Return of the Mack

by Irv Soonachan

It was Friday night in Oakland, CA, and I was talking to a guy I’d first met in 2001, when he was allegedly plotting a career as an international pimp. Gilbert Arenas had just put up 45 points and 13 assists against his old team, the Golden State Warriors; carrying his current team, the Washington Wizards, to a rare road win.

Arenas was just 19 when arrived as a second-round draft choice of the Warriors. He blew a chance to be a first-round pick when he told the draft interview board that his long-term goal was to be an “international pimp.” He said it was in jest, but teams heard the answer and stayed away from him. Disappointed but seemingly unfazed, he continued to joke about his alternate career and announced he would displace the two veterans ahead of him on the Warriors’ depth chart to become a starter by midseason. He was right on time.

Even at 19, Arenas was never at a loss for confidence. He was also the most likable narcissist I’ve ever met. He was energetic, charismatic, and fun. Granted, he once spent a month personally filling out NBA All-Star ballots, trying to gain a coveted starting spot. He threw himself a million-dollar birthday party. He never tried to hide those facts from the media, but he didn’t overplay it, either. He was who he was, no excuses.

On Friday night, Arenas was still most of those things, but after the better part of two seasons away from the game, something about his personality had changed. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

He was sitting in the locker room, still in his game shorts while most of his teammates were dressed, his surgically repaired left knee wrapped in ice. I asked if he had any particular motivation to torch his old team.

“No,” he began. “To be honest, at our last game in Sacramento I was playing pretty well…” and then some long explanation about how he’d been playing better and better as the rust came off. Which may have been partially true, but I didn’t believe it.

I remembered an interview with him one day after practice in 2003. Sitting on the floor next to the team’s practice court because there were no chairs, we discussed every grudge he’d held since high school. “I like when somebody says something negative about me because I can put it back in their face,” he said. We ran out of time that day to discuss how he kept a list of every single player drafted ahead of him in 2001.

Before Friday’s game, Warriors coach Don Nelson noted that Arenas wasn’t quite the player he used to be – and definitely not as fast. This is what I was edging around by asking about his motivation for the command performance. In truth, Nelson was right.

Pre-injury, Arenas was fastest player in the League, and could finish above the rim. He couldn’t go left, but it hardly mattered. He was so fast he’d go right anyway, or go around you with his left and cross back to his right once you were in the rear-view mirror.

Against the Warriors, Arenas relied on guile: changes of pace, finding soft spots in the defense, using his physical strength and his teammates to create space. He was only slightly better going left, but has developed more moves to compensate.

On the court, the new Gilbert Arenas was at least as effective as the old one. After the game, Nelson compared him to his former protégé, Steve Nash, the Rembrandt of point guards.

“In the fourth quarter he found a hole in our defense even though we were doing it properly and attacking him,” Nelson said. “He was very Nash-like in being under control and still making us pay the price for the coverage.”

Only 24 games into his comeback, I asked Arenas about his timetable to get back to 100 percent.

“My knee has been fine, I haven’t had any setbacks on it,” he began. “It will never be 100 percent. Once you hurt something, you’ve hurt it. But I feel great.”

He said it with the same earnest surety with which he’d said, very early in his career, that he’d someday be an all-star. He said it so that, in a good way, it was impossible to feel sorry for him.

“You know, you seem different,” I said, and then it hit me. “You’re more mature now.”

Arenas’ face lit up. “Yeah,” he smiled broadly with an acknowledging nod.

“And you’re managing the game.”

“You know, I learned a lot by watching,” he said. “That was all I could do.”

Arenas went on to say that during his layoff he watched film of other point guards, including Chris Paul, Deron Williams, a young Allen Iverson, and …Steve Nash. He said he was trying to incorporate everything he learned into his game.

During our short talk, a Japanese TV hostess and her cameraman stopped by and asked Arenas for his current favorite song. They wanted him to look into the camera, give his name, the title and the artist. They’d use the clip to intro the video. Arenas offered a practiced, made-for-TV-grin and said, “Reminder,” by Jay-Z. The hostess asked him why he liked the track.

“Because sometimes everyone forgets what you’ve done, and you have to remind them,” he said, without so much as a sideways glance at any of the other reporters milling around.

It was a veteran move, making the statement without directly making it. It also made something else clear: Gilbert Arenas, the uber-confident International Pimp, lives on, albeit in an evolved form.

Game Notes

— Greg Popovich: “We have to see if (all the talent) fits, and if everybody accepts their roles…” Are you listening, Richard Jefferson?

— Earl Boykins changed up his workout routine recently. The 5-5, 133-pound PG used to bench press more than 300 pounds. Now he does 500 pushups.

— Sources in Milwaukee believe that Michael Redd’s knees aren’t right, and this might account for his recent shooting woes.

— Brendan Haywood’s strong early-season play is no fluke – over time, he’s improved all areas of his game, especially his footwork.