After missing most of the past two seasons because of knee surgery, Agent Zero is back. Sort of. Not really? He’s definitely talking a lot, and then some. But lacking confidence? Something’s not right here. The Wiz have sputtered out of the gate, been plagued by injuries and are led by an uninspired Gil. I’m not sure how many people were expecting the ’04-07 version of Gil, but he’s clearly not playing up to those standards. Whether it’s the two year rust he’s still trying to shake off or an early season lull, if the Wiz have any chance of making, and advancing, in the playoffs, they’re going to need Gil to regain his heroic form. We’ll be waiting and watching, looking for the “old school” Gil that Aggrey profiled three years ago.—Matt Lawyue
by Aggrey Sam
Politics. The word is thrown around a lot in basketball circles, whether it’s high school kids flying under the radar because they don’t play for the right program to college players slipping in the Draft for suspect reasons. Gilbert Arenas has been through all of that. At every level.
But, having reached superstar status, politics should no longer determine Gilbert’s basketball fate. Right? Injuries, falling off, those should be the only factors that knock him off that perch with the Brons, the Melos, the DWades. Maybe a negative offcourt incident would do it, but with Gil, even that’s doubtful. He’s the people’s champ.
For a couple summers now, the 24-year-old Washington Wizards star has shown up—solo—at Barry Farms in Southeast DC, one of the most notorious hoods in the nation’s capital, hooping at the Goodman League. No security, no entourage, his Range is parked on the street—and the Wizards, even if they wanted to, can’t do anything about it. “When I signed, I got the ‘Jordan clause’ put in,” Arenas says of his love-of-the-game exemption for offseason hoops.
“Barry Farms—most stars wouldn’t even think about doing that,” says Wizards coach and DC native Eddie Jordan.
On another day, Gilbert is signing autographs and taking pictures at Best Buy, when he just went in there to cop the new NCAA Football. He’s helping Katrina victims on his own, with no cameras around. On the rare occasion he does hit the club these days, he’s not in VIP. He’s on the dance floor without a bodyguard, socializing with regular folk. Like himself.
“One day, no one’s gonna remember me, so I might as well soak it up now. People don’t wanna get stunted on,” says Arenas. “We’re like leaves on a tree. Eventually all of us are gonna blow down to the ground and new ones are gonna come in.”
Consider it folk wisdom from regular folk. “I’m just a regular guy,” Gil says. “That’s what I want to be seen as, that’s how I look at myself. Yeah, I’m entertaining, but it’s just basketball.”
“Kids in DC have a hero again,” Jordan says. “It used to be Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Now kids copy Gil’s moves.”
And why wouldn’t they? For a player kids can relate to, who’s a better role model than Gil, a dude who’s overcome doubters and low expectations at every step? But it goes deeper than that.
Politics is what keeps the lightning-quick, 6-4, 210-pound guard in the Verizon Center well after he’s off the clock. Working on his game at 5 a.m., midnight, after games, off days, the day after losing to the Cavs in the playoffs. Keeping his handle sharp, putting up smooth jumpers from everywhere, always at game speed. “He makes it look so effortless, but he’s always in the gym. He’s a gym rat,” says Wizards forward Caron Butler. “I mean, I’m in the gym a lot, and when I come in, he’s in there, and when I leave, he’s still in there. I’ve played with him, Dwyane and Kobe, and they’re all the same way.”
Arenas, not surprisingly, has his reasons: “As black males, we can’t release our stress, so you gotta find outlets. Basketball is my outlet. When I feel depressed or angry about something, I go to the basketball floor. That’s how I’ve always been.”
Which explains why he’s in the gym in mid-August, days after he returned from his stint in Asia with Team USA. While the official reason for his absence in the World Championships is a groin injury, Gil implies—strongly—that he believes the USA Basketball gatekeepers already knew who would make the 12-man roster prior to the final selections for the World Championships. “I do have a little nagging injury,” he says, “but I’m working right now because of what happened.” Then, referencing the team’s visit with injured US troops prior to the World Championships, he says, “I’m just dedicating this season to the soldiers—that’s what I gotta thank USA Basketball for. You got people out there losing their lives, losing limbs, fighting for our freedom.”
But he’s still thinking about not making the Worlds roster. “Everything in my career has been me who decides if I work hard and decides if I make it,” Gilbert says. “It was hard to play and perform when somebody’s holding your fate in their hands…I just felt like I wasn’t playing like myself. I never felt nervous about a basketball game. It wasn’t the tryout. I’ve dominated tryouts.”
And, finally: “If I didn’t get hurt, most likely I would have got cut. I guess,” he suggests diplomatically, “I wasn’t good enough to crack the rotation. I felt like I was the 15th man on a 14-man roster. It was the first time in my career where I sometimes felt like I didn’t have talent.”
Hard to believe. Even at Grant HS outside L.A., Arenas—who says he was only 5-6 until a late growth spurt in his senior year—had talent. “What was funny,” he remembers, “was you’d look at the paper my senior year and I was growing every week, so it was like, 5-6 guard Gilbert Arenas, 5-7 guard, 5-8 guard…”
Although he averaged 25 a game as early as his sophomore year, the soon-to-be NBA All-Star wasn’t considered one of the top prep prospects in the nation, let alone California. Politics. “You read all this stuff like, ‘He’s playing in a weak conference.’ Well, maybe my conference is weak,” he says. “I’d go to camp and see these players…someone like Carlos Boozer, who’s 6-8, 245 in the 10th grade. Growing up, you run against a Carlos Boozer, DerMarr Johnson, DeShawn Stevenson, Baron Davis, and you see their talent and it’s like, I can’t compete with that. These are pros, what I am is just another player. But somehow, if the camp had a top 10, I was that 10th player. So that kept giving me hope.”
