When I grew up watching the NBA, Gilbert Arenas was the star player on the Washington Wizards. They weren’t my favorite team, but I felt like they always underperformed — with Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison, I felt like the team had enough talent to win the NBA championship. However, they would be decimated by injury. Gilbert Arenas was a particularly talented player, known as “Agent Zero” and averaging over 25 points per game between 2004 and 2007.
However, I remember something crazy happened to the team in late 2009. I didn’t think less of Arenas or the Wizards as a whole — I just remember the events being bizarre.
News broke that Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the locker room. According to Howard Beck in the New York Times, Arenas was charged with a felony gun possession, which carried the possibility of five years of jail time. Since the guns were brought into the Verizon Center in D.C., the gun control laws were especially strict.
Arenas later said he stored four unloaded guns in the locker room as a joke against Crittenton. He asked Crittenton to “pick one” after an argument over gambling debt where Crittenton threatened to shoot Arenas in the knee. Crittenton, instead, brought out his own gun, and put a bullet into the chamber.
Arenas apologized, saying it was “a misguided effort to play a joke on a teammate.” The tension between the two started on a plane ride back to D.C. from Phoenix, but both would get into significant trouble because a collective bargaining agreement prevented NBA players from possessing a weapon at an NBA facility. Also, Stern lamented that Arenas and Crittenton put other players in danger.
“The issue here is not about the legal ownership and possession of guns, either in one’s home or elsewhere. It is about possession of guns in the NBA workplace, which will not be tolerated,” Stern said.
The Washington Wizards organization condoned the sanctions given by David Stern. In fact, the organization worked very hard to change their names from the Washington Bullets in 1997 to the Washington Wizards because of gun violence in the community. The Wizards released a statement as a “reminder that gun violence is a serious issue.” Wizards coach Flip Saunders said “we’re all pretty much numb to the whole thing” and that they knew nothing good would come of the situation.
Arenas’s career would be a struggle after the events. He would be suspended for the entirety of the 2009–2010 season. He would then be traded to the Orlando Magic in 2010, but would struggle with injuries the rest of his career. He would play in China for a couple of years, but he would never be the same player he once was.
Crittenton was also suspended the whole year by commissioner David Stern. He would never play in the NBA again, and in 2015, according to Albert Lee at SBNation, Crittenton was sentenced to 23 years in prison for a drive-by shooting that killed a mother of four children outside her home. He was sentenced for voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault with his cousin.
Lee and many other commentators would call the locker room incident between Crittenton and Arenas “GunGate.”
More details wouldn’t come until many years later
Wizards player Caron Butler would tell details and open up about the story in 2015, in his book, My Journey from the Streets to the NBA. According to Butler, the confrontation was over $1,100 on an airplane card game. Arenas said “I play with guns,” and then Crittenton said, “I play with guns too.”
The team would have the next day off, but practice started on December 21st at 10 a.m. Butler said he went into the locker room, and he thought he’d gone back “to my days on the streets of Racine,” referring to his hometown in Racine, Wisconsin, where Butler said he was arrested 15 times before 15, only having pimps and drug dealers to look up to, before getting into basketball in solitary confinement.
Butler recalls Arenas standing in front of two locker stalls with four guns on display. One of the lockers was the one Michael Jordan used to use. Crittenton was in front of his own locker, with his back facing arenas.
Arenas told Crittenton: “Hey, MF, come pick one…I’m going to shoot your [expletive] with one of these.”
According to Butler, Crittenton didn’t back down. Instead, he turned around slowly “like a gunslinger in the Old West” and pointed his own gun, already loaded and cocked, at Arenas.
“Oh no, you don’t need to shoot me with one of those…I’ve got one right here,” Crittenton said.
Other plays in the locker room stopped talking and joking around, and realized the two players were absolutely serious about shooting each other. Butler recalls everyone ran for the door, and the last man out locked the door behind him. However, he didn’t panic, having seen much worse in his childhood in Racine. He told Crittenton that his life and career would be over if he flicked the trigger. He also looked at Arenas, who was silent but walked away. Crittenton lowered his gun, and someone outside the locker room called 911 before the situation de-escalated.
Arenas, however, would contest Butler’s version of events, and say“the #Gunsinthelocker story is FALSE.” According to Arenas’s own version of events in an Instagram post, Crittenton was playing cards with two other players, JaVale McGee and Earl Boykins. Crittenton was losing — badly. The pot was apparently $1,100 deep.
Arenas, apparently, was asleep. But when he woke up, McGee had won the pot. Boykins asked for $200 of his money back, but McGee said he’d give the money back to Boykins after the plane landed because he didn’t want to jinx himself. Crittenton got angry that McGee didn’t pay Boykins back immediately, but apparently got even more angry when Arenas wanted in on a $1,100 pot.
There was eventually a huge dispute over who owed who money. After McGee won a hand, Crittenton was apparently upset McGee didn’t give him a chance to win his money back, according to Jenna West at Sports Illustrated. Once they got off the plan, according to the Action Network, Arenas was trying to mediate, but Crittenton got very upset with McGee:
“So you just gonna let me lose my money like that?…Aw hell naw, this is the type of shit that gets you fucked up in these streets.”
Arenas then stoked the flame, and said: “Javaris, I will burn your car, while you’re still in it. Then we’ll find a fire extinguisher to help ya ass out.”
Neither man backed down, but Arenas summarized that Crittenton said he would shoot him first, and Arenas taunted, saying he would give Crittenton the guns to shoot him. Essentially, in Arenas’s account, the trash talk would lead to the altercation, not the money.
“This had nothing to do with gambling debts…It was about the shit-talking while I was losing. It was like someone scoring on you every time down. I’m the designated shit-talker. I could be down $40,000, but if I irritated someone so bad they feel like they lost $20K? I’m happy. I won. I don’t feel like the biggest loser of the night,” Arenas said.
There could many takeaways here, but the simplest is this: don’t bring guns into the workplace. Many people have differing opinions over the right to bear arms in this country, which is fine. But the NBA strictly prohibited players from bringing guns to the locker room. While Arenas may have seen the altercation as a joke, Butler and other players clearly did not think so.
The initial reports from the media were that the events were over gambling debts. Butler and Arenas’s stories are not too different — only Arenas claims he was mediating a dispute between McGee and Crittenton and talking trash in the process, while Butler may not have known exactly what was going on since no one has said where Butler was on the plane at the time. There is also likely a different side to the story if you ask Javaris Crittenton. However, Crittenton is not allowed to give media interviews due to his sentence, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections Office of Public Affairs.
These simultaneous conflicting accounts are very plausible — the Rashomon Effect is a psychological phenomenon that dictates that people can have contradictory interpretations or descriptions of the same event.
Regardless, Jon Gold at Action Network describes Bourré, or booray, a very common card game played on airplanes and locker rooms. It was the game that initiated the confrontation between the two players, and one players would find a lot of fun in. It’s a game that was originally made in French Louisiana that can have two to seven players. Gold says the game is “most similar to spades and hearts.” I find it difficult to understand, but like most card games, you probably need to play it to learn it best.
The game meant a lot to Arenas, but to him, it was never about the money. It was about the fun and the camaraderie. At the end of the day, it also cost him his career.
Photo adapted by author on Canva Pro, both original photos from Keith Allison on Flickr
Originally published on SportsRaid on February 2nd, 2021.