Basketball: Bullets over the court

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The revelation that one of the NBA's star players brought guns into his team's changing room has exposed the uncomfortable links between the sport and gang culture

"First in peace, first in war, and last in the American League." That old joke has long summed up the habitual indifference to the capital's habitually inept sports teams. Not any more. For once a Washington team, and one Washington player in particular, are among the hottest talking points in the US. Not however on account of any newly discovered athletic prowess – but because on Christmas Eve, Gilbert Arenas brought a bunch of guns into the changing room at the Verizon Centre, the indoor sports arena that has rejuvenated a swathe of decaying DC downtown.

Arenas is the best player of the Washington Wizards, indeed one of the best players in the National Basketball Association, a three-time All-Star in the midst of a six year $111m contract that earns him approximately $150,000 (£93,000) per game. Now all that, and more, is at risk. Arenas has been indefinitely suspended by the NBA. He is under criminal investigation by city and federal authorities. Like pictures of Trotsky in the former Soviet Union, his image has been banished; a giant banner of him outside the Verizon Centre was taken down one night, leaving a gaping void.

What the player describes as a harmless piece of fun has re-ignited a national debate on sport and the macho culture that underpins it, and turned the spotlight on the anguished history of guns, murder and Washington DC. Making matters worse, another player who was said to be in a dispute over gambling debts with Arenas also brought a gun into the locker room that evening.

Naturally, late night TV has had a field day. On CBS, David Letterman produced his own list of reasons for Arenas' behaviour, among them "Team recently signed an exclusive endorsement deal with Smith and Wesson," and "Sick of Tiger getting all the attention". The sort of attention, in short, that a city always sensitive to its image needs like a hole in the head.

Popular among other players, Arenas has long had the reputation of an oddball, fond of pranks like filling a teammate's bath tub with coffee. One of them, Baron Davis, told USA Today that the angry public reaction was "a total misunderstanding of who he is inside". But sympathy on that score evaporated when courtside photos in the game after the affair became public showed a grinning Arenas pointing his finger like a gun at his colleagues. How stupid can you get?

Yesterday, as it so happened, figures were announced showing that Washington's homicide rate dropped by 25 per cent in 2009 to the lowest level since the mid-1960s. But memories are still raw of the bad old days of 1991, when 479 people were killed in a city of barely 600,000 people, and the capital of the free world became the murder capital of the USA, thanks to the gang wars raging on its streets.

As a result, Washington introduced some of the toughest gun laws in the US, including a ban on handgun ownership that was only reversed last year when the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the second amendment of the constitution enshrining the citizen's right to bear arms.

The rampant crime also led to a change in the name of the local basketball team, until 1997 known as the Washington Bullets. But Abe Pollin, the owner, understandably felt that enough real bullets were flying with deadly effect without seeming to glorify the mayhem in a local sports franchise. The last straw came in 1995, when a religious fanatic shot dead Pollin's friend Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister. And so the Bullets became the Wizards.

But now, thanks to Arenas' latest prank, the Bullets are back, in spirit if not flesh. The guns he took to the Verizon Centre were apparently empty. Not so however the weapon brought by Javaris Crittenton, another Wizard, according to the Washington Post; that one was loaded.

Arenas insists the whole thing was just another prank. But it has focussed attention on the undertows of crime and violence that haunt US sport, especially basketball and American football. The link is obvious; many NBA and NFL players come from poor inner city backgrounds, where guns are part of the culture; some of these players become very rich, very quickly. Not surprisingly, they may feel the need to protect themselves.

One NBA player is on record as saying that three-quarters of his colleagues own guns. True or not, unpleasant things have been happening in the last few years. A couple of NBA players were robbed at home at gunpoint in 2007. A Washington Redskins football player was shot dead at his Florida home; Plaxico Burress, a star of the New York Giants football team, is serving a two-year jail sentence after accidentally firing a gun he had brought to a New York nightclub in 2008. No wonder then that the Arenas affair has struck a raw nerve – and not only in Washington.

Armchair moralists voice outrage over overpaid sports stars who consider themselves above the law. For them, this is just another example of the hyper-macho culture that sets exactly the wrong example for the millions of kids who idolise Arenas and his ilk. For the black community, the affair has been a huge embarrassment. Why hadn't black leaders spoken out about the culture of violence in professional sport, asked Al Sharpton the civil rights leader and some-time presidential candidate. "It's almost as if we are saying, we don't expect anything better from our black athletes."





News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
Louis van Gaal at the Hawthorns prior to Manchester United's game against West Brom
football

Follow the latest updates from the Monday night Premier League fixture

News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past