Arenas stretched that hope out all he could. “My senior year in high school, I was ranked, like, number 100 in the country,” he says. “When I got to college, I was thinking, If DerMarr leaves and this person leaves, I can be the 98th player. So if I redshirt, stay in school for five years, maybe I can get into that top-40 range and I can make the League. That’s what I was basing my career off. I wasn’t thinking, I’m gonna go for two years and I’m gonna leave. It was like, maybe I can sneak in there.”
Even with his gaudy high school stats and added height, Arenas was mostly overlooked by the big schools—except Arizona. Gil was an instant hit in Tucson, and after ending his sophomore year with a loss in the national title game, the Wildcats’ leading scorer put his name into the 2001 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, labels like “combo guard” and “tweener,” and doubts about his point guard skills caused the best player in the ’01 Draft to slip to the second round, where he was snatched up by Golden State at No. 31. Again, politics.
“I was 19,” he says. “Teams said they would draft me at 11, 12, 18, 25. That’s why I hate drafts now. I won’t watch a draft to this day. When I was coming in, they said, ‘We’re gonna go with young players, it’s a young Draft.’ Come on, I’m 19 and I’ve proven myself already. How many excuses are people gonna give me to play this game of basketball?”
Gilbert was a fixture in Golden State’s starting lineup by midseason of his rookie year. But his image, now viewed as “quirky,” was of, in his own words, “a hothead.” A free agent after two seasons (one benefit of going in the second round), Gil felt he needed a change. Arenas’ choices came down to the Wizards and his hometown Clippers. A West Coast kid, Arenas lived up to his rep as unpredictable by choosing the Wizards—still recovering from the Michael Jordan era—over the up-and-coming Clips. Reports at the time said he made up his mind with a coin flip.
“That coin flip story was the funny part, me being entertaining. But really, I needed an identity,” Gilbert explains. “I saw a city that hadn’t won in a while. I can go across the country and change my image. I don’t have to worry about how many tickets I need for the game like I would if I went to the Clippers. I looked at the team, looked at the numbers and I thought, If we lose, no one will know. And if we win, we win together. Eventually, you have to win.”
Arenas suffered through an injury-plagued debut season with the Wizards in ’03-04. The next season, alongside his fellow ex-Warriors Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison, Arenas led Washington back into the playoffs, where they faced another young squad in Chicago.
“During the regular season, I averaged 36 against them. During the playoffs, I averaged 16 because they focused on me,” says Arenas. “I heard Scottie Pippen say, ‘If they’re gonna win, he has to pass.’”
Arenas got the message and the ’04-05 Wizards got into the second round for the first time since ’81-82. But then Hughes left for Cleveland in the summer (“It was heartbreaking,” Gilbert says, “because no one could stop us on offense and Larry would stop them on D”) and all of a sudden, people were doubting the Wizards again. But instead of plunging back into mediocrity last season, Washington thrived, mostly because Arenas put the team on his back. His numbers—29.3 ppg (fourth in the league), 6.1 apg, 2 spg and more minutes than any player in the League—only tell part of the story.
“Being a leader, it’s so hard because I’m so goofy,” Gilbert admits. “I would never criticize a player for taking bad shots ’cause I know I take some bad shots. But I wanna hit the game winner. At the end of the game, give me the ball. Whoever misses that shot lost the game.”
“I always knew he was a talented dude. Now playing with him, you just see his greatness,” says Caron Butler. “Honestly? I definitely say he’s a future Hall of Famer. He’s gonna be a perennial All-Star, always gonna be in the top five of the League in scoring.”
Eddie Jordan feels similarly. “Gilbert sacrifices some of his game to make teammates better,” the coach says. “Now, he’s a point guard first, although he’s the fourth-leading scorer in the League. He looks to run the offense and looks to pass, then looks for his opportunities. He’s getting better defensively. He makes game-winning shots. I can’t imagine a shot that he missed that we needed, especially late. He’s as competitive and skilled as any player I’ve been around. In a couple more years, Gil should be right with Jason Kidd as far as any player I’ve coached.”
So why, generally speaking, isn’t he regarded that way by fans, media and the powers that be? You know the answer.
“The media, y’all are supposed to be experts. Everyone’s brainwashed. Have you seen Equilibrium or V for Vendetta?” the movie buff asks. “It’s like that. I just get the job done. I’m not a high-flying dunker. I’m not gonna dribble the air out of the ball.”
Call it conspiracy theory if you want, but don’t accuse Gilbert of not having thought this through. “I think what makes me more valuable now is playing against LeBron in the playoffs, not averaging 29 a game,” he continues. “[Teammate] Calvin Booth saw this thing in the paper and asked me, ‘Did you do something to the League?’ It had all the top scorers, what they do against each other. Kobe, AI, LeBron, and then it skipped right over me. I’m more known for throwing my jersey into the stands.”
And, increasingly, for that chip sitting on his broad shoulders. “My basketball season, it’s not about fun. It’s about proving everybody wrong,” Gil says. “I entertain the crowd and everything, but my thing is these people are doubting me, these people are doubting me every time I touch the ball. It keeps me going. I think at the end of my career, people are gonna look back and say, ‘How come we didn’t realize what he was doing?’”
By then, maybe, politics won’t be an issue.