Would you entrust your rookie stud to Gilbert Arenas? The Wizards have, and the mercurial guard is settling into the job as a most unlikely mentor to John Wall
Will they forgive me?
This was the question Gilbert Arenas couldn't stop asking himself. It was the morning of Oct. 12, the day of the Wizards' preseason home opener against Atlanta. Arenas hadn't played before a home crowd in nine months, since just before he was exiled from the NBA for the final 50 games of last season for bringing four guns into the locker room and then mocking the severity of the incident. He picked up the newspaper and was unsettled by statements from Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and coach Flip Saunders about the city's willingness to welcome him back. Would Washington really absolve him for detonating the Wizards' 2009--10 season?
Arenas didn't want to find out.
Last Thursday, after practice in Washington, Arenas told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that the real reason he sat out wasn't, as he originally told reporters, to rest his thrice-surgically-repaired knee, nor was it the excuse he gave the next day, that he wanted to give backup point guard Nick Young the chance to play. "I was really scared of getting booed," says Arenas. "It's a little crazy because I was here with Kwame Brown when Kwame was scared to go out there. I used to be like, Man, it's just boos. Now here I was six years later, and I was him. I was scared to go out there."
The day after Arenas offered the story about his desire to be a good teammate, Saunders dressed him down in front of his teammates, and the Wizards slapped him with a $50,000 fine. It was hard not to think, Same old Gilbert. The episode overshadowed rookie point guard John Wall's 19 points and seven assists against the Hawks. It was the kind of dynamic performance that made it hard not to wonder (again) if, with Wall on board, there was any room—or need—for Arenas.
Gilbert Arenas and John Wall can't coexist.
The words have been written and spoken often since the Wizards made Wall the top pick in the 2010 draft. They're both 6'4" guards who are at their best with the ball in their hands, and, the argument goes, there is only room for one such alpha male in D.C. And there is this: Arenas is the past; Wall is the future.
Arenas sees things a little differently. When the Wizards drafted Wall, Arenas viewed the prodigy not as a potential replacement but as a complementary piece. "I said to my friends that I wish this happened four years ago," says Arenas, 28. "I wish it happened before the knee injuries, because this team would have been fabulous. I always kept saying I wanted another two guard that can take on the scoring or for them to bring in a point guard so I can go to the two. When they drafted him, I thought it was the smartest idea."
For his part, Wall was a little anxious about meeting Arenas. Over the summer the two swapped phone calls and text messages, but they didn't start working out together until a week before training camp. In the interim Wall peppered teammates and staffers with questions about Arenas's aloof personality. Their first meeting was an awkward exchange of head nods in the Wizards' locker room, like a couple of online daters taking their relationship out of the virtual realm. "It was a weird moment," says Arenas. "But guards get along. We have this camaraderie because we both look at the game the same way."
Wall and Arenas have indeed become fast friends. Arenas says the two are together 24/7 on the road, often hanging out in each other's hotel rooms talking hoops. Arenas has embraced the unlikely role of mentor. He constantly encourages Wall to have confidence in his jump shot, telling him that once teams have to start respecting that part of his game, they will be helpless to stop him when he uses his speed to attack the rim. He gives Wall individual scouting reports on how certain defenders will try to keep him out of the paint, and he comes in early before practice so they can shoot together. "He has been great," says Wall, who became the first rookie since Oscar Robertson in 1960 to have at least seven assists in each of his first five games. "He's helping me out as much as he can, and I'm learning a lot just by watching him play."
Neither Wall nor Arenas is concerned about how they will function together. "This is easier for me," says Arenas. "I don't have to do all the thinking. I said, 'You do the thinking, I'll do the shooting.' " Says Wall, "The way he shoots the ball will [create] open shots for me. He can run the show, too. If I want to rest, I can take a step off and go off the ball."
The league finally got its first look at the duo together last Friday when Arenas, who missed Washington's first three games of the regular season with actual soreness in his left knee, returned to the lineup. In a loss to the Knicks, Arenas, after a tentative start, showed that his fluid stroke is still intact (he hit four of eight three-pointers), as is his trademark explosiveness (he scored 14 of the team's first 15 points in the fourth quarter). "I don't want [Arenas] to change," says Saunders. "The best part of his game is his ability to score. He can make us a much better team if he can continue to do [that]."
Should I just give up?
Every shot Arenas takes these days helps to erase the bitter memories of the past year. He kept it together when his teammates and coaches were around to support him. But when the season ended and the Wizards scattered, Arenas's mind began to wander. "As much as people were down on me, I was down on myself," says Arenas. "The suspension broke my spirit. I kept thinking, This isn't what I signed up for. I did something stupid and I regret it to this day. But we all f--- up. I just thought I didn't want to be a part of this anymore. I thought the league could do without another knucklehead running around. I thought I'd retire for a year or two and try to make a comeback later on."
He didn't, of course. Arenas talked with players around the league and spoke at length with Leonsis, who—despite the club's unsuccessful attempts to move Arenas in the off-season—assured him that the organization was behind him. "Having a long talk with Ted, hearing him say, 'I'm going to stick by you,' that was big," says Arenas. "That's all sometimes people need, some positive."
There was one other source of inspiration: Undisputed III, a direct-to-DVD movie about a prison fighter who overcomes a grotesque knee injury to reclaim his status as the best fighter in the world. Arenas watched it more than a dozen times over the summer, and the mountain-man beard he sported during training camp was modeled on the facial hair of the film's protagonist, Yuri Boyka. "[Boyka] wanted to prove he was still the man," says Arenas. "That was my whole mentality over the summer. Right now I'm just trying to sit back and let John get comfortable. As he gets comfortable, then I'll bring my will into it."
Boyka is a brooding character, and Arenas has adopted that trait as well, becoming uncharacteristically standoffish with the media since his return. "I understand what people think because of the perception of me," says Arenas. "They read the funny stuff, like me taking a crap in [teammate] Andray Blatche's shoes. But nobody is going to ask what Andray did to deserve it. You read about it because that's when I'm at my goofiest, when I'm around my teammates. I don't get in trouble outside of this building. You are not going to catch me drinking and driving, or picking up prostitutes. People don't see what my teammates see, the guy who is in here three times a day working out. That's the guy they don't see."
Perhaps they will. Redemption in sports is often measured in wins, and when he is playing well, Arenas is capable of delivering them. At the end of Undisputed III, Boyka finds happiness in success. In time Arenas may too. And if that entails no longer being the go-to guy, then so be it. "I've had three knee injuries," says Arenas. "I've disgraced my legacy here. For me to move over for John Wall is a no-brainer. What's the point of my fighting with him all day? It isn't going to make me look any better. It's not like I think I'm God's gift to the NBA and can't step aside for somebody else. I can move aside for John Wall. That's no problem for me."
"I'VE DISGRACED MY LEGACY HERE," ARENAS SAYS. "FOR ME TO MOVE OVER FOR JOHN WALL IS A NO-BRAINER."
Photographs by LOU CAPOZZOLA
BOSOM BUDDIES Arenas didn't return to the floor until last Friday, when he had 18 points against the Knicks (right), but he's been working with Wall since camp.
Photograph by LOU CAPOZZOLA
TRIPLE THREAT Wall's stat line in a 116--115 overtime victory against the Sixers on Nov. 2—his first win as a pro—was eye-catching: 29 points, 13 assists and nine steals.