Miserable Wizards Conjure The Ghost Of Agent Zero

The Athletic ran a story a few days ago about a Washington Wizards loss to Memphis with a headline lamenting that the team had taken a “step backward.” After reading the story I understood that the wording was meant as a one-game summary. But it got me thinking about how attractive a step back sounded at the time. Wizards fans gotta take a whole lotta steps back, as in down memory lane, to find anything worth smiling about.

The present is bleak as hell: After last night’s loss to Chicago the Wizards have an NBA-worst record of 11-56. So unless they play better than .500 ball from here on they’ll end the season with the worst record in franchise history. (They’re not going to play better than .500 ball from here on.) And the team’s future somehow seems bleaker, what with Ted Leonsis’s plan to haul his assets to a fictional land of $75 parking spaces and $730 hotel rooms leaving everybody on either side of the Potomac River angry at the owner.

I’d gone to see the Wizards play at home against Orlando days before the Athletic story appeared. And I’d had a better time than at any game I’d attended in years, mostly because the team looked way back. The on-court proceedings stank—the Magic won by 10 and nobody on either team played as if the game mattered—but real glee came in the form of free Gilbert Arenas ballcaps for me and the rest of the first 10,000 folks who showed up.

Sure, at first blush I pondered the dubiousness of a giveaway night celebrating Arenas. This was a guy, after all, whose rollercoaster run in Washington ended after he’d served a 50-game suspension from the league and faced felony firearms charges for bringing four damn guns into his team’s locker room while beefing with teammate/future murderer Javaris Crittenton. Other than showing up to Capital One Arena as part of a players’ reunion last year, he’s had very little presence in D.C. since being traded to Orlando shortly after the guns incident. According to the team, Arenas designed the giveaway cap, but did not attend the game at which his past was celebrated.

I got beyond the yucky memories once I noticed the free hat was adorned with an “Agent 0” patch in honor of Gil’s old nickname. It reminded me that before everything here went to hell, Arenas gave me, and anybody who paid attention, so much to grin about. The Arenas-era Wizards were entertaining at work and moreso at play, and surely rank as the most beloved non-championship teams in franchise history. The Agent Zero nickname’s origin story, which shows how little separation there was between the fans and a bona fide NBA superstar in the early days of the internet, has awed me for almost two decades. Hell, I first typed about the nickname shortly after its birth in 2006. And that wasn’t the only time. But if the Wizards’ think the Agent Zero era makes for a worthy recollectible, then by golly so do I!

“That’s the closest we’ve come to a hall-of-fame ceremony,” James Morris said this week after learning from me about the recent Arenas promotion. Morris is the guy who originally dubbed the then-Wiz wunderkind as “Agent Zero,” a handle that’s withstood the test of time. 

Morris now works as a creative director for CBS, but back in 2002 he co-founded a first-generation basketblog called Wizznutzz with his friend Christopher Porter. (I worked alongside both Morris and Porter at an alternative weekly, Washington City Paper, years before the nicknaming.) The posts that appeared on their site generally blended surreality with pure fiction, but amid lots of psychedelia, misspellings, and confounding punctuation came oodles of Wizards references. 

The nickname that appeared on the freebie ballcap last week first showed up in an April 2006 Wizznutzz post that imagined—stick with me here—a feud between Arenas and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog and Arenas had no real-world connection, of course, and Arenas, who at the time wore zero as his jersey number, was at the peak of his playing powers. But facts mattered less than good grammar in Wizznuttzz world. The piece was headlined, “New Incites Revealed into manic brain of AGENT ZERO!!!!” and ended up being the most momentous post in the site’s history.

Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post’s D.C. Sports Bog (disclosure: a longtime friend of mine) was, back then, both a hugely influential sports blogger and a huge fan of Wizznutzz. During an interview with Arenas (access that Morris would never have), Steinberg asked him to rate some of the nicknames being ascribed to him. Steinberg mentioned “Agent Zero.”  

“Ooooh, I like that, I like that,” Arenas replied. He shortly thereafter began calling himself “Agent Zero” in posts on his personal blog at NBA.com, launched the Twitter account @AgentZeroShow, and got Adidas to sponsor a globetrotting “Agent Zero World Tour.” Steve Buckhantz, the Wizards’ lead TV voice, started inserting Arenas’s nickname into his play-by-play calls.

The Wizards were clearly Arenas’s team, and the attention the “Agent Zero” nickname brought him motivated others on the knucklehead-heavy roster to fashion new monikers for themselves. Andray Blatche chose “Bulletproof,” rooted in his not dying after being shot outside D.C. before his rookie year. Nick Young proclaimed that God himself decreed he be known henceforth as “Swaggy P.” JaVale McGee called himself “Big Daddy Wookie” because, well, he wanted to. McGee, now a Sacramento Kings center, is the last member of the Arenas-era Wizards still playing in the NBA. 

The ballcap night got me thinking about how fabulous being a Wizards fan once was—during an era, no less, in which the Wizards still weren’t especially good and won but one lonely playoff series—and how bland the late-model Wiz are by comparison. Jordan Poole surely showcases the airheadedness that Young flaunted on the court, for example, yet Poole exudes none of Swaggy P’s goofy likability off of it (or any likability at all). And there’s no current player half as endeared to fans as Arenas was. Nobody wants a Kyle Kuzma ballcap now, 14 years from now, or any other time.

At the Orlando game, a woman seated behind us in an Arenas jersey told me she’d just paid a stranger sitting nearby $40 for her “Agent Zero” cap, because she’d shown up too late for the giveaway and couldn’t bear going home lid-free. I told Morris about it, and asked for his reaction to hearing the Wizards were still propping up the nickname he came up with in 2006—a brainchild old enough to vote, and one that people other than me apparently still love. He said he not only “never made a dime off ‘Agent Zero,’” but also had never even met Arenas.

“I am shocked/not shocked the franchise is now giving out Agent Zero hats,” he said. “I guess a bit melancholy for those freewheeling media days, and a bit amused by the state of the franchise to be tapping back into this dodgy IP. But still amazed to be reminded briefly of when I became a part of my great anti-hero’s story. A footnote maybe, for a footnote of a player, for a deeply footnoted franchise.”

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