Last night, I was captivated by my favorite NBA player doing nothing. Against rival Chicago, Washington’s Gilbert Arenas shot poorly during the first half. So, in the second half, the league leader in field-goal attempts simply didn’t try to score. Averaging nearly 30 points a game, Arenas is the backbone of the Wizards’ offense, as well as one of the sport’s most mesmerizing performers. But, for roughly 20 minutes of clock, he didn’t even look in the direction of the basket. He wasn’t thwarted, or locked down by a formidable defender. Before cutting loose late in the fourth, Gilbert Arenas just didn’t want to score, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. To me, this was a clear sign that my favorite player has succeeded in destroying my favorite sport for me.
At this point, it seems pointless to try to establish that Gilbert Arenas is the most compelling player in basketball. He’s a basket-making machine, a franchise savior for his Wizards, and unflappably effective in the clutch. All that aside, Arenas also happens to be the most thoroughgoing eccentric in professional sports. “Gilbertology,” an Internet discipline devoted to the chronicling of his quotes, exploits, and personal habits, is a cottage industry unto itself. In just this past week, Arenas has thrown himself a million-dollar birthday party despite being a notorious homebody; observed that an NBA career is “like being a leaf on a tree. Every season leaves blow off the tree and new ones grow on”; and vowed to hold a marathon three-day autograph session at the end of the year. He made a point of clarifying that he’ll sign anything.
If there’s one thing I’ve always hated about sports, it’s their affinity for cliché and well-trodden territory. I recognize that there’s power as well as comfort in tradition, and balls and goals only mean a damn thing because of accumulated ritual. Yet I find myself, more often than not, grasping for signs that these contests, and indeed those participating in them, are not mere iterations, or coordinates within history’s jagged unfolding. You’d think, then, that a man given to such offhand koans as “You’ve got to believe what you preach” would be my saving grace. And, indeed, Gilbert Arenas has been for much of the last few years. Before his unlikely emergence in Golden State and the first trickles of mystique, he’d been my random player to pull for. When out of nowhere he became first a star, then a gestalt-flattening phenomenon, I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Early on in his tenure in D.C., Arenas went a whole game without shooting, to prove his unselfishness. This season, he went into the eagerly anticipated opener so anxious that he failed to tally a single point. And, on multiple occasions, he has taken an improbably long shot on crucial possessions, launching a 3-pointer from well beyond many players’ range when certainty was of the essence. Marveling at this kind of behavior, or at a long stretch of puzzling inactivity, is the dark side of the League of Psychology school. For anyone who likes to see an individual’s play as reflective of his humanity, there is always the danger of forgetting about the game. Chicken/egg time: usually, athletes have worldviews that correspond neatly to the “drive/determination/struggle/assert/be together/find yourself” vocabulary of sports. Thus, looking at Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson in this light is rarely at odds with rooting for them as competitors.
With Arenas, however, the actions are not just peculiar—they’re counter to the very idea of participating in a high-level basketball contest. When I watch Arenas refuse to shoot the ball, it has nothing to do with a desire to see him excel, or even with an affinity for the means by which he goes about scoring. In fact, in those moments, I care far more about Arenas the individual than I do Arenas the athlete. This is a variation on that charisma that makes quarterbacks into politicians, but in Gilbert’s case it can become a beguiling end in itself, with no path back into the logic of the game. At the same time, any player who fails to furnish this gravity seems to me lacking; by comparison, expressive execution is still just execution. Until I can find that perfect compromise, the very figure who enhanced basketball fandom for me will slowly destroy my ability to appreciate it on any regular basis.