Imet Gilbert Arenas in the fall of 2001, early in his rookie season with the Warriors. We were in the team's offices when a staff member told him that a tailor would be by shortly to measure him for a suit. Arenas immediately began shaking his head: no way. He was barely playing at the time, and he saw this fitting as the kiss of death. The only reason the Warriors would buy him a suit, he figured, was that they envisioned him sitting in it at the end of the bench, permanently. (In truth, it was just part of Golden State's effort to ease rookies' transition to life on their own.) I remember Arenas grudgingly submitting to the tape measure, like a little boy who would rather be outside playing. "I have to do what the boss says, right?" he said. "Just like anybody else."
Just like anybody else. There are funnier stories I could tell about the famously wacky Wizards guard, but people seem to find that one endearing, probably because Arenas was in a situation they can relate to: new on the job, worried about his place in the company, having to do as he's told. Fans like that. They want to believe that even though the players who entertain them are bigger, stronger and wealthier, in the ways that matter they're not so different.
Then Arenas made that belief feel like a myth, with a pair of gun-related incidents that led, on Jan. 6, to his indefinite suspension without pay by NBA commissioner David Stern. It wasn't just that Arenas had been reckless in bringing firearms into the workplace or clueless in later pantomiming gunfire for his teammates' amusement in a pregame huddle. It was what those actions had made chillingly clear: Some athletes live in a world that the rest of us can't even begin to recognize.
There are several versions of what happened in the Washington locker room on Dec. 21. It was initially reported that Arenas and guard Javaris Crittenton drew handguns in a dispute over a gambling debt. Later The Washington Post said that Arenas took out his four unloaded guns and jokingly told Crittenton to pick one; Crittenton responded by pulling out his own weapon and putting a round in the chamber. (Crittenton's agent, Mark Bartelstein, has denied any wrongdoing by his client.) But whatever the truth, it's hard to shake the image of the Wizards' locker room as a setting in some violent video game—handguns within reach, ammo at the ready, no one knowing who's armed and dangerous. The public can only wonder, Who are these guys? Is that what their world is really like? And if so, why would anyone spend a dime to watch their games or buy their jerseys?
In their unspoken social contract with athletes, fans have made fewer and fewer demands over time. An athlete can wall himself off in a gated community and ignore the kid asking for an autograph and wear earrings that are worth more than the average house, and it's fine. The only thing the public asks of players is that they not behave in ways that make fans feel foolish for paying attention to them. No longer the anxious rookie, Arenas is an All-Star with a six-year, $111 million contract, and most NBA fans have embraced him; he was lovable Agent Zero, tossing his game jerseys to the crowd. But if he could be so cavalier about committing a possible felony, then he truly lives on Planet Gilbert, with a population of one.
This is not a matter of making judgments based on something superficial, such as a player's skin color or his tattoos or his sagging jeans. It's about fans wanting to know that they share something inside with their heroes, something fundamentally human—in this case an awareness of the potentially life-altering consequences of a carelessly handled firearm. We don't all have to have come from the same background or been shaped by the same experiences or feel the same way about gun control to have that in common.
Arenas's behavior is impossible to defend, even for such an iconoclastic goofball. He said he brought the guns to the locker room because he wanted them out of reach of his children, but why did that concern only strike him on the birth of his third child? And why would the Verizon Center, where he was least likely to need protection (or so we would have thought), be the place he chose to store them?
He may be a flake, but Arenas surely knows that the Wizards' late owner, Abe Pollin, changed the franchise's nickname from the Bullets 13 years ago because he didn't want to contribute to Washington's reputation for violent crime. At the very least Arenas knows that former NFL receiver Plaxico Burress is serving two years in prison because he treated a gun as if it were a pack of gum, his illegally concealed pistol having gone off in a crowded nightclub.
Arenas should also realize that being armed isn't the best way for a wealthy athlete to protect himself. When was the last time a player successfully used a gun to ward off crime? The world is not an episode of 24, and players are not superagent Jack Bauer. But if it's protection from the public they are looking for, athletes like Arenas may find one day that guns aren't necessary. Because we won't want anything to do with them.