In the quiet and stillness of an empty gym, one can find peace. That, I know. Basketball, for years, was the only quiet place I knew-- it was my refuge amidst the fog. If you don’t understand basketball, you won’t get this piece.
Mr. Gilbert Arenas-- an NBA player-- has been suspended from the league. There’s no need for specifics--what’s happened to Arenas is reported incessantly on the 24 hour sports echo chamber.
I’ve always liked Arenas. We’re both from L.A. (well, he played in the valley-- Grant High School in Van Nuys) and I grew up in South L.A. Arenas was reared by a single father who left Florida for L.A. to pursue his personal elusive dream to act. Gilbert wanted to attend UCLA, but the Bruins weren’t remotely interested-- I”m sure that was one of the many disappointments in his life.
At Arizona, he was told to give up his NBA dreams-- his handles were too ‘suspect’ to play point guard and he couldn’t score enough to play ‘shooting guard.’ Drafted by Golden State in the second round, he sat the bench for 26 consecutive games. Finally, he got a chance to play in the Nation’s capital, emerging as a star for the Wizards.
I won’t delve into the list of disappointments that have stalked this young man. Naive fans look at athletes and opine: “They’ve got everything: fame, notoriety, wealth and an opportunity to earn a living playing a game...what else could they want?”
Here’s a note: Professional basketball players are often as unfulfilled as the guy who’s employed as the greeter at Costco or a welder at the plant. The context is different, but the essence remains. If, as a kid, you never knew whether you belonged--never felt you were good enough...just having $10M dollars doesn’t eradicate the stalking duality of unworthiness and helplessness. The difference is that if you’re working at Costco, there is no one following you with cameras and digital recorders waiting for you to do something incriminating.
We embrace guns and gun violence, don’t we? The descriptive language of war is the cultural lexicon of sports. It’s ironic that those who write most romantically about war and violence are those who’ve never seen it ‘up close and personal.’ And, those who’ve never known what a embedded refuge the ‘game’ can be, easily criticize those who seek its warmth in times of travail.
Stuff you should know about Arenas: This is a kid who used to sleep in the gym-- once he made it to the NBA, he would return to the playgrounds and give the young players $100 each--he would also donate $100.00 for every point he scored to schools in the D.C. area-- he personally bought clothes and personal items and delivered them to refugees from Katrina and Rita-- he embraced and took care of a young man named Andre McCallister whose parents were burned to death in a fire.
Gilbert Arenas is not a bad guy. He is a misunderstood and confused young man who got bad advice from his handlers.
When one steps back and examines the broader context of this event-- and Gilbert Arenas, there is a aura of sadness-- the playfulness transposes and makes an abiding pain of rejection--on so many levels.
Basketball is a game for loners-- it is a game for those who’ve had rejection served to them on flimsy paper plates. Whether the rejection is familial or societal, the scar remains. The salve of basketball helps things to not hurt as much.
I hope the league -- and the authorities-- take it easy on Agent Zero. I hope he isn’t the one ‘thrown to the fire-- vis-a-vis Michael Vick-- to satiate the cry of the mob.
If the NBA’s League Office and Player’s Association desire to make a broader cultural statement to society, there is a strategy to accomplish this: Invite players, coaches and team employees throughout the league to hand their guns over to local authorities. Film players, coaches and team employees doing this and making a statement...History reveal this trend: Gun+Athlete= Bad Outcome.
Is there a better strategy to send a message to kids who want to ‘be like Mike’ or “LeBron” than to have clips of NBA players, coaches and team employees handing over handguns and machine pistols.
“Yeah, but what about the second amendment,” my critics will say.
The coarse fibers in the fabric of our nation are made rough by our love of violence. Yet we, like Claude Rains in Casablanca, feign shock and outrage when we learn someone ‘brought guns’ into the workplace. How can anyone be shocked over this? Ninety percent of the people I know have at least two guns (granted, I live in Texas.) Recently, a friend sent me a treatise explaining why there is less violent crime in Switzerland (....because everyone has an automatic weapon.) His argument was simple: “It should be that way in the States.” Hell, it’s already that way in the States.
We are a violent, gun-loving, gun-toting society. We just don’t like it when we’re reminded of it.
Suspending GIlbert does nothing to assuage the problem of players/coaches with guns--nor, does it allow us to dialogue about the larger role that guns represent in our society. I hope Mr. Stern and the NBA leaders use this as a real opportunity to demonstrate the NBA’s leadership in professional sports. Can we take the message of the consequences of gun violence to Black and Latino youth--many of whom vigorously embrace the league-- and help them to ‘see.” What Gilbert Arenas has done can become a icon of change if we allow it be.
Gilbert Arenas, after leaving Florida for California as little boy, saw his Mom only one more time. It reminded me of something my Dad once said in church: “On judgement Day, those who knew not the love of a mother will be forgiven of much.”