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Posted at 4:53 PM ET, 12/20/2010

Goodbye to Gilbertology

By Dan Steinberg

(By Preston Keres - TWP)

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?

By Dan Steinberg  | December 20, 2010; 4:53 PM ET
Categories:  Wizards  
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Next: When Ralph Friedgen had a drink with Gary Williams



Posted by: baneofpigs | December 20, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Thumbs down.

Posted by: amalg | December 20, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

thumbs up, Gil is a fake...dude was a totally different person when he got national attention...DC attention wasnt enough for him. You see him in his first Orlando interview? Dude was loving, once again, being in the spotlight. Wizards fans deserve better, thats why Im happy to see him gone, USED to be my favorite player...

Posted by: rc2223 | December 20, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

I agree. He was paid to win championships... not just entertain. There is something to be said for acting like a professional - whatever the leader of a team does will spread, good or bad.

Posted by: johnvandermyde | December 20, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

i finally took down my hibachi and posters in my lab today. i didnt realize how much they protected me from the sun.

Posted by: EdLeee | December 20, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Tremendous piece, Steinbog. Kudos.

Posted by: NateinthePDX | December 20, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

I always hoped Gilbert could be that guy to lead the Wizards to the promised land, which is what made the funny stuff so awesome. He was earning it because he was taking care of business on the court. Then he got injured, and his weirdness turned into (was exposed as?) selfishness and became counterproductive.

But Dan, that doesn't mean you were wrong to blog it. People are still interested in the weird stuff. It just sucks when it's so deeply woven into the losing fabric, which in DC sports is nearly 85% certainly the case.

Blog on what you must and how you must, but I always come here because I'm interested in the person behind the player. That's still important to fans.

Posted by: ThisGuy | December 20, 2010 7:58 PM | Report abuse

This article was chill provoking. Very well written piece. Thank you Dan. And thank you Gilbert for not taking professional sports too seriously.

Posted by: kayray42 | December 20, 2010 8:47 PM | Report abuse

We were never gonna win $h1t. But it was fun while it was fun. Thanks for being interesting, Gil. And niece piece, Dan.

Posted by: Kev29 | December 20, 2010 9:02 PM | Report abuse

I noticed a decrease in your activity as of late, good to see you still have some thought provoking pieces left in you.

That being said, I am glad to see Gilbert out the door. Now we can focus on winning with our new stud; JWall

Posted by: FudgeDanSnyder | December 20, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

Didn't a regular poster on here, Barno1, always make wild predictions about Gilbert helping lead the Wiz back to respectability?

Ooooops. Looks like he was wrong. But, in reality, when is said poster ever right?

Posted by: DixonTheDog | December 20, 2010 10:16 PM | Report abuse

So yeah, that piece started off about pube shaving, and by the end I wanted to stick a sawed off shotgun in my mouth. Thanks, Shakespeare!

Posted by: grimesman | December 20, 2010 10:50 PM | Report abuse

Steinberg deserves the Pulitzer for commentary after this and the Friedgen posts. Kudos.

Posted by: JDP_ | December 20, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

You are a great writer; honestly one of the best at the post these days. But this piece might be the best I've ever read from you.

Really, this is the best written and most passionate bog, or even blog, post I've ever read. And I dont even care about the Wizards, Gil or basketball.

Posted by: CalleJoFan | December 21, 2010 12:18 AM | Report abuse

"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."

Steinz, you're on the money with the first sentence here and dead wrong with the second. There's more to sports than winning a championship. If all that mattered in sports was winning as many championships as possible, wouldn't everyone just root for the best team every year?

(And I realize that you're not totally dismissing Gilbert because he never won anything here; I'm more ranting against the general obsession with championships when it comes to talking about sports.)

Sports is about witnessing ups and downs and sharing them with the people around you, commiserating about failure and celebrating victory. Sports is about connecting with and caring about people who you will never meet, and feeling a little sad that someone who you cheered for and thought was a charming guy wasn't able to achieve his goal in your city. Sports, and basketball especially, is sometimes just about the joy of the human body in motion--win, lose, whatever.

