Goodbye to Gilbertology
I have a very clear memory of the day in February of 2008 that I bought a copy of Men's Journal for the Gilbert Arenas interview. I heard there was some good stuff in it. I wasn't disappointed. Here's the passage that most caught my eye:
When I was new in the NBA the team veterans convinced me to shave, you know, down there, because they said the hair stinks. I used my girlfriend's razor, which was rusty and gave me keloids. The doctor prescribed medicine to dab on, but I just poured it all over. Three days later I woke up screaming. The skin was burnt off my scrotum, down to my crack, everything -- just raw flesh. I still had to run and play, so I used a numbing spray for a month until it healed. Now I use clippers.
I thought that was quite funny. That wasn't quite three years ago. And somehow, between then and now, I turned into an old man. I don't think it's funny any more. I no longer really care about the grooming of Gilbert Arenas's private parts.
Here's the thing: Sports are silly. Sports are grown men (or women) from all over the country (or world), purportedly advancing the cause of civic pride by engaging in childish games while wearing funny costumes for exorbitant pay in front of a crowd that's often primarily fixated on getting a free burrito that would cost, at retail, a fraction of the price of a game ticket. That's not very serious, all in all.
There's no reason we should really pay attention to these people and their games, but we do. We care because we're all trying to distract ourselves from something else -- work, life, impending death. Sports are a socially acceptable and widely available method of distraction.
But how do you advance from caring about tossing balls into baskets to caring about the jokes and japes and clothes and hairstyles and hobbies and dime-store philosophizing associated with the stars of those games?
Gilbert Arenas is funny, but he's not close to the funniest person I've ever met. He's weird as hell, but I know people that are weirder. He has an assortment of bizarre habits and hobbies, but if you had a nine-figure contract, you'd damn sure be a lot more bizarre than you are now. Gilbert's a showman, but -- aside from the last-second shots and the scoring binges -- think about the nature of the show, and what it meant.
Gilbert jumped off a trampoline during an exhibition game. He threw his sweaty shirt into the stands. He hosted an outlandish birthday party for himself. He starred in one commercial with a lobster, and another with a chicken. He bet more money than many people make in a year on a shooting competition. He built himself a ridiculously expensive swimming pool, featuring a mural of himself. He put baby powder on donuts and coffee in bathtubs and poop in shoes. He told us that his swag was phenomenal -- and if you watch that clip, it actually isn't very funny at all. It's kind of sad, really, watching the journalists -- including me -- as they titter away. The whole thing was just a joke, a distraction from the distraction.
The Gilbertology stuff was great copy, if you're operating under the theory that athletes are responsible not just for scoring points but also for being weird and intriguing and quotable and emotionally damaged. Like, Gilbert once told Esquire that he trained himself to sleep on the couch because he doesn't like "women all up on me, touching me." He turned his wedding engagement into an elaborate punch line, devoid of any hint of genuine emotion. And again, we all tittered, gawking away at someone else's issues, ignoring our own.
Obviously it wasn't all serious. He read Harry Potter books, plagiarized stand-up routines about shark attacks, got a tiger tattoo on his chest to honor the King of the Jungle and an Obama tattoo on his fingers to honor the Black President. He gave out stuffed monkeys to promote a cartoon series that never happened, rode his bike around the city, drove his Maybach to a Southeast playground, befriended ballboys, sponsored video game teams and took them for dinner at Denny's, where he left $100 tips behind. He read video-game message boards, posed with wax sculptures, talked about swagfests and nekkidnism, charged teammates to come to his Super Bowl party and wore a satin boxing robe to a season opener.
He was genuine, in a way that few athletes are. He looked reporters in the eye, paused to think, came up with original answers to mundane questions. He seemed, for a while, to have as much fun as any athlete, which made us remember being kids, or maybe helped us feel like kids again. He took his nickname from bloggers, and showed athletes a new way to interact with fans. He connected with children, instantly and naturally. He did many amazing things on the court, and many weird things off it.
But when the team was losing, it was harder to find national headlines about his wacky dreams and unique obsessions, his idea for a shoe commercial in which fans jump off the 400-level of an arena to try to get his sneakers. When Gilbert was injured....well, he said it better than anyone in a 2008 interview with Dime.
"I'm just a leaf on a tree right now," he said. "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."
And then came the Finga Gunz, which sort of withered that leaf painted with the image of Gilbert as the Big Silly Kid, the boy who doesn't have to act like an adult. The distraction from the distraction became something sad and pointless, and his keloids weren't a break from life; they were life. We all have our own keloids, metaphorically speaking.
No matter how I make my living, sports exist for the sport of it. For fans who care, the marks people leave are measured in playoff wins and championships. Gilbert's identity was about having fun, and we all had fun with him, at least for a while. But when you look back on it, the fun stuff mostly slips through your fingers, like dust in the Hibachi. What you're left with is one playoff series win, and a franchise that's again struggling for attention and success.
A funny blog can't replace a championship, can't endure, can't be something you show proudly to your children. No one is bigger than the tree, you know?
| December 20, 2010; 4:53 PM ET
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