After almost a year away from the game, the NBA’s preeminent writer/comedian has a franchise in his hands and more pressure than he’s ever faced to take it somewhere meaningful. And in this arena, no one cares how funny he is.
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“When you mention his name among young folks, it’s like mentioning Jesus in a Christian church.”
Those words, used by Dick Gregory three years ago to describe one Dave Chappelle, could also apply to Gilbert Arenas, comic laureate of the NBA.
Start at the root. The D.C. connection; Chappelle was raised there, Gilbert came of age and resides as a professional there as master and commander of the Washington Wizards. Consider the humble beginnings on the screen (Robin Hood: Men in Tights) and the court (Golden State Warriors) that would lead to white-hot runs atop their professions. And despite the fame, both are known to pop up at random comedy clubs/playground courts from Cali to VA, unannounced, and perform for hours.
Sharp, unorthodox, wholly unique at what they do, untouchable at their peak, they found that Jay-Hova formula — penetrating pop culture, bringing it a lot closer to the block — and resonated with a young audience by challenging the norm: Black Bush. Gilbertology. Clayton Bigsby. Giving Kobe 60.
It’s when the money becomes the front-page story — the stupid, unfathomable money — that these men will come to be defined. Chappelle bailed, folded, the $50 million pressure sending him on an Islamic hajj and into re-run syndication.
And now Gilbert Arenas is up. In July he signed a six-year, $111 million contract with the Wizards despite missing almost all of the ’07-08 season with a knee injury. He knows that when they hit you with nine figures, it’s not to produce what you have been producing already. It’s not for playoff appearances, it’s for playoff advancement. It’s for NBA Finals, NBA championships. You’re only going to get there by doing you, but doing it more, louder, better.
Arenas spent most of this summer in D.C., rehabbing the knee, writing his blogs, and waiting. He sits down for this interview while the epicenter of basketball operates in Beijing, China, far away from any thoughts of the man who, over the last five seasons, has scored more points than all but seven players in the world (Kobe, LeBron, Iverson, Dirk, Carmelo, Vince, Redd). Time will come soon enough when he’s cleared to practice, cleared to play, and the pressure will be on. Pressure for Gilbert Arenas to do what he does best, only do it better than ever before.
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Dime: Last summer you promised to opt out of your contract in ’08, but you were never really healthy during the season. Did you ever think free agency would be too risky, that you shouldn’t opt out?
Gilbert Arenas: No. Just because I got hurt, they knew eventually I’d be back healthy to where I was, so they had to take the chance. It’s not all about playing basketball sometimes, you know? I know how to work the media, how to create attention. When I said I was gonna score 50 against Portland, it was a non-televised game on a Wednesday, and we sold it out.
Dime: A lot was made about Washington offering you $127 million, but you deciding to take $111 million instead. Talk about what happened there.
GA: I left money on the table for someone else to get a job. We’re in a league where players are busting their ass to make it here; they just need opportunities. I feel like I opened up an opportunity for somebody. If I was that kid who wanted that job, I’d be grateful somebody left money for me to get on that team.
Dime: How did your colleagues react?
GA: You know players; they want you to take as much as you can. Some of the older players were like, “Aw man, you’re never supposed to give anything back.” But I didn’t give anything back; I just opened up a job for someone. That’s how I look at it. Abe Pollin (Wizards owner) took a 21-year-old kid and signed him to at least, what, 175 million dollars in contracts? To give some money back, hey…
People that know me know that I’m a team guy. I’ll do whatever is gonna make the team better. I didn’t wanna hurt somebody like Caron (Butler) or Nick Young when their contracts come up. I didn’t want to get into a situation where Caron’s contract is coming up and we want him back, but we don’t have any money to sign him.
Dime: Because of how you play, though, a lot of people would say you’re not a team guy. You’re known as a gunner or, to some, a ball-hog.
GA: When people say that, it’s like … OK, basketball is a game of skills, and no one ever looks at it like this, but do you call Jason Kidd selfish or do you call Steve Nash selfish because they pass too much? Do you call Dwight Howard or Ben Wallace selfish for rebounding or blocking shots all the time? That’s what they’re good at, so you let them do that. I’m a great scorer. If you say, “Take this guy who’s averaging 30 points and make him average 10 assists,” you’re not using my ability. Kobe could average 10 assists, but that’s not Kobe. Ben Wallace could try to score 10 more points, but that’s not what he’s there for. When people say that, I say they’re not knowledgeable about basketball. You don’t tell LeBron “Get to the hole and make finger rolls.” You don’t say, “Shaq, when you get into the lane, do a fadeaway hook.”
I’m a great scorer. I’ve been a great scorer my whole career. I could average 10 assists no problem, but no coach has asked me to do that. It’s like, you have to let Jordan be Jordan; he can’t be anything else.
Dime: What about those who say you could have taken even less money? That if you really wanted to give the Wizards some relief, you would have taken $90 million instead of $111 million?
GA: Critics are gonna always pick at something. If I was to take $115 million, it’s “Why didn’t you take 100?” If I took 100, “Why didn’t you take 90?” It’s just like some critics who say, “He’s not worth it,” if I take 127, those same people say, “Oh, he’s a hero,” if I take 111. Stick to your guns. Reporters in today’s game, they don’t have no personality to themselves. If one person says something, they all run to the same story. You want to say I’m not worth it? Well, maybe not this year, but I am the same kid who averaged 29 points one year and 28 the next year. Three-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA. I’m the same guy who owns three court records — I’ve got the most points in a game in L.A., in Phoenix and in our building. It’s the same guy. If I had opted out after I scored 60 points, then it’s, “Of course he should sign for $127 million.”