There's still joy in loving a team even when the team is lousy. Even in last year's Wizards season there are memories to treasure: Earl Boykins posting up Mo Williams, Jamison's speech to the fans and an emotional victory over the Magic the day after Gil's suspension, Josh Howard's exuberance in his four games last year. At that Nuggets game last year Verizon Center was rocking even more than I've seen in the playoff games I've been to.

Anyway, I've had a great time rooting for Gilbert, and I don't feel that time was somehow a waste because no championship was won. And how can you not love Gilbert? He always meant well, and I miss him and I hope he's happy.

Posted by: genesisoftheever | December 21, 2010 12:29 AM | Report abuse

Phenomenal piece Dan. I always pulled for Gilbert because in an age where nearly every professional athlete is so "filtered" and pre-packaged, he seemed genuine. He was flawed, and honest about being so We so seldom see a guy in his position openly enjoy his great moments, and admit to his lows. I'll never forget his blog post after his first injury, right before Thanksgiving when he talked about realizing the severity of his injury, the breakup with his fiancée and her leaving with the kids. How often do we see a celebrity so openly share his fall from grace, and admit to how it hurt him?
No matter what people say, he made basketball in DC matter again, ultimately it was the things that made us love him that lead to his fall. The trade was necessary from both ends, even if I always hoped he'd get it back in a Wiz uniform.
Dan, great piece. It's been a crazy few days in DC sports, and with each post you seem to get better and better. Thank you.

Posted by: murphalo | December 21, 2010 12:35 AM | Report abuse

I watched a piece on HBO last night about the first African Americans to integrate football teams in the SOuth. NOw, that was no joke. They sacrificed and put their lives on the lines for progress. They were great athletes and even better men. Today, these guys are a joke.. not in a good way either. I mean it's great to have swag, but grow up. If anything, Arenas was a drag to this team. Egocentric eccentric. Orlando will be the next stop on his comedy routine... no game... no shame.

Posted by: lk11 | December 21, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Party pooper.

If "all the fun stuff slips through your fingers," then how are we going to remember you? I don't think the fun stuff slips through your fingers, so I will remember you for all the laughs and craziness you've given me. Same with Gil, plus some entertaining basketball.

Posted by: disgruntledfan | December 21, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Love it, Dan.

When the crush is over, you look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. You ask yourself how you ever managed to overlook (or ignore) all the things that were destined to cause problems later. And you scold yourself for failing to pay attention to all the warning signs. You realize she was never that hot, never that smart, never that funny, never that awesome.

All that's left is the hope that Gilbert gets fat. And herpes.

Posted by: bryc3 | December 21, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Dan. Best post in the last year.

Posted by: jtheisman | December 21, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Awesome post Dan.

Posted by: Rhino20 | December 21, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Actually you're left with the most relevant sports star this town has had in over 30 years. It's amazing to me how awful Washington is at honoring people for the good they did. I can count more good memories than bad over Arenas entire career. Far more.

Posted by: Breal83 | December 21, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Wow. Excellent piece Dan.

Posted by: Tiffany010 | December 21, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Great post, Dan. Well written. But it's sad, and I'm disappointed in you.

You own up to lapping up all of Gilbert's folly, but I still feel like you're a fake now. I feel like you are betraying him, yourself, and your readers.

Gilbert did a lot of good here, brought a lot of fun. And he was honest. He made me love sports. He made me love this blog.

And you just tossed him aside, just like the Wizards did.

True, he never brought us any meaningful glory. And I know sports is about winning.

But life... life is about the journey, not the destination. And I enjoyed the journey Gil took us on.

I'm disappointed in your revisionist history, Dan. I hope this isn't all you have to say on the matter.

Posted by: gidge | December 21, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Two really lovely pieces, Dan.

This and the one about Fridge are two of the the best pieces (articles, posts?) I've read in a while about the interaction between ateletes and reporters. You contribute to a lot of our enjoyment of sports in this town. The silly and strange stuff is all a part of why we watch.

