Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mourning and Mapping the Washington Wizards' Apatow Era

No more, Knuckleheads. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)

Gilbert Arenas signed with the Washington Wizards before the 2003-04 season. The only holdover from Arenas' stay with the capital city's roundball club, Andray Blatche, was ejected from the premises and ushered beyond city limits by the amnesty clause on a Tuesday this summer; July 17, to be exact.

These two events unofficially bracket the Knucklehead Era — a distinction that will forever be inseparable from a certain few players and their actions during their times under the Wizards flag. For better or worse, it will also stick with the franchise and stay in the not-so-deep reaches of its fans' minds until John Wall and Bradley Beal become a yearly threat to make playoff runs.

Or if Wall turns his summer hoops hangover injuries into an annual ordeal until the Wizards find the right combination of draft picks, role players, free agents and trade acquisitions to contend in the Eastern Conference.

But the legacies of Arenas, Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young in Washington may as well be imprinted on the Verizon Center's court like a sponsor's name, or banging about in the rafters like specters waiting for a final "yes or no" on absolution.

Their actions played out much more like a low-brow comedy on the big screen rather than a force on the basketball court. Like it or not, that statement would probably have drawn smirks or guffaws from the Knuckleheads at a certain point.

When he was hired in the summer of 2003 and Arenas' signing was one of his first official acts as Wizards general manager, Ernie Grunfeld couldn't have known that he was crafting one of the modern era's greatest metaphors of sports and pop culture — that, silently, he had asserted himself as the NBA's version of Judd Apatow and would soon accrue his cast of Jason Segels, Paul Rudds and Seth Rogens.

Grunfeld's personnel moves and behind the scenes work makes him the de facto producer. His cohorts directing the action, obviously, are the four coaches the Wizards have employed from 2003 to 2012: Eddie Jordan, Ed Tapscott, Flip Saunders and Randy Wittman. They're the Era's Adam McKay, Greg Mottola, and whoever elicited the *ahem* fantastic performances in Drillbit Taylor and Year One. (Steven Brill and Harold Ramis, for what it's worth.)

Arenas wasn't so much a member of the Knuckleheads as he was a swaying influence whose presence mattered more than erstwhile Wizards like Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. For all intents and purposes, the Artist Formerly Known as Agent Zero is Will Ferrell. His franchise introduction in 2003 even coincides with the production of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. If Arenas makes his way back to the NBA from playing ball overseas and Washington finds itself in need of a veteran guard, Gil could even reprise his role a la Ferrell in the upcoming Anchorman sequel.

(By the way, this will never, ever happen. The cleansing process is effectively finished and even one of those ceremonial retirement contracts would be poison for the Wizards.)

Blatche and McGee made rebounding a science. (Getty Images)
Andray Blatche — the longest tenured Knucklehead, having been drafted in 2005 and remaining a Wizard until his amnesty expulsion — was the crew's Jonah Hill. Blatche developed as a prospect and played his last non-professional ball at Henninger High School then went straight to the NBA, you say? Hill was a bit actor who got weird for less than a minute in The 40 Year Old Virgin the same year Blatche started getting boneheaded in Washington.

In 2007-08, Blatche played his first full 82-game season, becoming a notable part of Washington's cadre of big men. Likewise, Superbad provided Hill his first starring role as the meatier member of a bumbling youthful duo in '07. The character was on a single-minded mission to bring to fruition his dream of a physical relationship with the girl of his dreams, and although it happened three years after Hill fell short of that goal in his portrayal, Big 'Dray's one-night dedication to getting a triple-double is one of the more selfish acts ever to happen on a basketball court, no matter how hilarious it is (except, probably, to Wizards fans).

The same kind of physical relations Hill sought in Superbad are the focal point of what may be Blatche's greatest hit as a Wizard. The forward was allegedly just that when he supposedly solicited an undercover police officer for sex, but the charges were dropped when Blatche attended a seminar for men who hire prostitutes. He was charged on August 2, 2007 — a mere 15 days before Superbad's release.

It doesn't stop there, though. In 2010, the NBA implicated Blatche in Arenas' firearms-in-locker-room incidents with then-teammate Javaris Crittenton and fined Blatche $10,000 for his participation. He was an ancillary player to Arenas' actions the same way Hill's Aaron Green had a supporting role in a major musician's antics in Get Him to the Greek, Apatow's flagship release of 2010.

For their parts, McGee and Young weren't any of Apatow's imagined people. Sure, JaVale cuts a slender silhouette for his 7-foot frame like Hill's Supderbad buddy Michael Cera, and if the film had been released after Young had been in the league for a couple years it would be mind-blowing if one of the more basketball-astute rappers didn't refer to him as McLovin'. It sounds like something Wale could work into a rhyme, but maybe that's because he actually did use "McLovin'" in a rhyme.

Mostly, though, they were there own characters. Sometimes it was on purpose (ex. the numerous Nick and JaVale Show clips on YouTube, including one where they attempt to eat spoonfuls of cinnamon with predictably disastrous results) and many, many other times McGee and Young were characters in the sense that their actions were outrageous enough to leave viewers in disbelief (see: the plentiful "Top Dumb Plays" compilations that exist for McGee).

It's the kind of stuff that the supporting characters from Knocked Up would revel in. Boxing above a pool, playing ping pong in a driveway, finding new ways to spread pink eye — name any number of attempts at sophomoric humor, and it's not a stretch of the imagination to think that Young and McGee — a man who only tweets by retweeting himself and has an alter ego named Pierre — could have been doing these things in their free time in Washington.

That's in the past for now. McGee is slowly finding his way as a Denver Nugget, posting triple-doubles and earning a contract extension with his playoff showing against the Lakers in the spring. Blatche pulled off a feat arguably more impressive than a triple-double by scoring 22 points on 11-12 shooting — good for a 91.7 field goal percentage — as his Brooklyn Nets team beat the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night. Young, although his statistics are slightly down across the board when compared to 2011-12, has .063 win shares per 48 minutes. That's not good at all, considering the league average is .100, but it will be the second best WS/48 of Young's career if he manages to sustain for the whole season.

Little by little, they could all be maturing. The same may be true for Arenas, who was served humble pie by missing out on a contract stateside despite working out in Staples Center for the majority of the summer. He'll be spending the foreseeable future in China after signing with the Shanghai Sharks this week.

Arenas' placement of firearms and the ensuing fallout is well documented, but the lasting touch of the Knucklehead Era that he inspired is encapsulated in a recent epilogue. Alongside two legs of the Knucklehead tripod, he spent a day on a paintball course. It's all in the video: him chiding McGee and Young; JaVale seeming completely serious at times and flaunting unnecessary flair (in this case, a paint grenade) in other scenes; and Young, being a sidekick to it all.

They may no longer be Wizards, but — in their hearts and, if we're being truthful with ourselves, in our hearts, too — they will always be real life versions of caricatures from Apatow's mind. As frustrating as it was, and as comical as it could be, maybe that's exactly what we need: something to laugh at when a game such as basketball seems perpetually serious.

Or maybe it's just what we want, regardless of what George Karl's strict coaching does to McGee in Denver, or the number of times Blatche records a ridiculous shooting percentage that no one ever expected from him, or even when Young facilitates enough through 10 games to account for nearly 20 percent of all his assists in '11-'12, as he has so far this season.

It could be as simple as us just wanting them to fit the same mold forever. But our wants don't matter. Blatche, McGee and Young will always be the tenants of the Knucklehead Era, and that's all we really need to remember.

Follow @BeatsDimesDrive on Twitter

No comments:

Post a Comment