his future on television.
It’s impossible to know what was going on in Arenas’ head Saturday night. We don’t know him, even now. We never did, and it wasn’t his fault that we thought we did, it was ours. This doesn’t mean that his indescribably stupid act of reckless behavior (which was too often overlooked as a childish prank or silly ignorance) wasn’t in fact dangerous to himself, his teammates, and every person that walked into that facility. But it means that everything that came after, the assassination of character based on who he has been and who he is and who he will be, that nonsense was the product of some vain assumption on our part that we understand professional athletes. No amount of blogs or commercials or public images of facial expressions really give you insight to man or woman.
So we’re left to try and think about what anyone would do, what anyone would say, what anyone would think to try and get an understanding of the moment.
And in that practice facility tonight, shooting buckets alone, Gilbert Arenas probably felt excited, and remorseful, and determined, and a little bit scared. But mostly, he probably just felt thirsty and hot, because that’s what happens when you play basketball.
Arenas was never meant to lead, it turns out. Whether that’s a function of his knees, or his personality, or his game, or his leadership in and of itself or the inexplicable forces of nature, Arenas simply was not meant to be the star to take a team forward. So now he has to be a supporting character. All his quirks and eccentricities and innumerable basketball talents (or whatever is left of them), this is what his role has been reduced to, in his own words:
“If you have the open shot, take it. If not, pass to Dwight.”
Easy to say, harder to do, but something Arenas has been working on with John Wall in Washington: deferring. It’s not as easy as it sounds, going from having a license to thrill to a dependent authorization to execute if the situation warrants it. But that’s what Arenas has to do. If he does, and if that shot comes back the way it’s shown flashes of but inconsistently this season (39% from the field), he could be a difference maker. Throw in Jason Richardson as a difference maker, Brandon Bass as a difference maker, and Jameer Nelson in the driver’s seat and maybe, just maybe that’s enough to put them into a position to have lightning strike in the East.
It’s a long shot, but it’s what they’ve got. It’s what Arenas has got.
People will be rooting for Arenas. People will be mocking Arenas. The only person who has Gilbert Arenas’ back right now is Gilbert Arenas. His new teammates don’t know him well enough (outside of Jason Richardson), and Otis Smith has already put his weight behind Arenas in acquiring him. It’s all on Zero from here on out.
Reports have surfaced that Arenas will be wearing No.1 for Orlando. There’s all sorts of ways to look into it, but I prefer to think of it this way: it’s how many lives he’s got left in the NBA.