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Steve Aschburner

Gilbert Arenas has embraced his reponsibility in Memphis as a role player.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

With 'Agent Zero' put aside, Arenas accepting smaller role

Posted Apr 3 2012 11:58AM

He wears No. 10 now, a throwback from his Team USA days, because "they don't let you have 0 and 00 on a team, even though you can have 1 and 11." Besides, Darrell Arthur already had the single-digit version of nothing, and the whole point of this exercise with the Memphis Grizzlies is that Gilbert Arenas isn't supposed to be calling attention to himself for frivolous reasons again.

Nothing attention-grabbing about No. 10. Nothing desperate or unnerving about the fact that Arenas grabbed his iPad and played a video game after the Grizzlies' game in Milwaukee the other night, swiping at moving targets for two or three minutes before looking up and seeing the reporters and cameras waiting for him to provide the A's to their Q's.

He wasn't, after all, online.

Arenas is best-behaving these days as a backup guard for Memphis, struggling to get in game shape on the fly while providing some insurance for Mike Conley, Jeremy Pargo and other point guards in Lionel Hollins' locker room. Agent Zero isn't along for this ride -- Arenas' goofy, unshackled, almost-too-real alter ego will have to cool his heels until the offseason if this reclamation project is going to work.

The Grizzlies pulled the 30-year-old, three-time NBA All-Star off the amnesty heap a couple of weeks ago, taking a low-risk chance that Arenas might have enough in him physically -- and enough maturity pounded into him by his outrageous guns-in-the-locker-room flameout in Washington and dreary humbling in Orlando -- to help them in what's left of this season and postseason.

His margin of error is slim; this is the team that tried to breathe life into what was left of Allen Iverson's NBA career in the fall of 2009, the team that cut him loose just two months and three appearances later.

Gilbert Arenas hasn't been high in Lionel Hollins' rotation so far, but Arenas is OK with that.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

With what he's being paid this season, Arenas has $62 million left on the contract that the Video Magic ate when they amnestied him as soon as the new collective bargaining agreement took effect in early December. But he only has as much NBA life left, perhaps, as the Grizzlies see fit. They're the ones he's working for but plenty of other clubs are watching.

"Right now, whatever the team needs. I'm a role player," Arenas said after scoring four points on 2-of-7 shooting with six rebounds and two assists in 16:36 minutes after the Bucks. "Just come in and manage the game. Like now, [Mike] Conley was out -- if they need scoring, I can put on my scoring cap. I'm just trying to not make a lot of mistakes and hurt us."

The rope Arenas has been thrown is a slender one. Hollins started rookie Jeremy Pargo against the Bucks when Conley's sore ankle flared up, used O.J. Mayo as his first option off the bench and actually had D-Leaguer Josh Selby rushing in -- flight to O'Hare, hired car for the 90-mile drive north to Milwaukee, all in time for tipoff -- as reinforcement. Arenas hadn't played in a week after tests against the Trail Blazers and the Clippers that showed how lax his conditioning had been. Hollins had doubts that the player's chronically bum knee could ever hold up defensively or allow him to earn easy points at the foul line again.

But the Memphis coach threw him out there against Brandon Jennings and Beno Udrih, and things didn't go badly. Then he did it again Monday at Oklahoma City (19 minutes, two steals, one assist) and the Grizzlies won again. So who knows?

"I know they already have their rotation," Arenas said. "I'm here for leadership. Veteran wisdom. Right now they don't really need me. Conley was out [Saturday], so my number got called. I know my role. My role was to make sure I'm ready by the time the playoffs start."

Physically, Arenas has a regimen to heed; his days of jumping off mini-trampolines during timeouts are long gone. He goes through grueling stretches with Kelly Lambert on the sideline, with ice and heat and assorted TLC just for his brief backup stints. The lack of practice time in this post-lockout schedule has limited Arenas to doing "what he did at home," Hollins said, since he signed with Memphis March 20. There is no rushing this but then, with the Grizzlies in the middle of five games in six nights, there is no real waiting, either.

"I was in 'physique shape,' if you wanted to look at me. But NBA shape, I wasn't," Arenas said. "Right now, I'm in training camp mode. I've got to play 2-on-2, work out, get shots up, ride the bike -- so I'm more fatigued than I'm supposed to be. The other night in Houston, I really wasn't available.

"I'm getting older now. I'm coming in where it's a shortened season for me but a really fast season. I've got to make sure I don't tear anything. ... I've got to make sure I stay loose, even if he doesn't call my name."

The name Hollins calls these days is "Gilbert," not "Zero," not "Hibachi." As critical as Arenas' physical well-being is to this comeback of his, his mental approach -- his willingness to blend in, not disrupt, make it all about something other than himself -- is just as important. Even he knew that, after sitting for more than three months.

"I had a lot of opportunities. Atlanta. New Jersey kept calling me. At the time, I wasn't ready to play," Arenas said. "When they called me here, I asked them, 'Is everybody on board?' I wanted to make sure -- I didn't want to go in to a situation where the general manager was like, 'Yeah' but the coach was like, 'Ehhh." Or the coach was 'Yeah' but the players ... that never works.

"I said, 'If everybody's on board, I'll come.' They didn't guarantee me no minutes, they said, 'Just come and be a veteran.' Hey, I'm fine with that."

On board? The Grizzlies are chasing a top seed in the playoffs. They want to push beyond the Western Conference finals this spring. If Arenas can help them, great. He apparently has given them no cause for pause to this point.

"We understand the NBA has a lot of personalities," said forward Zach Randolph, making his own comeback off the Memphis bench. "He's been a team guy, a great guy. He's getting there. He definitely can be helpful."

Said forward Rudy Gay: "Contrary to what people may think, he hasn't been the type of guy to come in and mess everything up. He's been a leader. Somebody who's been through it. ... Everybody goes through stuff. Everybody on this team has been through something. His has just been a little more public, but it is what it is."

The Grizzlies need perimeter shooting, which Arenas might be able to give them. They don't need distractions, which he so far has managed to avoid.

"I'm just me," he said. "Everyone has this stigma of who they think I am, because they know what happened. But I'm me. ... NBA players know who players are. They know I didn't do anything, they know I'm a goofball. But it's in the media's eyes that I'm this bad guy."

Arenas then launches into a dissection of his experiences with blogs and Twitter. He really was one of the league's early adopters of NBA players who went interactive with the fans -- whether the fans were ready for him or not.

"When I was on Twitter," Arenas said, "I said, 'This. Is. Entertainment.' When I was a blogger, I was entertaining you. That's not who I am. That's just what I'm going to say.

"But people are so used to LeBron and guys saying, 'Oh, tough game.' Or 'good win.' But I used it as fun. Like an actor -- you're going to go and play your role, and when you go home, you're you. People come to see me, they want to see the 'Agent Zero' persona. ... You want to come to a game and yell at a guy, and you feel happy when he yells back. That's the guys who give the fan everything he pays for. Y'know, making shots, jumping in the air, high fives, talkin' back -- that's the persona and some people don't realize that who I am on the court is not who I am off the court."

These days, Arenas is not that guy even on the court. The entertainment, the money, the reputation, the fun, he is putting it all aside at the moment for the game. Agent Zero is waiting to hook up again with him, and his laptop, this summer. But not until then, he said. Not until then.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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