People have a “What have you done for me lately?” attitude in this industry. But a franchise player, he sells tickets if he’s sitting on the bench or if he’s in the game. I know how to sell tickets. I haven’t played basketball in a whole year, and I went from No. 10 to No. 8 in jersey sales. I went up. It ain’t all about on the court. It’s if you sell your team’s product. I’m a product-seller. One reason they signed me back is I know how to sell. A guy who can sign his adidas contract and his NBA contract on his own, he has to know something about marketing. They can rip me all they want, but you still have a kid who came from nothing and learned and took the time to educate himself. And he watched his forefathers, what they did and what they brought to the game, and he took it and turned it into a media whirlwind.
Dime: Who did you watch?
GA: I watched players like Shaq, like Magic. When I came into the League, I had been seeing what Magic does, and I was like, “How come Kobe’s not doing that? How come Allen Iverson’s not doing that? How come T-Mac‘s not doing that?” It’s because to some people, when you’re playing, you’re just playing. You don’t grasp everything around you. When I came in there was only one player who was using himself that way, and that was Shaq. That’s who I wanted to be. I needed to be following that person, seeing how he interacts with the media, how he interacts with the fans. I would see Shaq and think, “Man, I’m as funny as him. All I don’t have is the name.” Once I started playing and becoming a household name, my personality just pushed me forward.
I think I’m that average guy’s hope. I feel like I’m regular; I do regular things. To NBA people it’s not regular, but to the average Joe, I do regular things. They’ll be like, “How can you sit in front of a TV playing video games 10 hours a day?” Every 14-year-old kid does it. Why can’t I?
Dime: So you came into the League with a game plan to be the media star you’ve become?
GA: When I first came in I was a little shy with the media. I was just a goofball to people who knew me. One time I was sitting in the Warriors locker room and one reporter was like, “You’re very entertaining when you actually talk.” He told me, “You’re gonna be good at this. You’re gonna be a star at this.” I was like, “I don’t know if you’ve been watching the games, brotha, but I ain’t been playing.”
I think what we don’t realize as players is we’re like leaves, and the NBA is a tree. And when the wind blows, some of us are out of there. At the end of the day, all of the leaves on the tree are gonna be gone, and there’s gonna be new leaves. I’m just a leaf on a tree right now. We’re just passing through, but in that time when you’re passing through, get what you can out of your time here. What can you stamp on that tree that will make you special, you know? And some people’s marks are bigger than others, but no one is bigger than the tree. No one’s the tree. I don’t think players realize that. Then when it comes to an end, they can’t live with it.
Dime: Do you think your leaf started to blow away just a little this year? Like you said, you were basically out for the whole year, and you weren’t on Team USA … did people forget about you?
GA: If we consider “people” to be the media, probably. But I think I do enough things off the court that keep me relevant. Some of the things I do, like with the blog, the way I put myself out there and market myself keeps me relevant.
Dime: Is that part of the reason you do the blog, to stay in the spotlight? You know that if you ever get overshadowed, you can just write something crazy and you’re back in the mix.
GA: Yeah, that’s easy. Because the blog is so popular, if I ever feel like I’m falling off, I could. But at the end of the day, people get tired of it if you’re just writing and you’re not playing. The best part about it was when I was out there scoring 50, 60 points and I’m out there making jokes. That’s what made the blog as powerful as it is. It can only keep me so high. Eventually I have to play again.
Dime: When thinking about how you market yourself, it seems like you try to put yourself in the shoes of a fan, maybe thinking back to when you were a kid.
GA: Yeah, that’s my mentality. I think like a fan. What do they want from the players? One player who’s starting to get it now is Kobe — you see what he’s doing on YouTube, with the snake pool and jumping over the cars and stuff. People like that. People like funny. People don’t like the whole “Take it serious” commercials anymore. You can try to be inspirational to a point, but people wanna laugh. That’s what I try to get across to my adidas sponsors. It’s good that you guys wanna go and do this, but we’re in a world where people wanna feel good, where people wanna smile and laugh. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re not doing anything illegal. If 500,000 people look at (a YouTube clip) just to call you stupid, that’s still 500,000 people. That’s great.
Dime: It wouldn’t bother you if someone called you stupid?
GA: We have that love/hate relationship toward everything. Kobe’s videos, people were saying, “I’m not gonna watch no fake thing.” But obviously they watched. As much as Kobe is loved, he gets booed in every arena. It’s a love/hate thing. It’s funny to me. When LeBron used to do the five LeBrons, those were good commercials. That “We are team,” all of that, “We are together…” Man, come on. Little kids don’t understand that. Those are your customers. If you make a kid laugh and smile, you’ve sold your product. Do you really think you’re inspiring a 10-year-old?
Dime: Can you still go and play street ball at Barry Farms now that the Wizards have made this big investment in you? Do you have more to protect?
GA: The funny part is, they took that out of my contract. I have the “Love of the Game” in there. I look at it like I can play anywhere I want — that’s what that meant to me. When we were negotiating the details, they took that out. They might not want you to play in certain places, but to me, basketball is basketball. You can get hurt walking, doing whatever you want. I just love to play.
Me and Chris Mullin — we used to play full court one-on-one when I was with the Warriors — we had this conversation: If this game didn’t pay nothing, how many players would be playing the game at the same level? Chris Mullin said, “I know two people. Me and you.” That’s how I judge players. If they wasn’t getting paid, would they still be playing as hard as they do?
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