The following is an article I wrote from January’s edition of That’s Shanghai (p.23-24). Its subject matter is (obviously), Agent Zero himself, Gilbert Arenas. The interview took place in late January, sometime about round 22. Enjoy.
For several years, Gilbert Arenas was one of the biggest names in basketball. From 2004 to 2007, he was averaging over 25 points a game and made the NBA All-Star team in two consecutive seasons. Quixotic but hugely popular, his rock star credentials were so strong that his 25th birthday party, hosted by Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, attended by 7,500 people and featuring ice carvings of the point guard, seemed relatively modest. Roll forward to 2013 and the man nicknamed Agent Zero is now in China, and playing for the Shanghai Sharks.
It’s a huge coup for the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), and although some observers might feel that switching from the glamour of the NBA to the relative backwaters of Chinese basketball is a step down, Arenas is having none of it.
“I had a chance to be in the NBA this year but at this point [in my career], I want to play,” retorts the player who still has a career average of over 20 points a game in the NBA. “Six minutes, 10 minutes there compared to thirty-eight to forty-eight here. I mean which one would you choose?”
For all the smiles, Arenas’ debut CBA season has been far from easy. Signed by Shanghai despite considerable concerns about his ability to play a full season in a short, grueling schedule, Arenas got injured within six minutes of his opening game. With strict CBA rules on the number of foreigners in the team – two for most teams, three for the bottom five from the previous season – so the loss of a star import for a month can completely ruin a CBA campaign.
The Sharks immediately found themselves outmatched by rivals. Instead of chasing the playoffs, they lingered near the bottom of the standings. In a press conference after a home loss to the Beijing Ducks in early January, American head coach Daniel Panaggio conceded that the decision to sign Arenas was a gamble that hadn’t worked out as planned. Twelve hours later, he was gone.
“It was shocking,” admits Arenas, who was in America receiving treatment on his groin injury when Panaggio was replaced. “You feel [the organization] had a little bit of leeway due to me being out, but I can’t question their decision [to try to save the season].”
Panaggio was replaced by Wang Qun, a long-time assistant in the Sharks coaching structure, with Shanghai now needing a near perfect run of victories to even sniff the post-season. It is hoped that Arenas can at least finish the current campaign on a high. Two solid games following his return from injury against Xinjiang and Shanxi suggest that’s possible – and the point guard himself is keen to prove himself. “I want to show the Sharks organization I can play,” he says. “I want to show the fans I can play.”
Regardless of the chaos his injuries have caused, or the frenzy his name can generate within the Chinese media, a now-healthy Arenas appears to be sincere when he says he is happy in the CBA, where his ability and reputation marks him out as a top five player in the league.
He also seems relieved that he is being judged on his basketball skills rather than checkered history, unlike in America, where he is still largely defined by an infamous 2010 incident when he brought handguns into the Washington Wizards dressing room during a dispute over unpaid gambling debts.
Though the event is common knowledge in China too, it is rarely referenced, and instead he is treated with something close to reverence by local fans due to his career scoring feats. In tune with this nostalgia, Arenas has reverted to wearing the #0 jersey that he became synonymous with in Washington, but abandoned after the gun incident as a symbolic demonstration that he was a changed person.
Moreover, with several of his teammates being young enough to have grown up watching him on TV, Arenas has been complimented from within the organization for being a positive presence for the team’s less experienced players. This in itself is news, considering he was a notorious prankster during his time as a Wizard and whose mischievous reign of terror in Washington contributed massively to his cult popularity.
He once broke into Chris Mills’ house in the middle of the night to steal the forward’s favorite NFL jersey. On another occasion, during a road game in Chicago, he stole the keys to Nick Young’s Land Rover, mailed them back to DC and had a friend steal the car. Yet it was Andre Blatche who probably suffered the worst; at various points, Arenas put dog excrement in the soles of Blatche’s shoes, filled his bath tub up with coffee and altered his jersey so that the name on the back read ‘Bitch.’
It’s strange to think that a player whose practical jokes were the toast of basketball blogs is now a sturdy veteran, but remarkably it seems to be the case. In training, it’s easy to spot the affection and respect the younger players have towards the former NBA All-Star, who jokes and advises them in equal measure. Arenas himself seems to be taking the extra role in his stride, preferring to be the approachable older brother rather than the stern father figure. The jokes are still going on, but they are probably a bit more low key these days.
Tellingly, even though we have entered the final a month of the regular season, Arenas is still anxious to carry on his basketball education in China. He’s been impressed by Zhejiang’s Quincy Douby, who recently broke the CBA single-game scoring record after dropping 75 points against the Shanxi Dragons. As a big name in the league, Arenas also enjoys being a marked man, smiling wryly when discussing various Chinese players’ propensity for talking trash to him in English during games (although he won’t name individuals).
He also seems keen to finish the 2012/13 campaign on a high, and doesn’t rule out the possibility of coming back to China again to play after this season. “I’ve thought about it,” he nods. “Thirty-two games a year at my age, it’s good. I don’t need to be going through 82 games anymore. I just want to play basketball and enjoy the rest of my life.”
At 31 and with a ton of star power to his name, it seems a fair philosophy. Stephon Marbury, now into his fourth year in the CBA, came to China at a similar age, and now is among the country’s most popular foreign faces.
Arenas could easily follow the former New York Knick down that same career path and become a quasi-phenomenon in the world’s most populous county. For a player who tossed a coin to decide that he was going to sign with Washington over the LA Clippers, and once organized a snowball fight in a bus, it would make for a suitably eccentric final chapter to an already unpredictable career.