Gilbert Arenas figured it was an old video. There was no way, he thought, Ja Morant could have done the same thing so soon after his mea culpa. Not with all that was at stake.
“Once I realized it was a new one, there was nothing else to say,” Arenas, the former Washington Wizards star, said, adding: “The fact that you keep wanting to do the things you’re doing, then you must want to see how invincible you think you are.”
Morant, a 23-year-old Memphis Grizzlies guard, is facing criticism for the second time in just over two months for a social media video that appeared to show him playfully but recklessly waving around a gun in public. The N.B.A. verified the first video, in March, but is still investigating the second, which went viral last weekend. Morant apologized Tuesday.
Arenas, 41, can relate to Morant’s turmoil better than almost anyone. In the 2009-10 season, the N.B.A. suspended him for 50 games for bringing guns into his team’s locker room and mocking the situation by making finger gun gestures at a game while the league was still investigating. Arenas, who had made three All-Star teams by then, said he got in trouble in a space where he felt comfortable — perhaps too comfortable.
“It’s different for me because I am not getting in trouble in my everyday life,” Arenas said. “I’m getting trouble at my workplace. The invisible cloud that I thought I had was removed.”
Morant’s trouble has played out on social media, where he has millions of followers, and with much more at stake for his career and for the N.B.A. His otherworldly athleticism has made him a nightly highlight reel with legions of fans who have made his jersey one of the league’s best sellers. Morant released his first signature shoe with Nike this year, and was leading a new advertising campaign for Powerade. He was poised to be one of the young stars the N.B.A. relies on to carry the league forward after LeBron James and Stephen Curry retire. Now all of that is in jeopardy.
Two videos. Two apologies, each with Morant vowing to be better.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver suspended Morant for eight games after the first video, and said in an interview on ESPN on Tuesday that he was “shocked” when he saw the second. It’s unclear whether Morant broke any laws, but Silver, as he did in March, can suspend him for conduct deemed detrimental to the league. The Grizzlies, who were eliminated from the playoffs last month, have suspended Morant from team activities indefinitely.
“He’s not only done a disservice to himself, but to the franchise,” said Larry Parnell, the director of the strategic public relations program at George Washington University. “And I think people take that more personally than they do politicians or actors who misbehave.”
He explained why: “If you’re a celebrity and you make movies and I don’t like what you’re doing, I’m not emotionally attached to your movie, but I’m emotionally attached to the Celtics. I’m emotionally attached to the Grizzlies.”
Arenas said that his situation contrasted with Morant’s because he was more aware that he was a public figure and acted accordingly, such as by not wearing flashy jewelry in public to avoid being robbed. “I understood I am not normal,” Arenas said.
Nevertheless, Arenas’s gun incident overshadowed the rest of his N.B.A. career, which lasted only two more seasons, in part because of injuries. He was seen as immature.
“I think it affected — I don’t even want to say legacy — my name,” said Arenas, who co-hosts the “No Chill” podcast for Fubo Sports. “It affected it really bad. I said it back then, where the most disappointing part of it all is I did 100 things right. I did one wrong thing and that’s all everyone remembers. That’s what really hurts you the most.”
There have been other cautionary tales about star athletes and guns. Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in 2008 at a nightclub in Manhattan less than year after catching the game-winning touchdown for the Giants in the Super Bowl. He spent nearly two years in prison, and his career never recovered. In March, he was asked about Morant in an interview on “The Carton Show.”
“If I was speaking to him, it would just be, ‘If you can’t learn anything, learn from me,’” Burress said. “Just make better decisions because you really don’t want for him to have that label moving forward, being that he’s so young. He has the opportunity to be the face of the N.B.A. He’s that great of a player and you want to continue to see him, you know, mature as a person as his game is getting better.”
Negative reputations can be hard to shake, and the reactions to Morant’s behavior have been mixed. JJ Redick, the ESPN analyst and former N.B.A. player, has argued, like many others, that Morant shouldn’t face harsh punishment if he hasn’t broken the law. Charles Barkley, the TNT analyst and former N.B.A. player, has teed off on Morant, saying that the rules are different for public figures. Nike did not respond to a request for comment, but Morant’s shoes no longer come up in searches for his name at nike.com. A spokesperson for Powerade said the company had “no update” about Morant’s contract.
Arenas lost his shoe deal with Adidas because of his gun incident. He also pleaded guilty to one count of felony gun possession and was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house. That was more than a decade ago, but Arenas has become the go-to voice when athletes are in trouble. Still, in November, the Wizards honored him with a framed jersey at halftime of a game on “Throwback Night.”
“We all throw out the word: ‘Be accountable for your actions,’” Arenas said. “But do we actually allow that person to really be accountable? When we see: ‘OK, he never touched a gun ever again. He’s never showed that same behavior to want to be around guns. Never looked at a gun.’ Why would you keep reminding the world that that’s what he did?
“We want the person to change their behavior, but we don’t want to accept it when they do.”