Monthly Special: Zero to Hero and back to Zero

“Zero,”

is what the critics said to Gilbert Arenas, referring to the number of minutes he will be playing at University of Arizona.

Gilbert Arenas was born in Florida to a single mother. But by the time he was two years old, his mother ran into trouble with the law and Gilbert Arenas Sr, who was an unnamed actor and model at the time, decided to take care of his young son. Growing up, the Arenas men were poor and homeless, often spending nights in their Mazda. After years of never giving up, Gilbert Sr landed a small roll in Days of Our Lives and the two moved to California — from an early age Gilbert learned the value of hard work.

Gilbert’s mischievousness was evident from a young age. He would get into all sorts of trouble while his father was out auditioning for jobs. Nevertheless, it was clear that his crimes were never malicious. He was just an immature kid pulling pranks to make his friends laugh. He loved making people laugh.

At age 11, he fell in love with basketball, which gave him an outlet to focus his energy on. Gilbert was a natural athlete like his father, who was a fullback at University of Miami before a knee injury cut his career short. Moreover, he was a competitor who never backed down. He would refuse to give up even when playing one on one basketball against his father who was much bigger.

Standing 5’9″, Gilbert made the Junior Varsity team when he entered high school. Unfortunately, his coach didn’t recognize his potential and told him that he had already reached his ceiling as a basketball player. There was no room for improvement. Wanting to prove his coach wrong, Gilbert would be the first one to show up in the gym and the last one to leave during the following summer. Even then, he didn’t care what anybody said . He believed that he could be great if he put in the effort. In his junior year, Gilbert transfered to  Grant High School to play against better competition. He grew to 6’3″ and became a star player as a senior, averaging 33.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.6 steals.

Gilbert Arenas always dreamed of playing for UCLA. He would often spend time on UCLA campus talking to the coaches and players. During the recruiting process, UCLA also seemed interested in him. However, he was once again told that he was not good enough; he never received an offer from UCLA. They thought his high school competition was too weak and he woud fail against stronger competition. After the disappointment, Gilbert chose to stay in the west coast and attend University of Arizona.

Zero,

is number he decided to wear in order to disprove the doubters who said he would get zero minutes.

Gilbert flourished in the up-tempo Arizona offense. As a freshmen, he averaged 15.4 points and as a sophomore, he averaged 16.2 points. He set a career high in points (30) against UCLA, the team that told him he wasn’t good enough. He lead his team to the NCAA Tournament both years, making it to the championship game in his sophomore season only to lose to Duke. He was named All-Pac-10 First Team and was a honorable mention All-American.

After his sophomore year, Gilbert decided to leave for the NBA. He thought that he had finally proven people wrong. Draft experts disagreed. They said he was not big enough, not athletic enough, and simply not good enough. He was a volume shooter who didn’t have a true position. They worried about his personality, despite showing great demeanor at Arizona and becoming a fan favorite.

The Golden State Warriors chose Gilbert Arenas with the 31st overall pick. He was devastated. He thought he was better than the players chosen in the lottery (top 14 picks). Instead, he wasn’t even drafted in the first round. The disappointment continued to his rookie season, in which he rarely received any playing time.

But hard work finally begin to pay off. In his sophomore season, he increased his scoring average by 8 points (18.3) while dishing out 6.3 assists per game. He gained some recognition and deservingly won the Most Improved Player Award. Several teams, including the Wizards, Warriors, and Clippers targeted him in free agency. Eventually, he signed a $65 million contract with the Washington Wizards.

He did not disappoint the Wizards. The giant contract did not stop him from working hard. He improved his game every year (19.6 points and 5 assists his first season as a Wizard and 25.5 points and 5.1 assists his second season with the team). In addition, he and Larry Hughes made the Wizards’ backcourt one of the most exciting guard duos to watch in the NBA. His story as the underdog gained national attention due to the increasing exposure to the media. People are wired to root for the underdog. Gilbert epitomized the underdogs and, thus, people loudly cheered for him.

Zero,

is what was displayed on the game clock as his game winning shot went through the net against the Chicago Bulls in the 2005 NBA playoffs.

With that shot, Gilbert took center stage in the NBA. People fell in love with him on and off the court. On the court, he was a scoring machine with utter confidence. Everyone watched Gilbert Arenas if he was playing in a close game with the game clock winding down. Each time, you would be fairly certain that he would make the game winning shot. He breathed life into the Wizards’ Verizon Center. In his game winner vs. the Utah Jazz, he shot a three pointer well behind the arc despite the out stretched arm of Deron Williams. Even before the shot went in, he raised his arms up in triumph – he already knew the shot was going in. The buzzer went off and he was proven correct. He absolutely sucked the air out of opponents too. At the Staple Center, he scored a career high 60 points on Kobe Bryant (in his prime) and the Lakers. Afterwards, he laid his jersey in the middle of the hardwood court and took a bow.

Off the court, he was a goofball with a big smile. Gilbert wrote a widely popular blog in which he gave the fans glimpses of his NBA life (mostly about pranking his teammates). In one post, he wrote about how he filled a teammate’s car with popcorn. In another post, he showed a video of him in a three point contest against his teammate, Deshawn Stevenson. But it wasn’t an ordinary three point contest. Gilbert shot the ball one handed and still won. At the NBA All-Star games filled with other NBA stars and celebrities, he always found ways to entertain whether it was jumping off the trampoline for a between the leg dunk or an impromptu half court shot contest with Tracy McGrady.

But most importantly, Gilbert was a good influence and a charitable citizen. He never forgot how tough it was growing up in an unpleasant environment. He constantly found ways to help the community. He set up the Gilbert Arenas Charity Foundation and Zero Two Hero. After every game, he took off his jersey and gave it to a fan (usually a little kid). Also, he donated $100 to an underprivileged high school around the area for every point he scored in a game (he averaged 29.3 points so that is about $3000 per school). He even took less money so his team could go out and sign better players. He was more than a basketball player to the greater DC area.

“Agent Zero,”

is what we, the fans, called him.

However, it soon became hard to cheer for Gilbert Arenas. He went down with a knee injury near the end of 2006-2007 season after signing a $111 million dollar contract. Injury bug kept him out for most of the 2008-2009 season. He came back the next season but he was obviously rusty. Near Christmas of that season, he was involved in the infamous gun scandal in which he and his teammate, Javaris Crittenton, brought guns into the locker room. Gilbert was suspended for the remainder of the season. The following season, he was traded to the Orlando Magic. His career in Orlando never panned out and he was released by the team. Last year, he played for the Memphis Grizzlies averaging an abysmal 4.2 points per game.

Gilbert Arenas is now nothing but a joke (literally). Around the NBA communities, he is labeled a waste of a max contract, a scrub who is a bad influence, a thug, and a nobody.

The Wizards fans have moved on from the Agent Zero era. Now, they are cheering for the John Wall era. Nonetheless, Gilbert Arenas should be remembered by the fans for his time as Agent Zero. Agent Zero brought unprecedented excitement to DC. He lead the team to multiple playoff appearances. Moreover, he showed the community that he cared. He was a true roll model who showed everyone that hard work pays off – that giving up is never an option. On the other hand, he was also a reminder that stardom is ephemeral – that we should always stay true to our roots.

It is unlikely that Gilbert Arenas will ever be Agent Zero again. But he is not a nobody. He was an integral part of the Washington Wizards and the DC community. Whether his jersey will be retired is up to debate. However, I believe that one’s accomplishments shouldn’t be disregarded due to one stupid mistake. I would love to be able see the number zero hanging in the Verizon Center when I am there cheering for the Wizards.

 
photo credit: WP, Keith Firman

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