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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 12/23/2010

End of the Road

By Lee Friedman

When I heard Gilbert Arenas was traded to the Magic I immediately felt a sense of relief.  Somehow Ernie Grunfeld was able to find a team that would actually take Gilbert’s contract.  It allowed the Wizards to clear some long-term salary cap space, and it gave both Gilbert and the team a fresh start.  It’s an open question if Rashard Lewis can replace Gilbert’s production, but at this point I’d be happy with anybody not named Al Thornton playing small forward for them.

But I also felt sad. For as much bad attention as Arenas has brought to this franchise over the last year, he did something no player in a generation has done: he changed what it meant to be a Wizards fan. In the 20 years before Arenas came to the Wizards, they won less than 50% of their games an astonishing 17 times. Wizards fans suffered through the Unseld-as-GM years, the Michael Jordan/Kwame Brown years, the Howard/Webber years (albeit with two winning records and a playoff appearance) and 9 coaches in one 6 year span. Sure the Wizards always drew an okay crowd pre-Gilbert, especially with the resurrected Michael Jordan on the court, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Wizards fan that wasn’t from around here. It wasn’t that the Wizards were a hard-luck franchise or even loveable losers they were simply irrelevant to the rest of the country.

Gilbert changed that, with his emergence as a top NBA player, suddenly the Wizards were relevant again. Their games were on national television and opposing fans on the road actually showed up to watch them. The question in April wasn’t what lottery pick they would get but who they would be playing in the playoffs. They were no longer relegated to the end of the SportsCenter broadcast, but sometimes even in the opening highlights (and not in the way they were featured when Jordan was here, when it was never about the team).

The minute Gilbert stepped on the court you knew he was capable of dominating the game in a way few players could. Games at the Verizon Center had a new excitement to them, teaming up with Jamison and Butler there was an expectation that they could beat anyone. The list of most dangerous players taking a shot at the end of a game included just a few names besides Arenas: Bryant, Wade, Iverson and LeBron. Sure, he occasionally did some goofy things, but we liked him all the more for it. He was like your annoying little brother who said things to get a reaction out of people, albeit one with range on his jumper to nearly half-court. He was honest, and as long as the Wizards were winning (for Wizards fans, winning 45 games was the equivalent of the Lakers winning 60 so thankfully the bar was low) people gave him a free pass. 

Gilbert also filled a vacuum in Washington sports, the Redskins were still struggling under the Snyder regime and while the Redskins QB was usually the biggest name in town, Patrick Ramsey wasn’t exactly the second coming of Sonny. Alex Ovechkin was but a glint in the eye of the Washington Capitals scouting department and the future site of Nationals Park was but a collection of strip clubs and auto-body shops. He had the town to himself and he loved being the center of attention.

And as suddenly as it began it ended. From the moment Gerald Wallace crashed in to Gilbert’s knee, the Arenas-era as we knew it was over, even if it limped along for another few years. If Gilbert gives the fans in Orlando half of the great memories he made for Wizards fans, they should count themselves lucky.

By Lee Friedman  | December 23, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Lee Friedman, Wizards  | Tags:  Gilbert Arenas  
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