James Morris was watching a Wizards–Cavaliers game on TV recently when cameras panned the Verizon Center grandstands. He noticed a 60-something couple wearing identical baggy white T-shirts with agent zero printed on the front.
That’s Gilbert Arenas’ nickname. Morris knows this because he invented it.
“Seeing that—that was jaw dropping,” says Morris, 37, a former Washington City Paper graphic designer now living in New York. “I found out the next day that Gilbert had printed up 20,000 T-shirts to give to fans.”
Superstar handles and shirt slogans come from Madison Avenue and Nike boardrooms, not the hoi polloi. Everybody knows that. Well, everybody but Morris. He knows his brainchild had a natural birth and grew up quite organically. And then was suddenly embraced by a gazillionaire hero.
Morris coined “Agent Zero” in April while writing about Arenas for Wizznutzz, a surrealistic blog that’s been mixing sports fantasy and facts, usually with some tie-in to the local NBA franchise, since 2002. He titled that post “New Incites Revealed into manic brain of AGENT ZERO!!!!” (Proper spelling and grammar are as optional as lucidity on Wizznutzz.)
The momentous piece delved into Arenas’ life after basketball and pondered the fabulousness of a Werner Herzog documentary on the Wizards star. Thing is, such a project will never happen because of a feud between Arenas and Herzog:
“Gilbert doesnt talk to Werner anymore cuz of the time they were playing Gauntlet 4-player coop-mode at the PuttPutt Arcade with Kinski and Blatche,” read the post, “and Werner’s elf got killed, and he started bugging Gil by doing this grave voiceover to try and distract Gilbert from his game and then Werner crossed the line when he says ‘Stupidity is the devil. Look in the eye of a chicken and you’ll know. It’s the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creature in this world.’ Some snubs cant be unsnubbed.”
Everybody gets a nickname at Wizznutzz: Even the posters use fake bylines, and until now, Wizznutzz contributors have never admitted to anything using their real names. Some of the handles given Wizards are higher brow than others, though most are based on some personality or physical trait or biographical minutiae. After finding out that former guard Juan Dixon, for example, carried his own toilet paper with him on the road, to the Wizznutzz faithful he became “Jaggers,” after a Dickens character who obsessively washes his hands. And owner Abe Pollin was “Mr. Drummond.”
“We thought he’s like the dad from Diff’rent Strokes,” says Morris, “an old guy who drives around in a limo and grabs young black kids off the playground.”
So Morris didn’t think he was coming up with the next “Air Jordan” when he first dubbed Arenas “Agent Zero,” which is rooted in the player’s jersey number and oft-stated fascination with the digit.
“That first time [with ‘Agent Zero’], it was just a throwaway line in a post,” Morris says. “We have a ton of nicknames, for everybody. We’d even been calling Gilbert ‘The Black President’ because he had called himself that.”
But the penetration of “Agent Zero” was much deeper than any of its predecessors’. The timing of its debut was fortuitous: The Wizards were about to enter a seven-game series with Cleveland, in which the top story line was Arenas vs. LeBron “Queen” James, so “Gilbert Arenas” was probably getting Googled more than ever before.
And in the months after the name first showed up, Morris noticed that fellow bloggers, including Basketball Jones and DCist, gave “Agent Zero” some play.
“I had used [‘Agent Zero’] once and then stopped using it,” says Morris. “But when the other bloggers were rolling with it, we decided we’d push it. It wasn’t anything real serious, but we were like, ‘Hey, this is ours! Let’s build some momentum!’”
The tipping point for “Agent Zero” came during Wizards training camp this fall, when Washington Post blogger Dan Steinberg posted on his D.C. Sports Bog that he’d asked Arenas to go thumbs up or thumbs down on nicknames others had come up with for him. (Full disclosure: Steinberg is a neighbor and hero of mine.)
“Agent Zero” was in the mix. “Ooooh, I like that, I like that,” Arenas told Steinberg, who wrote that the player continued repeating, “I like that.”
“That blew us away,” says Morris. “Again, [Wizznutzz] is something we do for fun. We’re not crazy fans who go to every game and sit up front and pull our hair out. This is fun. And we were never thinking that there’s a chance we were gonna get any big play with this. Now we had somebody actually asking him about it, and he liked it!”
The nickname also showed up on the back of Arenas’ Topps basketball card: “For the man they call ‘Agent Zero,’ last season was a year of positive numbers,” read the card.
Then Arenas confessed to the basketball chronicle HoopsWorld that “Agent Zero” was going to be used as part of his plan to take over D.C.—and then the world. Arenas, who comes up with nicknames for stuff also, had dubbed this self-promotional campaign “The Takeover.”
“Whenever LeBron, Carmelo, D-Wade, or Kobe come in I’ll try to take the spotlight away,” Arenas told HoopsWorld. “I’ll flood the arena with 20,000 Adidas shirts that say things like ‘Zero to Hero’ or ‘Take Over’ or ‘Agent Zero.’”
Soon enough, Steve Buckhantz, the Wizards’ TV announcer, was dropping it into his play-by-play during a game telecast: “From their young star, the assassin, the new Bond, 15 points for Agent Zero, Gilbert Arenas,” Buckhantz said.
And weeks after being personally introduced to “Agent Zero” by Steinberg, Arenas was still clearly warm to its form. Arenas posted on his own personal blog, which can be found on the NBA’s Web site, that he wanted to someday put out basketball shoes named Agent Zeros.
And he publicly wondered where this name that he and everybody else were using came from.
“Oh that’s hot,” he said of the nickname. “Whoever made that ‘Agent Zero’ up gets a percentage.”
Morris says he can’t conceive of a situation where he’d actually take Arenas up on that offer and try to get a piece of the pie.
“If this becomes as big as Allen Iverson and ‘The Answer’ or ‘Air Jordan,’ maybe we’d try to make a few calls,” says Morris. “But we’re just really stoked that he’s using something that we put out there. It’s a feeling like we’re manipulating the world a little bit. Out of all the nicknames, this one got plucked from obscurity. Getting it on the card, Gilbert mentioning it on his blog, seeing it on the basketball telecast, those are big things. Pretty much all the NBA bloggers call him ‘Agent Zero’ at this point. This has been a thrill, a total blast.”
Last week, Arenas’ shoe line actually debuted. The player made appearances in New York to promote the sneakers, and Morris attended the openings. It wasn’t a totally happy affair for Morris: The first batch of shoes are called Gil Zeros.
It could have been worse.
Says Morris, “Gil mentioned at the launch that he was going to call the shoes Ground Zeros.”—Dave McKenna