Let’s get this straight, in 1991 the first web browser was invented. Though still far from the hands of the common public, this modern blueprint would put the ball in motion for a concept that would go on to overrun our society.
As the number of North American households with access to cable and other forms of high speed internet grew, the content over which we fawned expanded to meet its demand. In 2000, a company called Blogger would pioneer a form of citizen journalism that would give everyday people soap boxes larger than they’d ever imagined. This was the new millenium and the internet, for sports and everything else, was the future.
Meanwhile, in Tuscon, AZ, a bushy-haired 19-year-old Gilbert Arenas was in the midst of a two-year tenure at the University of Arizona. It was here where the colorful combo guard would mold his game into one that the NBA deemed draftable. A year later, the Golden State Warriors did just that.
Though the inevitable union of man and machine was still a long-time coming, the basketball Gods had found their vessel – the man through whom they would spawn their technological revolution.
It’s November 21, 2008. The Washington Wizards are on the verge of losing their fourth consecutive game, this time to the Houston Rockets. With just one win under their belt to date, the meeting with a healthy Rockets club already looks bleak.
Prior to tip-off, a slightly subdued Gilbert Arenas takes the court in dress clothes to accept a wax figurine sculpted in his honor. The hum of disgruntled fans lingers in the Verizon Center air. The sarcasm abounds, the jokes follow suit. It’s the first time Arenas has been on the court all year. It’s awkward, painful and sad.
Five years into his professional career, Gilbert Arenas had accomplished more than most players do in a career. His 2005-06 scoring mark (29.3 ppg) was amongst the top in the league and in 2005 he led the Wizards (the WIZARDS!) to the playoffs for the first time since the death of the Bullets in 1997. Without much ado he repeated the feat in 2006. Prior to the resurgence, the dismal franchise had seen post-season play just once since Arenas was five years old.
But it didn’t stop there. Off the court, the eccentric prodigy was showering in his uniform, playing Halo competitively and outfitting his house with high altitude simulation machines in hopes of better preparing himself to play through fatigue in the fourth quarter.
If ever a more marketable and modern NBA personality existed, it fell through the cracks of a Jordan-dominated sports media landscape. This was a candid Kobe Bryant, a Ron Artest capable of scoring 50 points every single night.
Now, with the support of All-Star forwards Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, the trio of Wizards looked poised to make bigger and more significant moves as the decade matured. The NBA licked its chops, David Stern cackled with glee, and the marketing machine that is professional sports was quick to mobilize.
On Oct. 16, 2006, Gilbert Arenas blogged on NBA.com, for the very first time.
“Congratulations! You get to go into the mind of me, Gilbert Arenas. Good luck.”
Little did he (or anyone else) know, the ultimate access would eventually lead to his crippling decline. Though the world tuned in for the coining of Hibachi and the 60-point triumph against Kobe Bryant that followed, the cult-like celebrity that came with his newfound gig would slowly consume the man previously motivated by nothing but rejection and an undying urge to improve.
His 25th birthday was documented for the internet to enjoy, and every ounce of his flamboyant fibre was squeezed of its marketability. Like a parasite acting through a larger body, the constant selling of an athlete sapped both Arenas’ strength and energy. The one-two punch of consumerism and professional sport had drained a modern legend. He would never be the same again.
In 2007, just months into his blogging career, Arenas tore his MCL.
As the 2008-09 All-Star Weekend nears, talk surfaces of a possible Gilbert Arenas return. It’s been 10 months since last he played and, even then, the effects of the lingering injury kept him from his usual self. Just 22 months removed from being everybody’s favorite next big thing, the wounded hero sits in slacks and a sports coat knowing he’s forfeited a chunk of his athletic prime that he’ll never get back.
Arenas, 25 years old and at the top of his game at the time of the initial tear, has played just 11 per cent of his team’s games ever since. With 50 of this season’s matches already in the rearview mirror and two premature comeback attempts in 2007-08, it’s hard to imagine his prime will ever be completely fulfilled.
