Psychoanalyzing Mr. Cant-Do-Right
Gilbert Arenas has his photo taken during the Washington Wizards' Media Day at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC on Tuesday, September 27, 2010. Alan P. Santos/DC Sports Box
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Judging from the headlines generated from Monday’s media day with the Washington Wizards, a lot of the reporters out there missed their true calling.
They should have gone into psychology or psychiatry instead of communications.  It seems they were far more interested in what’s going on in Gilbert’s head then they were in how his return impacts the Wizards on the court.

Perhaps the two are not as mutually exclusive as I’ve made them.  It was, after all, the inner workings of Arenas’ mind that ultimately lead to the disaster of last season and the dismantling of a team that was allegedly ready to compete for an Eastern Conference Championship.  Arenas’ state of mind, particularly this season as he returns from a nine-month hiatus as (potentially) the best player on a very young, impressionable team, is important for sure.

But so important that it becomes the prevalent storyline that emerged from a day that marked the beginning of a top-to-bottom rebuild of the organization?  Hardly.

From the time Arenas stepped foot on the practice court – in Penny Hardaway’s signature Nikes, not Adidas, sporting his new number 9 jersey and a beard that looked more “lumberjack” than multi-millionaire basketball player – it was clear that something was different about him.

He appeared focused, mature, and ready for basketball.  Yet every time he tried to talk basketball, the reporters on hand turned the conversation back to his psyche.

The queries were not without a foundation.  Arenas had, in fact, moseyed into the practice facility with the look of a man who was at least slightly annoyed with his media obligations for the day – perhaps begging for the questions without even having opened his mouth yet.  He hit all four photo stations; mean mugging the camera at every stop.  He didn’t speak to anyone outside of the staffer assigned to escort him from station to station.

By the time he reached the gaggle of reporters awaiting his arrival at one of the interview stations, his disinterest (or distaste) for the day’s events appeared obvious, and the line of questioning centered on his perceived “attitude” much more than it did on the upcoming season.

“I’m more to myself now.  You get older so you automatically grow.  It’s another year,” Arenas offered to one reporter in a response to the first question about his the apparent absence of the loose, quote-machine that left the franchise nine months ago.

That answer wasn’t good enough for this crew though.  Another reporter asked Arenas a more direct question about his demeanor, seeking a more direct answer.

“Um,” Arenas paused and measured his response carefully before responding, “The only place I need to smile is on the court. That’s where my job is, that’s where my love is, so that’s the only time I need to smile.”

He was here to talk basketball.  He thought was making that point clear with his answers -- a point obviously lost on his audience.  Instead of taking the subtle cues, the reporters pressed on with the clinical evaluation.

The next question was even more direct.  No “where are the smiles” stuff, just straight for the jugular – are you happy?

“I’m very happy,” Arenas said, not looking a bit the part of the happy camper, “In the past I’ve shown the happiness on the outside.  There’s no need to do that anymore.  I can just, you know, play the game the right way.”

“Play the game”, if you’re keeping count, that was his third attempt to try to talk basketball in as many questions.  These guys just don’t quit.

The PR staffer moderating Arenas’ conference could see where this was headed and issued a “two more questions” warning.

Do you feel you need to win back the fans?

“All I can do is just go out there and just play ball,” Arenas said.  And to a follow-up question about his relationship with the fans, and one, as he was disappearing behind the curtain to make his exit, regarding his relationship with the organization, Arenas stuck with his line – this is supposed to be about basketball.  This is my job.  I’m ready to go to work.

To me he didn’t sound crazy, or depressed…or even a little miffed.

Yet that’s the picture that’s being painted across the net and in print pubs around the metro area.  He sounded like an employee who was dealing with the necessary evils of his job (facing the media), while looking forward to getting to the actual work of playing basketball.

Gilbert Arenas has his photo taken during the Washington Wizards' Media Day at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC on Tuesday, September 27, 2010. Alan P. Santos/DC Sports Box
What’s funny about all of this (ironic funny not ha-ha funny) is that this is the Arenas everyone said they wanted a year ago – focused, business-minded, and professional.  When all hell broke loose in the locker room last season, the smile had gone from glowing to goofy, and his Peter-Pan like aura that once made him so charismatic was suddenly dismissed as immaturity.

Fans on the message boards and media types alike wanted a baller, a professional, not a cartoon character.  He was admonished for all the things that had once endeared him to us all and we wanted him to cut out the silliness and start acting like a grown up.  A professional.

Now you’ve got him and you’re missing the smiles. Poor Gil – damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.  He just can’t get it right either way, can he?

Thousands of articles, blogs and message board threads about Arenas and his “attitude” popped up Tuesday and while playing psychoanalyst few bothered to consider the obvious answer – Arenas has just grown up.  Losing millions, suffering the embarrassment of your own immaturity, being incarcerated and almost losing the only thing you’ve ever truly loved doing has a way of forcing that kind of growth.

Head coach Flip Saunders, who seemed to appear as if from nowhere the minute Arenas’ ultra short presser was shut down by a Wizards' PR staffer, fielded nearly as many questions about Arenas’ demeanor during his time with the media as he fielded real basketball questions.

Saunders hadn’t witnessed any of the craziness surrounding Arenas.  He has been in the league long enough though and found himself front of enough microphones and cameras to know when the press is pushing for an angle, and he knows how to keep nothing from becoming something by putting out those little fires.  

“I think right now he’s by far in the best shape he’s been in probably in the last three years as far as physically.  Weight wise, how he looks, I think he’s worked extremely hard, he’s very focused.  I know he wants to go out and prove a lot of things and I think he’s taken the right approach.  A very serious approach, because that’s what we have to do as a team“

Sorry coach.  Talking about basketball gets you nowhere with this crowd.  Didn’t work for Arenas, won’t work for you either.  Try again.  We want to talk about egos and attitudes and we want to talk about them now.

Gilbert Arenas has his photo taken by photographer Ned Dishman during the Washington Wizards' Media Day at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC on Tuesday, September 27, 2010. Alan P. Santos/DC Sports Box
“No one looks forward to talking to fifty people,” Saunders said in defense of his mercurial shooting guard, “You guys aren’t the nicest guys, let’s put it in perspective.”

Maybe everyone thought he was joking when he said it.  It did generate a low chuckle from most of the members of the media within earshot.  And Saunders, the comic genius that he is, had perfectly timed and placed his quip for effect.  Still, everyone would have been wise to remember the old saying, “There’s a lot of truth in a joke”.

Some of that truth resonated in the answers from Arenas’ teammates who were misfortunate enough to have their conferences scheduled after his and were subjected to the “What’s wrong with Gil” line of questioning.

To a man they all said the same thing we’d heard straight from the horse’s (and the coach’s) mouth – they hadn’t noticed a much difference in the way Arenas interacted with them on the practice court and in the locker room.  He was the same ol’ Gil on the court.  He was geared up and ready to play ball, and had looked good in pickup games through the summer.

Perhaps if the twenty-or-so reporters and bloggers had bothered searching for the truth in Saunders’ stab at the media and Arenas’ teammates’ observations they could have saved us from some of the fallout from Arenas’ brief appearance at the team’s media day event.

He’s not angry.  He’s not sad.  He’s certainly not crazy (well, not in this case at least).  But he has been through a lot, and he’s aching to get back to the things he loves – teammates, basketball, winning.