He Broke the Book on Knights
This town hardly needs me to stump for Gilbert anymore, seeing as he's become the unofficial mascot of the NBA blogosphere. And at first, I wasn't going to say anything about this blinding event, just as I've kept relatively quiet about the invincible streak he's riding. After about the fifteenth viewing of the MJD-furnished footage, though, this all came rushing forth, I collapsed in tears, and I knew that tonight I had to sort it all out.
Let me start by revisiting the quote I messed with earlier today, lifted from DC Sports Bog:
"You know, that's the only thing I don't like about drafts, is a thing that's called 'potential.' What is 'potential?' Are you potentially good, or are you gonna potentially be good?... I focused on it more when it was my draft, and it's like this 'potential' word. It's like, what is it? Either you're good or you're not, either you have heart or you don't. You can't give someone a heart."
I'm not sure why I had so much trouble with this before. Arenas isn't saying that he lacked potential in the classic draft sense—he's saying that he both had this raw promise and the will to gestate it. This quote isn't deriding potential, it's observing that potential alone is not enough.
For anyone familiar with the Arenas mythos, this is a bit of curveball. Gilbert Arenas has been presented as the nutty underdog who could, the lifelong overachiever who has made his doubters pay at every turn. Because of his carefree demeanor, goofy habits, and seeming naivete, Arenas has been transformed into a lovable, light-hearted figure, the benign poet-athlete adrift in his personal craft. His story is an upbeat one, and his knack for beating the odds has made him something like Rudy with a straitjacket.
Watch him walk away after that shot and you'll see how wrong that is. I don't doubt that Arenas is a kind-hearted fellow and a pleasure to know, but on the court he is every bit as bad as Kobe, KG, Iverson or Amare. In a roundabout way, he ends up with the same ecstatic "fuck you," that ability to show the game belongs to him. And while he may be making pulp of the league as of late, cognitively this is nothing new to him. You see, Arenas has known all along that he could ball at an exquisite level, and been willing to put in the work to get there. In his mind, he's never not been able to keep up with the likes of Kobe—a little irrational, certainly, but pretty much in line with what most would-be athletes dream.
At no point has Gilbert Arenas ever succumbed to the kind of frumpy humility we expect of our underdogs. This is a man with rip-roaring confidence, one who is outraged that no else could see in himself what he did. He works incessantly not out of desperation, but because he knows it’s how great gets made. I don't think you catch this from him except when his swag bursts forth, and yet it's every bit as key to his being as all the unconventional logic is. While only a madman would take that shot, only a cocksure SOB would look away and snarl before it had even gone in. Similar things occurred when he hit that shot against the Bulls in the 2004 'Offs, and before The Takeover the transformation was almost eerie. Now, he's become such a force on the court that we're forced to think him equal parts mystic and zealot.
In his mind, Gilbert Arenas is only an underdog because of circumstance. Contrast with, say, Iverson, who although he's gifted beyond all imagination is acutely aware of the roadblocks he's faced. He's short, grew up the hard way, and has faced all types of discrimination in his college and professional careers. Iverson has as big a chip on his shoulder as anyone, but it's because he's overcome so much. Gilbert, on the other hand, seems mostly angry that the world's ignored the obvious for so long. As strange as it sounds, I don't think Arenas realizes what a long shot his professional career has been. Whereas Iverson self-consciously struggled against his limitations and defined himself through them, Arenas just sought to become the best player he could. As that quote shows, he never bothered to notice that he wasn't a true point guard, was too short to play off-guard, looked for his shot first, and everything else you could've faulted him for before the 2001 draft. Maybe this is obliviousness, but it also makes him a far less bitter figure than Iverson——and less of a traditional underdog.
Make no mistakes, I'm not saying Arenas is some intolerable demon of snot. Forget not this true Gilbert confession, again from DCSB:
Welcome to the wonderfully warped basketball mind of Arenas, who confessed to something on Tuesday that no one else of his stature in the sport would dare do. Three years ago, he traded two pairs of his sneakers and his Wizards jersey to a sporting goods store for a box of all-star game ballots. He just sat down and went to work.
"I just know I can be a starter," he told himself, and he kept punching the holes in the ballots for himself and his teammates, Jamison and Larry Hughes. What's more, he said he's heard stories of NBA all-stars hiring people to fill out ballots, backing trucks into garages with busy-bee pals working to manipulate the vote. To Arenas, it didn't sound like a bad idea. He just wishes everyone would stop acting so cool, so above it all, and get over themselves already.
Gilbert Arenas hasn't changed. He's still the same guy he always was, is still going to say weird shit, make backward decisions, remain at once loose and grounded, and refuse to take himself too seriously as a public figure. Flip to basketball and all that's true—except he’s always taken the game deadly serious. He doesn't see luck or whimsy, either in the career he's led or the way he goes about extending it each night. We’re just only beginning to recognize the contrast between on-court Gilbert and the off-court icon we've polished. Similar form, completely different impetus. It's only when he's casually lighting up every team in sight, and baring his soul with a walk-off sneer, that this has become truly impossible to deny.