JANUARY 11, 2010
If you don't follow the NBA, the name Stephen Jackson might not immediately ring a bell. Allow me to reacquaint you. Jackson was the kindly Samaritan who followed his then-Indiana Pacers teammate Ron Artest into the stands to slap some fans around during a 2004 brawl with the Detroit Pistons. For this Jackson received a 30-game suspension. It turned out to be such a life-altering experience that Jackson would never again use his hands as a weapon in public. Not even close. The next time Jackson chose to disturb the peace, he would brandish a bona fide weapon--a 9 mm pistol. Two years later, Jackson was charged with a felony for firing the gun outside an Indianapolis strip club.
Anyway, Jackson, who remains an NBA-player-in-good-standing, recently saw fit to comment on the situation of a colleague you've almost certainly heard of--Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas. Shortly after news of Arenas's locker-room gun confrontation with teammate Javaris Crittenton broke in late December, Jackson, obviously an expert on such matters, opined that, "[i]t makes no sense to have a gun in the locker room with teammates." He continued: "No way would I ever think about that--bringing a gun to a game, or into the locker room. Nothing should make you that mad.''
Let me stipulate at this point that I harbor no shortage of ill-will toward Arenas. I am fanatically anti-gun--I don't think they should be legal anywhere, even for hunting. I'm not even sure the average cop should carry one. Also, I'm a long-suffering Washington Wizards fan who believes the six-year, $111 million contract Arenas signed in 2008 is a franchise-killing albatross. (Arenas, a talented but erratic player, had already missed one season due to injury and went on to miss most of the next.) I'd like nothing more than to see the team void the agreement under its "moral turpitude" clause.
But, having said that: Stephen F'ing Jackson? Really?
Alas, Jackson is hardly the only moral paragon to recently appoint himself arbiter of all that is good and just in pro basketball. There's also longtime civil-rights charlatan Al Sharpton, who saw in the Arenas episode an opportunity to further launder his once-dodgy reputation. "The NBA needs to stand up and send a strong message by dealing with this situation," Sharpton told The New York Daily News in early January. A few days later, he elaborated in a Washington Post op-ed: "When I was growing up in the ghettos of Brooklyn, my peers and I knew unemployment, bad schools and social marginalization, but our athletic and entertainment heroes inspired us to beat the odds." I guess Sharpton must have come up with the idea of inciting national racial tension over fabricated rape accusations all by himself.
Still, it was none other than league commissioner David Stern who epitomized the absurdity of the Arenas situation in handing down the star's indefinite suspension last Wednesday. Alluding to Arenas's irreverent (and sometimes bizarre) tweeting following the December gun episode, and his gun-like hand gestures before a game in Philadelphia, Stern concluded that Arenas is "not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game."
Please don't get me wrong. I agree that Arenas's behavior following the gun incident is both embarrassing and deeply irresponsible. But the standard for fitness that makes Gilbert Arenas a threat to women and children but makes wholesome, family entertainment of, say, Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony--who has an impressively long rap sheet and once appeared in a video urging people to stop cooperating with police in drug prosecutions--would impress a Talmudic scholar. Or, for that matter, take our good friend Stephen Jackson. Six months after his gun-firing incident in 2006, Jackson and teammate Matt Barnes collaborated on a nice little stunt in which Barnes did a gun "pat-down" of Jackson as he was introduced before their hometown crowd. Stern merely told them to cut it out.
As it happens, much of the case against Arenas rests on such fine distinctions. Not long after news of the incident broke, New Jersey Nets guard Devin Harris estimated that 75 percent of NBA players own firearms. Though some have quibbled with the precise number, no one has challenged Harris's claim that gun-ownership is a league-wide norm. And so Arenas's critics have accused him of violating a much more subtle taboo: no guns in the locker room. It's not just the Stephen Jacksons of the world who've invoked this standard of decency. Longtime NBA forward Karl Malone--a sometime clean-liver--came out of retirement to proclaim that "Doing that in the locker room, with so much that can happen? It's one of those things you just don't do." Many of the media's crustiest sports columnists have embraced the standard, too. "Even if Arenas never pulled a trigger here, as Stephen Jackson once did with the Pacers, this incident is the worst, by far," wrote the Daily News's Mitch Lawrence. "Because it happened in an NBA arena."
Never mind that the NBA locker room is hardly the sanctuary Malone and Lawrence make it out to be. (A Bulls assistant coach once told columnist Peter Vescey of walking into the locker room during the team's early '90s heyday to find multiple red dots on his chest. I'd bet there were dozens of guns in NBA locker rooms the day of the Arenas incident.) Even if we grant that guns are rarer in the locker room than, say, player's glove compartments, the moral difference between Jackson's and Arenas's (alleged) crimes massively favor the latter. Jackson fired a loaded gun in a public place. Arenas appears to have displayed four unloaded guns in a private place. Likewise, Malone goes to great lengths to denounce Arenas for his locker-room depravity, before conceding he got his first gun at age ... eight. What's more depraved: Toting an unloaded gun to a locker room, or giving a gun to an eight-year-old?
But, of course, when you play in a league stacked with hooligans, or when you write about that league for a living, or when you manage its operations, or even when (like me) you derive satisfaction from watching the hooligans play several nights a week, it's a lot easier to crown one person King Hooligan than to concede the whole enterprise is rotten.
The irony is that Arenas actually is one of the league's better guys. Yes, he's incredibly immature. (See this recap of all the idiotic pranks he's pulled over the years.) And, yes, he has a stunted sense of moral responsibility. (That he couldn't immediately understand how badly he'd screwed up is borderline unforgivable.) But anyone who knows Arenas, or who's followed his basketball career, will attest that he is emphatically not a hoodlum.
In fact, the details of the Crittenton incident are a case in point. According to the best account we have so far, Arenas laid out the unloaded guns in front of Crittenton's locker and wrote a note instructing Crittenton to pick one--a badly misguided attempt to needle his teammate over a gambling dispute. When Crittenton came in and saw the joke unfolding, he crumpled the note in a rage, threw one of the guns across the room, then drew his own weapon and chambered a round of ammunition. Had Arenas been a bona fide thug, it's doubtful he would have joked around this way--he'd have known the subject of the joke was liable to pull a loaded gun on him. (As Karl Malone's granddaddy told him when he was six, "If you ever pull a gun, be prepared to fire that gun, because the person you pull that gun on has every right to pull a gun on you.") But the benign, if feather-brained, Arenas couldn't see how the humor might backfire on him, so to speak.
Certainly it would be hard to begrudge the league for making a point about guns by coming down hard on its most notorious goofball. (Though the NBA and the Wizards were all too happy to encourage the goofball persona when it suited them.) And no one can deny that Arenas is 100 percent responsible for all the trouble he's in. But, please, save us the moralistic blather. If Gilbert Arenas is an NBA bad guy, then the league is downright irredeemable.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.