Posted Oct 6 2010 9:06AM
DALLAS -- The beard is scraggly and the words painfully honest. Maybe too much so. Back on hardwood for the first time in exactly nine months, Gilbert Arenas is a man who's home again and lost at the same time.
He spoke in sparkling tones when questioned about John Wall, calling his rookie backcourt mate a brother and predicting greatness for the No. 1 pick. It's Wall's team now, Arenas announced for the first time, and this is where it gets murky.
"Right now I'm out there to hit open shots, teach John the ins and the outs of the game, and then eventually go on and move on," Arenas told a throng of reporters Tuesday night after Washington's preseason win over Dallas. "On my way."
If you listened close enough inside the cramped visitor's locker room at American Airlines Center, you could almost hear "Free Bird" playing in the background.
Arenas wasn't looking for an immediate exit out of D.C. on the same night Wall entered the league. Far from it. Instead, he sounded like a guy who understands how this is all going to turn out. An eventual parting has to feel inevitable for Arenas after what he's done and where the Wizards are going.
Better yet, who the Wizards are going with.
The fallout from Arenas' gun episode last December and eventual 50-game suspension is reason enough for a change of address. Given the heat and the $80 million left on his contract, moving Arenas was a hopeless endeavor for Washington. Zero teams had interest in the former Agent Zero.
The Wizards had to figure out how to salvage the situation while tearing down what they hoped was a playoff team last season. Fate entered the rebuilding process in June when Draft lottery ping-pong balls brought new hope and a new face to the franchise.
Wall was more than the No. 1 pick. He was a replacement.
Arenas knows this as much as anyone. Wizards coach Flip Saunders can talk all he wants about pairing Wall and Arenas together, and even using Kirk Hinrich in a three-point guard look (as was the case against Dallas). Arenas says he's as much a shooter as he is a playmaker.
He's also expendable. Teams don't need two top-flight point guards, much less three. And especially not a team with as many holes to fill as the Wizards.
"This is the NBA," Arenas reminded. "There's few players that stay in the same city, so right now the city is John's. I'm not here to fight anybody. I'm here to play alongside of him. He's Batman, I'm Robin."
Arenas, 28, can't afford to fight this. His only hope for eventually going "on his way" is being a model coworker and tutor for the 20-year-old savior. It's not often that Robin has to look out for Batman, though that may not be needed in this instance.
Wall's maturity has been lauded from Day 1. He's already recognized within team circles as its leader, despite his age and lack of experience. He's also not afraid to speak up and direct his much older teammates.
"I feel like if I get time and I'm the point guard, you have to learn how to speak up," Wall said. "They going to have to trust you."
Trust is likely going to be an issue for Arenas as long as he's playing in D.C. He can't run or hide from that reality. He has to fit in while there's still a spot for him to fit into.
"Last year, I didn't have any problems [with Arenas]," Saunders said. "Gil was extremely coachable last year and did everything I asked him to do. He was serious last year. With me, he's always accepted criticism and he's never been defiant when I've asked him to do something. When I've coached him, he's been a very willing learner and been very coachable."
Was there any worry about Arenas being defiant going into this season?
"I don't think so," Saunders replied. "Everyone worries if there's going to be bitterness, but I wasn't really concerned."
Arenas may be masking any bitterness with numbness. He took no joy from the enthusiastic greeting from a number of Mavericks before Tuesday's game, including former Washington teammates Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson.
If the showing of support touched Arenas, he wasn't letting on.
"I don't mind that anymore," he stated. "My job is to not make friends. My job is to help this team win, and saying hello to my old teammates was not part of the job."
Neither is being a clown again.
"It's a double-headed sword," Arenas said. "I guess at this point, I'm at that point where people are going to nitpick everything I do just because I got in trouble, so no. I've just got to be serious and worry about what I'm doing."
Apparently, just being back on the court was just as unemotional. After one felony conviction and 30 days in a halfway house, returning to an arena where Arenas once found and produced so much joy was neither cathartic nor therapeutic. It just was.
"I lost all feeling a long time ago," Arenas said. "Basketball is basketball now, no matter what floor I'm on."
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