Should we feel sorry for Gilbert?
If Gilbert Arenas wants to blame the media for every predicament he finds himself in, then let him. It is our fault. Every time we rush to report what he says, we're going against the recommendation of a Wizards insider who knows the Arenas act all too well.
"Nobody should listen to Gilbert," the source said.
"He just spouts. There's no filter from the back of his brain."
That's exactly what's made him so irresistible to us. He's the rare athlete who dared to drop the screen. He was an early blog adopter, regaling us with his thoughts on the league through his frequent postings on NBA.com. But that persona disappeared long before last season's gun episode drove him into seclusion. And now that he's back, tying a hangman's knot every time he speaks, we realize we misplaced him as a voice of the league.
Someone else needs to step to the podium. There's a veracity deficit in the NBA right now. We're a full decade removed from the playing days of Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman, and we're apparently heading into our first full season without Allen Iverson since he entered the league in 1996. The reason they all held so much appeal beyond their basketball abilities was they were unafraid of openness. Barkley gave us his opinions, Rodman his oddball counter, Iverson his raw feelings.
It's the Iverson persona that I'm starting to miss. There are basketball descendants such as Brandon Jennings and John Wall who can play the on-court role of Iverson better than he can at this point. But who will replace that gravelly voice that gave you an accurate report on the NBA, for all its pathos and frustrating illogic? (In the latter case, yes, I'm talkin' bout the practice rant).
Of course you could argue that Iverson is out of the league now precisely because he wasn't honest, that he kept saying he could fit into whatever role his team asked him to, then refused to go with the flow in Detroit, Memphis or Philly Round 2. Did Iverson lie to us, or did he fail to fulfill a pledge? And yes, there is a difference. Did he actually want to be a dutiful employee until it went against the fabric of his nature? These are the types of fundamental questions Iverson always seemed to raise. That's why I miss him.
So who will shout the truth now?
As head of the player's union, Derek Fisher is informed and authoritative, yet also diplomatic. Mark Cuban brings the right combination of bright and outspoken, but the businessman in him has won out. He doesn't need the repeated fines he incurred from David Stern, and for the sake of the Dallas Mavericks' profitability, he needs Stern to win the coming labor battle, so he'll just silently support him.
What's missing is a good dose of bold. There are various voices scattered around Twitter -- has there ever been a medium better suited for the NBA than Twitter? -- but it's tough to piece together a strong narrative. You might catch late-night ruminations on basketball, life or love from Jennings or Chris Douglas-Roberts. However, the 140-character format makes it hard to go in-depth. And the first time a player tweet brings controversy, the account vanishes shortly thereafter.
Arenas' brief flirtation with Twitter helped bring about his downfall. Remember, it wasn't the arrest for bringing guns into the locker room that drew a suspension for the balance of the season -- it was the lack of remorse Arenas showed afterward, tweets included.
I wish Gilbert could be the guy. He's likable and creative. And for a moment, in the midst of this week's drama, Arenas was as pure and accurate as any jump shot he's ever made. He said 13 words that captured the daily dance between athletes and the media who cover them, 13 words that summed up the inherent hypocrisy of the player-reporter relationship.
"It's like you guys want somebody honest," Arenas told reporters who surrounded him to watch him shovel out of his latest self-dug ditch. "But you don't want somebody honest."
It's true, of course. Reporters who are weary of transcribing a steady stream of clichés emanating from their digital recorders beg for a refreshing glass of candor, only to turn on those who speak most freely. Sports fans, you really don't want to hear the truth. Then you'd have to hear about how you care about the players far more than they care about you or your city, how it really is about the money and all the other facts you choose to ignore while you buy tickets and yell until you're hoarse. And those who are candid are vilified. The classic case is LeBron James, who has finally revealed himself to be a guy who'd rather chase championships in South Beach with his star buddies than bring a title to beleaguered Cleveland, which he never liked anyway. And yes, he thinks race could play a role in the reaction to those revelations. For all that, he's hated.
I've always appreciated sports figures who speak their minds, unquestionably because it's good for business. Without the Steve Spurriers, Deion Sanderses and Rex Ryans of the sports world, what would we have to talk about?
Arenas isn't in a position to speak on the illogic of punishing truth-tellers, because in his case he was telling the truth about a previous lie. He admitted he faked an injury to give teammate Nick Young a chance to play more in a preseason game, a move Arenas tried to pass off as altruistic but that in reality was subversive, as it undermined coach Flip Saunders' authority while depriving the Wizards of the chance to measure Arenas' current playing level or showcase him to potential trading partners.
If we don't know how much of the pre-leg injury, All-Star Arenas is left, it's evident that in every other way Gilbert is still Gilbert. Two weeks of preseason, two pockets of turbulence from Arenas. Last week it was his morose musings about needing to move on to bequeath the Wizards to rookie John Wall, quickly backtracked with statements that he wanted to remain with the team through the remaining four years of his contract. This week it was the fake injury, which he then spun as a favor to a teammate that was misconstrued by the media.
"I wasn't really thinking that this was going to be another media outburst," he said, rolling his eyes.
Later, he said, "If I wouldn't have made any comments, you guys wouldn't have known, right? Right. So let's just say I blew it again."
Yes, and if we ever make the mistake of jumping all the way in the next time Arenas moves his lips, that means we blew it.
We've seen the pattern now. Arenas messes up through words or deeds, Arenas wants you to feel sorry for him as he explains that he was misinterpreted. Just like the gun incident was a joke gone bad, right?
"He still sees himself as the victim," the Wizards source said.
That would make the rest of us the enablers.