The trouble with Gilbert Arenas.

The stadium scene.
April 28 2008 2:16 PM

Zero Effect

The trouble with Gilbert Arenas.

LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas. Click image to expand.
LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas

WASHINGTON, D.C.—With 10 seconds to go in a tie game, LeBron James took a hard dribble to the free-throw line and found Delonte West wide open in the corner. Pass, swish, Cleveland by three. On the other end, Gilbert Arenas grabbed the inbounds pass, leaned in, and bricked a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Wizards lose. Were any of Arenas' teammates open? I didn't even bother looking. Even if all five Cavaliers climbed inside his jersey, there was no way Arenas was passing the ball.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

In his book God Save the Fan, Deadspin's Will Leitch argues that, for the modern basketball fan, the fun-loving, jersey-tossing, blog-writing Agent Zero is a more compelling figure than the aloof, product-pitching LeBron. "In 20 years, when we think of LeBron James, we will think of Gatorade," Leitch writes, "and when we think of Gilbert Arenas, we will smile and think of ourselves." Right about now, I don't think Gilbert Arenas' teammates are smiling when they think about Gilbert Arenas. It wasn't just that the injured, mostly ineffective guard took the last shot in Sunday's Game 4, nor that he tied the game on a crazy fallaway banker 30 seconds earlier—a terrible shot that was no less terrible for going in. It was what Arenas said after the game. "I mean, this is not my team," he said, explaining why he didn't score in the first half. "This is Caron and Antawn's team. … They held this boat together for the last four, five months. What is my [place] to come out here and take 24 shots?"

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While Arenas was trying to be deferential, his on-court actions revealed he was being disingenuous. After all, if it's Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison's team, then how come Arenas never looked for either of them at the end of the game? Perhaps Washington coach Eddie Jordan, who chose to put the ball in Arenas' hands, should have figured out from Game 3 that the Wizards were playing better without their one-time best player on the court. And Jordan definitely should have known that Agent Zero wouldn't look to get anyone else involved. Arenas, it seems, was self-aware enough to know that the fate of the season shouldn't rest in his hands, yet too self-absorbed to pass up the spotlight.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike LeBron James. He has the oversized ego of someone who's answered to the name "King James" since he was 16. He wears giant wraparound sunglasses indoors and whines when the refs don't call things his way. His fixation on becoming the world's first billionaire athlete makes him both a bit hard to relate to and, like Michael Jordan, averse to saying anything that hasn't been approved by a series of focus groups commissioned by Nike.

There are plenty of reasons to love Gilbert Arenas. Unlike James, his fame was not preordained. He is a grass-roots phenomenon, a guy who made his name with deep 3-pointers, pell-mell drives to the basket, and blog posts about Halo 3. He brags openly about the joys of shooting a crying kid with paintballs and shouts "Hibachi!" when he makes a basket. He has pushed to come back from knee surgery, imperiling his career and his future earnings by joining his team for the playoffs.

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