Monday, January 11, 2010

Arenas, Shanahan, and a crazy DC sports week

What a week for someone working for the sports section at Washington, D.C.'s top newspaper. We had paparazzi style stalking of Mike Shanahan outside of lavish steakhouses and airports, the ongoing denigration of Gilbert Arenas from basketball blogging icon to gun toting criminal, and hell, Saturday, Georgetown and Connecticut might have played the best college basketball game of the season to date.

I wasn't really on the front lines for any of this (although I was in the house to watch UCONN and GTown), but for much of the week I was working in the office at the Post as everything developed. It was craziness, editors that usually work 9-5 schedules working through the night and me having very little time to do any blogging. What was I doing? Well, you can read a profile I did for the paper on UConn's Jerome Dyson as well as four stories about high school wrestling that be viewed here, here, here, and here. I would include the GTown and Capitals stories I did for the Express, but alas, their website is really messed up and you can only view the .pdf of the paper.

But through it all I got to see the side of the newspaper/media business that I hadn't really seen since my New York Sun days. That being the ideal of the scoop. See, in my opinion, The Post got its ass handed to it on the original reporting of both the Arenas and Shanahan stories. The New York Post's Peter Vescey broke the original report of a western shootout between Gilbert and Javaris Crittenton in the Wiz locker room. In Shanahan's case, it was Michigan Daily alum Adam Schefter driving the news cycle.

The first instinct is to criticize the Post for this, because well, they got beat on two of the biggest sport stories to happen in DC in recent memory. But here's what some people don't always realize. Do you really think Peter Vescey got his source for that story from the Wizards? Considering the NBA league offices are in New York City, I'm almost 100 percent positive it got leaked by someone up there. With Shanahan, I think it was generally overlooked that Schefter wrote Shanahan's book, "Think like a Champion", which came out in 1999, and that every time "sources" were telling him things about the situation, the most likely person giving him that info was Shanahan himself. Also overlooked in this story was the fact that Dan Snyder and the Skins hate the Washington Post's guts even though we give them double (and sometimes triple) the coverage of any other sports team in this town.

But like I said earlier, people were working their butts off in the office once these stories broke and I think my employer more than acquitted itself on both these stories in the days after news broke. First, in the Shanahan story, I think Les Carpenter's excellent feature that came out the day Shanahan was introduced as head coach really got to the crux of what could go wrong in this Redskins marriage. With it looking more and more like Snyder was talking with Shanahan throughout this season, therefore meaning Bruce Allen was handpicked by Shanahan to be general manager, I'm having second thoughts about Shanahan as the ultimate decision maker in this organization. Shanahan claims he won't use that final say power often, but his track record makes that seem highly unlikely. Because as we all know, the only person I can think of that has been able to successfully balance the roles of talent evaluator and coach has been Bill Parcells. Here's a look inside his brain:

While Shanahan's coaching prowess is widely proclaimed, he is not nearly as admired as a personnel executive. Much of the thinking is that Shanahan's lust for control and a constant belief that he was only a player or two away from the Super Bowl led him into questionable moves. ...

Shanahan often evaluated players by watching tapes of their highlights, a system employed by some in the league who believe that if you see a player at his best then he can be coached up to that ability. ...

But many league executives say the approach can become intoxicating to a coach who is confident in his ability to coach the player to that level and has the ultimate authority to choose that player. "He didn't listen to his scouts," said one NFL general manager, who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to publicly criticize another team executive.

Those three paragraphs should cause some red flags among devoted Skins fans. The problem this organization has had since Snyder took control was overrating their own players. They overpay players, who as a result of their bloated salaries, believe they're as good as they're being paid. For a coach to think a team that has gone 6-18 over the past season and a half is a player or two away would be damn near criminal in my book. Good thing we've got some new, sane minds over there at Redskins Park. Wait, what's that? An oh shit moment, courtesy of Bruce Allen during his presser announcing Jim Zorn's firing:

I'm saying that we need to find the passionate coach, a winning coach, that can come in and lead the men that were in this room earlier, because maybe some of our greatest improvements are our players that are already on the roster playing better."

Me and Bruce will have to agree to disagree on that one. I would gut the roster as soon as possible.

Moving on to Gilbert, it's been a tragic fall for a guy who I loved just a couple of years ago. Now personally, I'm not one of those that have just left the Gilbert wagon. My best guess is his days as a Wizard are probably over, especially since they've removed any semblance of him from Verizon Center. But I think this personification of Arenas as some kind of criminal by the national media overlooks some of the man's biggest character flaws.

He's a 28-year-old kid at heart, a troublesome kid, but a kid nonetheless. The real problem here is that he's 28 and not say, 13 or 14. Creating mischief when you're being paid hundreds of millions of dollars is just not a formula for success, and ultimately through all his antics, it's partly our own fault for disregarding some of his obvious faults (I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else). The Post's Mike Wise has been all over this story (and broke the whole Crittenton loading a weapon and chambering it thing) since he knows Gilbert about as well as any reporter out there, but it was Sally Jenkins who I thought wrote a brilliant column about this whole situation in Saturday's Post. Read the whole thing because it really does some great psychoanalyzing, but here's an excerpt that I think does this situation complete justice:

I don't claim to know Arenas. Like so many others, I've always enjoyed him from afar for his lightness of being. But looking backward, perhaps it was a sign of trouble. That lightness now looks like an empty vessel that he fills up with whatever version of a self pleases him in the moment, or that he finds expedient. This season alone, we have seen Strictly Business Gilbert and Vow of Silence Gilbert morph into Chattering Gilbert and Unstoppable Twittering Gilbert. He contradicts his own statements, one day he expresses regret for bad judgment and the next he's got nothing to be remorseful about. The emerging depiction is of a man with sharply veering moods, whose sense of self is highly unstable, and who has yet to adequately address or heal some inner divisions and fractures.

To me, Gilbert Arenas is that loveable troublemaker that you can't just punish even though deep down it's probably the best thing for him. Was he dumb to bring his guns into the Verizon Center? Absolutely. But it's all part of some complicated psychological issues that he's had for a long, long time. Problems that should have been addressed years ago, but because of his basketball talent and natural charisma, were swept under the rug and ignored at times. That being said, I really hope he finds a way to get back into the league (and if Latrell Sprewell got another shot, Gilbert most certainly will, too) because at his peak, Gilbert was spectacular to watch both on and off the floor. As we look back over time, I really believe he will be remembered as one of the revolutionary figures in the NBA post-Jordan, with the way he changed how athletes communicate with their fans.

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