Posted by: M__N | December 21, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Spot on.

Posted by: EYoung77 | December 21, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Good piece. Really good.

Sports stars, to a degree greater than movie or music stars, reveal the contradictions in us as people. Scandal and outrage bring condemnations and self-righteousness from the public, but also help the media make a lot of money. We can't look away.

I never, ever got the impression that Arenas is a bad guy, just not always a good decision maker. It was indeed refreshing to read about an athlete who would say the first thing that came to mind and not just issue bland statements through his agent. He entertained us off the court and backed that up with several years of good play on the court.

Posted by: acoberst1 | December 21, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Dave Barry and your Post colleague Gene Weingarten both like to talk about how humor is humankind's natural response to fear, uncertainty, and the absurdity of life. Without humor, we'd take everything too seriously and be depressed all the time. I think the Bog's take on sports keeps Washington sports fans from figuratively jumping off a building. We can't celebrate championships, but we can have fun and enjoy sports by getting to know the fun and interesting side of the players we root for. You humanize the players and make them feel worthy of rooting for, even though they're often mediocre on the field/court/ice.

The fun stuff doesn't slip through my fingers; the funny blog does sort of replace the championships for me. It's a big part of what made the past few years of sports around here memorable, and it pulled me back from not caring about the under-achieving local pro teams. Washington has had no pro championships since the 1992 Superbowl, but we have had Agent Zero, Tony Plush, DC United haircuts, Natinals fail, Eastern Motors commercials, Soulja Boy, "I can't feel my face!", hilarious weekly poll pith, and dozens of other reasons to smile while reading the sports section.

Posted by: mikeinrockville | December 21, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Could not have said it better myself Mike.

Posted by: Tiffany010 | December 21, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

You wrap it up predictably. No championships and a weird personality. Thats what a lot of sportswriters do, rip an athlete apart with a pen in place of a sword. You minimallize the person. You do not talk of the summer-long workouts, the rehabilitations for 2 surgeries. You do not speak of the anguish he went through on those losing nights, or the feelings he had when reading his home town paper. You do not speak of the efforts he gave to overcome the opinion that he was not good enough to play pro basketball, or play on the national team. You do not speak of how he beat Kobe in one of the best shootouts in league history. This is pretty much a Washington Post smear job, as usual. Lets see your future articles and see if you can bring us some sports news, entertainment, and background that is not negative gossip column pieces. Jamison was leader of this team as well, especially when Gil was out, Butler was a prime player as was Haywood. None of them will have an article like this written about them. Those three players had history, potential, and stardom coming their way, yet they are not as easy a target, for they were not perceived as best on the team, that was reserved for the weird guy, the guy who reached the stratosphere and couldn't carry everyone else on his back, alone. During those years he was one of the top clutch long shot shooters in the league. What every player dreams of doing once, he did over and over.

Posted by: 1bmffwb | December 21, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

For me, I remember Gil's shots for schools just as much as his awesome last minute shots to win games. His time here was far more memorable than anything leading up to it and probably for the near future.

Posted by: authorofpoetry | December 21, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

If we want to argue that "The Tree" will be there regardless, then why even waste time appreciating the new leaves each season?

All of life is fleeting, and yes, it's easy to say that Gilbert's magic will look silly to future generations. One thing's for certain, though: Wes Unseld DID win a championship, but he was never half as beloved as Gilbert was in Washington D.C., and we'll never romanticize him the same way. What may be lost on future generations will always resonate with this one; anyone who lived through Arenas with the Wizards will remember how much joy he brought to our lives, even as he lost to far superior players like LeBron.

And you were a key part of this phenomenon, which is why it's so strange to see you distance yourself from it. But for the record: Gilbert did mean something, and so did your coverage of him. Checking the Bog became a compulsive habit, just see what Gil or CP or Ovi had done today. If nothing else, they (and you) helped teach an entire generation of D.C. Sports Fans what it's like to love an athlete in a completely hopeless way.

