Commentary

The Gilbert Arenas comeback template

The lessons of Latrell Sprewell and Ron Artest provide hope that Arenas can return

Originally Published: January 29, 2010
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

When David Stern's sentence came down on Gilbert Arenas for his role in the now-infamous "Gungate" incident that (at the minimum) ended this season for him, the first question was the same one we asked about Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick: Is he ever going to play again?

[+] EnlargeGilbert Arenas
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty ImagesIt might not be in a Wizards uniform, but Gilbert Arenas probably will be back in the NBA.
At this moment, that answer could easily be no. Even "Hell, no!" (Note: Tracy McGrady -- whose price tag is about the same as Gilbert's $111 million contract -- is having a hard time finding a new team, so why should we think that Arenas, with much heavier baggage, can seamlessly return when he is eventually reinstated?)

Dogfighting, Vick's transgression, is one thing. Bringing a gun to a club, Burress' mistake, is another. But bringing four guns to an NBA arena, stashing them and then pulling 'em out inside the locker room after a meaningless confrontation with a teammate? Convincing someone to invest millions in you after that is going to be tough. It'd be tough even if your last name was Jordan.

But the easy answer -- Hell, no! -- might not be the right answer. No professional sports franchise has ever had to deal with something like the Arenas situation (weapons in the workplace), but the outcomes for others who have brought similar drama to their lives and the same amount of negativity to their teams suggest some hope for Gil. Some, given a second -- and in some cases a third -- chance after banishment, come back.

As Mike Wise of The Washington Post suggested to me this week, you can make the case that the long-term effects of the P.J. Carlesimo/Latrell Sprewell situation on the Golden State Warriors and the riot in the Palace on the Indiana Pacers were far worse than the long-term damage done to the individual players at the center of both incidents.

It's as if the dark clouds above those franchises refuse to dissipate. After the Sprewell/Carlesimo episode, it took the Warriors over a decade to get to their near-historic playoff run two seasons ago. Even now, 12 years later, they are still dealing with internal issues and almost every year struggle to play .500-level basketball. And the Pacers, some say, might never escape the shadow of the 2004 brawl -- a low point from which it seems one of the proudest NBA/ABA franchises has yet to bounce back.

The Wizards weren't exactly playing like world-beaters with Arenas and Javaris Crittenton on the active roster, but in the wake of the suspensions it's an easy assumption to think that Arenas, at least, will be back in a starring role somewhere in the league long before Washington is a competitive playoff factor.

Sprewell, at the time of his "fight" with Carlesimo, became this generation's Public Enemy No. 1 in team sports. He was everything some elements of white America loathed and feared. Too black, too angry, too paid, too unapologetic. When he made the cover of SI, with the words " … the Sprewell incident raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA's future, issues of power and money and -- most dangerous of all -- race," his future in the NBA looked like Mel Gibson's in Hollywood after his anti-Semitic tirade during a drunk driving arrest.

And Ron Artest's future in the league might have been even worse after he went into the stands during the brawl against the Pistons, in what has been universally acknowledged as the "worst night in NBA history." The vilification to which he was subjected for it was beyond extreme. At the time, his suspension was the longest non-drug-related suspension in the history of the league.

Ron Artest
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesRon Artest's story took him from the Pacers and the Palace brawl to the defending NBA champs.
But look at what happened to both of them. Yes, the game was taken away from them for a while. But even after hitting lows that few players have ever hit, after being at the center of incidents from which their organizations needed years to recover, both Spree and Ron-Ron were able to resurrect their careers: Spree in New York and Minnesota, Artest now in Los Angeles.

Both -- at least for a short time -- were also able to make the world look at them differently. And they both did so without really changing who they are.

Arenas now has become the new image of everything wrong with today's black athlete, and he's been sent into NBA exile. But if he has any doubt about his chance to return, he needs only to look at the current state of Artest's and Sprewell's careers to realize that it doesn't have to be over for him.

His situation is different than the others because it involved weapons, and if anything further had gone wrong, the line crossed could have resulted in something far more tragic than anything Sprewell and Artest did. But even coming on the heels of the gun incident that got Plaxico locked up, there is still something positive for Arenas to hold on to in the aftermath of what some are saying is the beginning of his basketball death.

Arenas still has a chance to avoid that worst-case scenario, a chance to prove his current destiny wrong. History, he must see, is on his side. Impossible is something.

Like I said, if Mel Gibson can come back in Hollywood after what he did …

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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