“The players know he’s nowhere close to coming back, and although he may play the occasional one-on-one game with Nick Young, he’s basically a non-factor,” says Hoops Addict‘s Rashad Mobley, who covers the Wizards from the Verizon Center. “I think the media in DC is way more fixated on his return than the players within the organization.”
The team, which so valiantly rallied in Arenas’ absence in 2007-08 has, like their leader, dropped off of the NBA radar. Out of site and out of mind.
“When the news came out this year that he would miss the start of the season because of another surgery, you could just sense what the whole team was thinking, ‘Here we go again’,” says Jake Whitacre, currently running the show at Bullets Forever. “They never said it out loud, but you could just sense that they lost the wind in their sails that day and they’ve never been able to recover from that.”
While the team struggles, it appears as though the traditionally extroverted Arenas has effectively gone into hiding. Not out of shame though, nor necessarily obligation. Perhaps the man has simply just changed. Nobody truly knows what’s gone through his head, nor will we ever know – unless he tells.
“Because he hasn’t said anything notable as of late to the media or on his blog, it feeds the perception that he’s not involved with the team,” says Whitacre. “In reality, he’s still there just as much as before, he’s just taking more of a behind-the-scenes role with the team since he’s not on the court right now.”
Over the course of the first half of this season, Arenas, through his ghostwriter, has posted just once, nearly three months ago.
So how then, does a personality – once prided for its energy and unrelenting pursuit of attention – adapt out of the spotlight? Like an overworked child actor, the legacy of The Gilbert Arenas Brand grew at such an exponential rate that it had no choice but to implode upon itself like a dying star, just three years removed from having conceived an entirely new form of athlete-fan connectivity.
Now the man with no choice but to begrudgingly swap swag for suits sits dormant, not just injured, but off of relevant’s radar entirely.
“At the beginning of the season, Gilbert was always around,” said Mobley. “He was on the practice court, he was in the locker room, and he would conduct his own personal shootaround on the court prior to the games. Then, about two weeks (in), he disappeared altogether, which not coincidentally, was related to him making comments about being skeptical about coming back to a team with such a dismal record.”
It’s hard to blame Gilbert Arenas for embracing the written means through which he interacted with millions of basketball fans, but it’s even harder to imagine just how good he could have been if, like any other boring NBA personality, he focused solely on playing or getting healthy. He was a man of the people, but even more, he was a big kid chatting globally with others who adored everything he represented.
“Every player has their own hobbies that they pursue during their downtime, Gilbert’s hobby just happens to be read by thousands of people,” says Whitacre.
With unbridled character and the skill to match, Arenas was the perfect weapon for a billion dollar enterprise hungry to usher in a new online media platform. The blog was simply the guise under which it operated and the league knew that Arenas – a player addicted to his underdog status and anything that got people talking – would be game.
In the two and a half years since the initial launch, the league has relished the endless possibility, and, like a sacrificial gesture to the sporting Gods, Arenas was repeatedly drained of all quirk, flair or anything marketable about him.
Now, like a figmet of our imagination, visions of Arenas going toe to toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals are so far from a reality that it’s frightening – did it ever really happen? The man whose offensive gifts were just starting to break into the public conscious, was he ever even real?
For years we’ve waited for a figure like Gilbert Arenas to break the mold of the traditional sports scene, someone who gave us not just a behind the scenes look at the NBA, but a behind the scenes look at themselves and superstardom in general. We had it briefly and now it’s gone.
When all is said and done, though, maybe this was inevitable. Maybe the obsession (from both him and us), maybe the more-blogs-posted-than-games-played means that we weren’t quite ready for it. And with that we see the unfortunate passing of Agent Zero’s prominence, an experiment failed and tossed by the wayside while the NBA’s marketing machine powers on, hungry for its next lamb.