More Changing of the Star Guard in Washington

One evening last week I departed a suburban Maryland grocery store trailing a father and what appeared be his son, aged about seven. The youth was wearing a Gilbert Arenas Wizards’ jersey.
Two news items from last week made me reflect on this situation: (1) that Arenas had opted out of the final year of his contract with the Wizards, snubbing the tidy sum of $12.8 million next season in exchange for a search this summer for greener pastures (perhaps like Latrell Sprewell before him, Arenas just has a family to feed); and (2) that on Friday the Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin would be accepting the key to the city from the mayor.
It’s absolutely true that Arenas could return to Chinatown this autumn and resume his career as a Wizard, but his announced action last week was something less than, say, the full-on pledge of fidelity made by the other Verizon Center star tenant earlier this year.
In the immediacy of my grocery store moment I wondered if and how the father ahead of me might undertake the explaining of Arenas’ circumstances to his son. No doubt dad would wait until the news was certain, but then what? Assuming Gilbert goes, the youth wearing his jersey this summer confronts perhaps his life’s first full-on agony: his life’s hero departed, without understanding of how or why, to wear the jersey of another team. Next I thought about the legion of Ovechkin shirt-wearing youths in the region, and how they’ll never know such a day.
I’m a huge hockey fan, altogether indifferent when it comes to hoops in all of its iterations, but this wildly divergent imbalance in loyalty by the respective athletes — even in decade four that we are now in of massive player movement each and every season — I don’t like at all. In this regard (and many others), I am a Caveman.
Arenas last week merely did what was common in his sport. If what Ovechkin did in January can’t be described quite as common in his, still, it didn’t quite surprise those of us who follow hockey all that much. Or put another way: when has Ovechkin ever been about himself at the expense of his team?
Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter what Arenas decides to do in what I believe is yet another Summer of Change for sporting D.C. Last week I think signaled more of a dramatic progression in the unprecedented ascension by a sports star here in a sport that’s never truly taken root in this city (but sure looks like it is now). Ovechkin the transformative athlete was last week transforming his town more. You saw last Friday how he summertime transformed A1 of the Washington Post.
In his defense, Arenas is an extremely likeable NBA star. When healthy, he plays his sport magnificently and manages to stay out of trouble off the court, entirely, which unfortunately is somewhat news of note for a leader in that league. Like Ovechkin, Arenas is full of wide-smiling charisma, and like Ovechkin, people are drawn to him. Still, last week, he told us rather explicitly just how near and dear to his heart we Washingtonians were, this way: it’s just business, baby.
It was business, too, for AO last January, real serious business; but he took a markedly different view of his supporters and their town. He articulated then this sentiment: I want to win a Stanley Cup in Washington. He reiterated this in Toronto last Thursday night, when he filled a 747 with honors hardware.
It wasn’t lost on me, either, that Arenas snubbed a sum nearly $3 million more than Ovechkin will ever earn in salary as the planet’s greatest hockey player. And yet, in this moment in time, whereas perhaps 20 years ago the departure of a basketball stud in his 26-year-old prime likely would have occasioned every-office corner angst, are the city’s flags flying at half mast? Is anybody but me this morning much talking about Gilbert?
Our mayor doesn’t seem to be.
But this file isn’t about the humility of hockey players versus the bling and entourages of the athletes in other sports. It’s about the ongoing procession of a pied piper of puck, who just seems with his ongoing presence to take Washington’s sports fans — and the city’s media editors — in ever increasing numbers into his realm.
It is also about his ascension into a new, parallel universe of sports star. One that’s not necessarily in competition with Redskins or Wizards but rather is its own deeply edifying existence: Washington the no longer one-sport city. Even if Jason Campbell manages no better than a .500 career as a Redskin starter he will certainly enjoy greater celebrity and name recognition here than the hockey star. That, along with dispiriting humidity, is Washington’s perpetual affliction. But Ovechkin, without really trying, just by being great and just by being himself, is enlargening our game here. Mario did it in football-looney Pittsburgh, made it fashionable to travel to other cities in a Penguins’ sweater (speaking of afflictions).
Over at the Wilson building last Friday afternoon, Ovechkin again showed how he’s breaking the mold of what we in D.C. have come to know as our enduring sports icons. He’s in possession of a charisma, an aura, that will not be throttled or dimmed by any awkwardness with his still-in-progress command of English. In moments when the most special of stars are supposed to shine, he’s almost always radiant. And so in accepting his ceremonial key to the city he announced, “I’m the president this day in the city, so everybody have fun — no speed limit.”
Apt words, those, because even in 90-degree summer heat Ovie has us having a lot of fun loving him and his winter game.

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8 Responses to More Changing of the Star Guard in Washington

  1. covesdog says:

    I’m running out of superlatives to describe Ovie. The guy is just everything a fan wants his or her star to be.

  2. Mark says:

    FYI- If Arenas hadn’t opted out, the Wizards would most likely be unable to sign him next summer due to funky salary cap rules. Actually, Gil’s best chance to remain a Wizard long term was to opt-out this summer.

  3. vt caps fan says:

    And to add what Mark was saying; Gil said last summer, he would opt out of the contract this year.

  4. The bottom line is this: there’s a healthy chance the star hoopster is playing hoops elsewhere next season, and if so, he ain’t coming back — not in his prime, anyway.

  5. usiel says:

    Well Arenas has stated he doesn’t want to go to a bad team (like the ones that have the most cap space). NBA contract/FA stuff is just way different than the NHL so it is just hard to compare. Arenas is a character though. He chooses not to have an agent represent him just like AO. When he used to blog he would say pretty candid stuff.

  6. Good thoughts, usiel. Again, I’m three stages removed from following the league except via the police blotter and news engines headlines, but I know enough about Gilbert to recognize that he’s a significant asset to the community, and therefore a real loss should he depart. It may also be true that AO and he enjoy a mutual respect. We need more of his type, and sadly he doesn’t seem to be on board with the Wiz these days. Playing one more year at sub-market wages (such as they are) would have allowed Wiz management to bolster roster weakpoints if it so chose, no? And then there’s the consideration that he ain’t exactly Cal Ripken health-wise. Oh, well.

  7. pepper says:

    I think one of the most significant things about Ovie in Washington is that he’s flamboyant, goofy, stylish, exuberant, and supremely confident, but without being an a-hole. Most everything that the prevailing conservative social culture of Washington isn’t.

  8. usiel says:

    I’m not sure what Mark refers to as far as the NBA salary cap rules making it better for the Bullets to sign him when he opts out versus next year but if true that is interesting.
    Arenas was even quoted as saying if he was healthy come negotiation time he expected a max contract but if he was still not 100% that it would be time to negotiate which I thought was pretty accurate and funny.
    I really hope they resign him honestly. I really can’t see the Bullets would be better without him.

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