As of Monday, Amazon.com was still taking pre-orders on Score Like Agent Zero, a Gilbert Arenas autobiography that the retailer says will hit shelves in May.
But, all things considered, that book likely won’t ever come out, at least not with that title. Agent Zero is dead, as gone as the Verizon Center mural that featured him.
His demise hurts James Morris more than it hurts other Wizards fans.
“Watching this go down, it’s seemed like death by cop, only in Gilbert’s case it was death by Twitter,” Morris says of Arenas’ guns-in-the-locker room debacle. “Like he wanted to stay out there until somebody took him down. And David Stern took him down. Now the team and the league and everybody wants Gilbert Arenas wiped off the face of the earth. That depresses me.”
Morris played a significant and really cool role in Arenas’ transcendence from NBA player to, well, something bordering on superheroism: He gave him that great nickname.
Morris, a Bullets/Wizards fan for most of his 40 years, is a former Washington City Paper graphic designer. He is also one of the geniuses behind Wizznutzz, the part-sports-blog, part-psychedelicatessen that’s been entertaining and confusing Wizards fans since 2002. Morris’ first use of the handle came in the spring of 2006, in a post titled “New Incites Revealed into manic brain of AGENT ZERO!!!!” Morris’ post fantasized about Arenas’ life after basketball and dreamed up a Werner Herzog documentary on the Wizards star that was canceled when the player and the auteur got into a feud almost as serious as the real-life one that got Arenas in his current mess.
“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 Morris’ first “Agent Zero” 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.”
(If he could get past the surrealism, surely Javaris Crittenton would agree with the post’s last sentence.)
Misspellings are but one sign of the brilliance of Wizznutzz; fab nicknames are another. Everybody gets one in Morris’ realm. Abe Pollin, for example, was “Mr Drummond.” Morris told me in 2006 that Pollin got his handle because the site’s creators looked at him “like the dad from Diff’rent Strokes, an old guy who drives around in a limo and grabs young black kids off the playground.” Arenas, to that point, had usually been referred to as the “Black President,” a name the player himself had invented. “Agent Zero” referenced Arenas’ jersey number and his superhero carriage. Even the writers at Wizznutzz use pseudonyms.
Morris could see right away that “Agent Zero” was more popular with other bloggers than, say, “Mr. Drummond.” So Wizznutzz began giving digital ink to the moniker whenever Arenas was mentioned. The real breakthrough for “Agent Zero” came at the Wizards training camp for the 2006-2007 season, when Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post, another huge figure in Arenas’ rise to superheroism, asked the player to rate the nicknames bloggers were using to describe him. (Full disclosure: Steinberg is a friend.)
Steinberg posted that when “Agent Zero” was brought up to him, Arenas began repeating “I like that!” again and again.
And Arenas soon was putting his money where his mouth was. Morris heard during that season that Arenas had ordered 20,000 T-shirts with agent zero printed on them. On the Mike Wise Show on WJFK-FM earlier this week, the host and Post columnist talked about going to a workout before the 2007 All-Star Game in Las Vegas and watching Arenas toss his shirts to the crowd. Wise noticed that the crowd was more enthralled with the Wizards player than with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who were dancing on the floor nearby. Morris, following the team via cable TV from his Brooklyn home, began seeing his brainchild written on official and bootlegged Arenas shirts at Wizards games on the road in coliseums across the country. Morris never met Arenas, but he got plenty of thrills through the player’s occasional references to things he’d read on Wizznutzz.
“The nickname became so ubiquitous that I’d see it and not even think about it,” he says. “Then every once in a while I’d remember, ‘Hey, that’s us! We came up with that!’ That was cool. I realize now that this was a once-in-a-lifetime connection between a fan and an NBA player, but now all these articles are saying, ‘Gilbert Arenas, the clown who calls himself Agent Zero!’ That hurts.”
Arenas’ rise, Morris theorizes, was a function of both technology and the sorry history of the Wizards franchise.
“Washington sports fans aren’t like Yankees fans, where you can just pick whatever free agents to come to your team and then complain about the left fielder if he doesn’t make the all-star team, because then they only have eight all-stars,” he says. “We had Mitchell Butler and Tyrone Nesby, and then Gilbert came here, and all the joy that the low-self-esteem fans in D.C. had inside just came out. He looked like he was going to be an all-star for a long time, and he had a great personality, a guy who connected with the fans, a fun, free spirit. Totally different, too, like that albino in the movie Powder. And he came at a time when bloggers were reporting on things that beat reporters would never write about—irreverent, non-basketball related factoids to report on, and all of a sudden we had Gilbert, with this new type of fandom that wasn’t around before. It just took off.”
And now Arenas has landed, with a big thud. A lot of famous athletes have come back from more macabre situations. Read the police report from Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case in Colorado, or from the investigations of Michael Vick’s dogfighting exploits, and the speed with which they got their careers back on track becomes shocking.
Not to compare their cases, but Tiger Woods got more bad press than either Bryant or Vick, yet he still seems just one tournament win away from being back in the swing of things career-wise.
Morris can’t see Gilbert’s rehab moving along so easily.
“With Tiger, Kobe and Vick, we learned that they had this other side, this secret side, that was darker than the guy we thought we knew,” he says. “Gilbert’s problem here is that everything that happened is exactly the guy we thought we knew—the pranks, the inability to take things seriously. That’s who he is. Kobe Bryant is driven by a desire to be talked about 20 years from now. Gilbert, it’s 20 minutes from now. It’s: What’s my next prank? Who’s my next character? What’s my next zany idea? We wanted more, more, and more from him, and he tried to give it to us. A guy who made better decisions would be great, but it wouldn’t be Gilbert. It’s not a darker side of Gilbert that came out; it’s the same side of Gilbert that we loved that got him involved in some dark stuff.”
Morris thinks Gilbert’s role with the Wizards can’t ever be the way it was. Whichever NBA city the former Agent Zero lands in, Morris’ loyalties will follow.
“If he stays with the Wizards, he’ll be a sad and broken figure,” Morris says. “People will be mocking everything that comes out of his mouth. If he’s not smiling and telling jokes, if there’s no joy, none of the things that made him special and different, and if he’s not calling himself Agent Zero, then that’s not redemption. What’s he been able to save?”
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