Is that an immature relationship? Of course, but are you arguing it's more mature to base our affection solely on performances on the court or field?

We can't control who we love and why, and often times our relationships will seem naive in hindsight. But that doesn't mean we pretend they never meant anything to begin with. That'd be more immature than falling for Gil in the first place.

Posted by: andrewsharp2 | December 21, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I think this took me an hour to read with all the links. Good stuff

Posted by: trousers | December 21, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Wonderful piece Dan. I reveled in Gilbert's "authenticity" as much as anyone (which I now believe is a myth, but that's neither here nor there), but I'd trade him him and his band of quirky, swaggy showmen (DeShawn, Butler, Pech, etc.) for the "mundane" Spurs dynasty any day of the week. Those guys play beautiful, selfless, hard-nosed, winning basketball; they don't get much attention because of where they play and Tim Duncan would rather keep to himself and his teammates than tell the world about his misadventures shaving his balls.

The other thin about Gilbert that leaves me feeling so empty is that he's plainly such a damaged soul who is constantly looking for crazy ways to fill the voids in his life. It's hard to enjoy that when you reach a stage in life where you've got a wife and kids of your own.

I hope Gilbert can find some peace and contentment in his life. He brought some excitement for here a time, but it was ever so fleeting.

Say what you want about Wes, Andrew Sharp. But anyone old enough to remember the title teams would vehemently disagree with you.

Posted by: TheFunBunch | December 21, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

So, when he was making your job easier, he was the greatest? I appreciate the work that went into this entry, but it's awfully dismissive of a guy who did more for this team than any player in SEVERAL DECADES. So what if he never won any championships? How many championships have you won?

Posted by: IrenePollin | December 21, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Wow, wasnt expecting to read this from the the Bogman himself, great article.

Posted by: Braaaaah | December 21, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Ah this was an Awsome read. On point. All you Gilbert excuse maker's need to get a life. It is what it is. As much as we all like Gil, we had fun and we didn't WIN JACK SH**!!

Great Job Dan

Posted by: kevenjones | December 21, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Well written, and thoughtful. But seems to be a little biting the hand that fed you in retrospect. It's nice to put things in place, but that is exactly what you were doing when you glorified Gil.

Posted by: BenzoTim | December 21, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

Dan, this is thoughtful, solemn, 'mature', and profoundly, wrenchingly wrong.

To build on the critiques offered by genesisoftheever, gidge, mike in rockville, and others, you seem to be betraying the joyful, larger-than-cliche philosophical spirit that has made Arenas and the Bog itself so wonderful for so many years. And you're trading it in for... the ultimate sportswriting platitude, that nothing matters except championships?

Sorry, Dan, but Gilbert's wisdom strikes a deeper chord than you seem to be able to appreciate these days. Championships are not the tree, bro. They're just not. The tree is life -- the journey, as gidge says, the living, the being, the loving, the endless human splendor of existence. And Gilbert delivered so much of that that, so wonderfully, that I can't begrudge for not also producing something as relatively puny as a 'championship.' I wouldn't trade him for seven overserious Tim Duncans, or fourteen desiccated Bill Belichicks.

I appreciate the thought that went into this essay, but I'm genuinely disturbed by its conclusion. Exactly 1 of 32 pro sports teams wins a title each year. Giving into the bullshit that the rest are losers, no matter how phenomenal their swag, is surrendering to the worst and most brutal tendencies in American life -- the banal, pernicious, deathless Protestant Ethic/Horatio Alger nonsense that destroyed Jay Gatz and somehow, ruinously, still dominates discourse in sports, politics, and society today. Really, I thought you were better than that.

Posted by: HogShotGlass | December 22, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Sad when fans actually take sports more seriously than life. It's entertainment not reality.
Gil knew that. Some of you crackheads need to also & quit taking your failed sports dreams on guys like Gilbert.
Somewhere, u chumps forgot you are nobodies, never was, & failures.

Gil is a good person. Some of you aren't.

Posted by: Rocc00 | December 25, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

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