Denton: Arenas Rejuvenated On New Team
By John Denton
December 24, 2010
ORLANDO – The rejuvenation can be heard and seen in the roar of the laughter, the bounce in his step and even the closeness of the shave on his face. Gilbert Arenas, sans the hostage-looking beard he sported earlier this season while miserable in Washington, is a happy man again in Orlando.
The happiest person at the Amway Center these days isn’t the diehard Magic fan who was delighted that his team was able to steal away a dynamic point guard in a trade. Instead, it’s Arenas, the man who feels as though he’s been given a new lease on life by getting out of Washington where a cloud hung over his head. In Orlando, where Arenas feels he’s already off to the kind of start where he can truly wipe the slate clean, it’s all sunshine, rainbows and gumdrops.
``I don’t have the pressure of trying to fit in where I’m not wanted right now,’’ Arenas said. ``They welcomed me here in Orlando and wanted me to just be me.’’
Upon hearing that he had been traded from the Wizards to the Magic last Saturday, Arenas immediately sprinted to his locker, changed clothes and grabbed two pairs of basketball sneakers. He drove straight to the airport where he plunked down his own money for the ticket and headed out on the first flight out of town. Clearly, Arenas couldn’t wait to get to Orlando and put the past behind him.
Going from the Wizards to the Magic was like going from the basement to the penthouse for him. One minute he’s in another prolonged losing streak playing for a team he no longer wanted to be a part of it and the next he’s in a Christmas Day game playing for a Magic squad he’s watched adoringly from afar the past three summers.
But this move was about so much more than simply a change of scenery in the NBA standings. For Arenas, this was about going to a place where he’s no longer dogged by his past. This, finally, is about his future again.
Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of the day that Arenas brought a gun into the locker room in Washington as a prank following a spat with teammate Javaris Crittendon. Finally being out of Washington, where his subsequent conviction and 50-game suspension followed him for months, he now could move on and not reflect to incidents behind him.
``I didn’t even think about it. That’s something that happened in the past and I can’t think about the anniversary and all that,’’ Arenas said of the gun incident from a year ago. ``Maybe there was more mental darkness there (in Washington) for me than anything else. I’m looking around and seeing everything that’s going on and it really wasn’t a fresh start this season at all. (The media) were still judging me and it was frustrating at times because I thought it was going to be a fresh start. But maybe this can finally be a fresh start for me in Orlando.’’
He’ll take the court on Saturday against the Boston Celtics in only the second Christmas Day game of his career, and he didn’t even play in the first one because of a knee injury that robbed him of parts of three seasons. Healthy and happy again, Arenas is the life of the party in Orlando. His gregarious laugh fills the locker room and his toothy smile is bright enough to light up the practice court again.
And Arenas, more so than anyone, loves being loved again. He played to the fans outside the Magic’s practice court two nights ago, making shot after shot when they cheered for him and chanted his name. And he took it to heart when head coach Stan Van Gundy penned him a hand-written note before Thursday’s game, responding with 14 points, nine assists and six rebounds off the bench in the Magic’s biggest win yet.
``I feel like no one is judging me here and I’m just happy again,’’ Arenas said. ``Change was really good for me, especially at a time when I really needed it.’’
Needless to say, he couldn’t get out of Washington fast enough. He had hoped that by serving his debt to society and serving the 50-game suspension that cost him $7.5 million, he could move on past the gun incident this season. More class clown than playground bully, Arenas said that the incident with the gun was an ill-conceived prank that went too far.
But few around him in Washington would let him move on. Once beloved as a charismatic savior for basketball in Washington, Arenas was now reviled as the person who torpedoed the franchise back into a losing funk. Some fans simply jeered him, while others taunted him with trash talk that deeply affected him.
He knew early on this season that there would be no moving on in Washington. He soon started growing a raggedy beard as if he were some sort of prisoner being held hostage in D.C. His mood grew dark, his one-of-a-kind laugh disappeared and he rarely spoke if not spoken to. To makes matters worse, Arenas was benched on a young, struggling team – the ultimate sign to him that he had to get out of Washington and start fresh again somewhere else.
``It was weird at first because I didn’t know how I was going to be welcomed back in Washington,’’ Arenas said. ``Nervous, scared, not trying to do anything (other than) fit in. And I think I felt I lost my aggressiveness just trying to fit into something where I felt early that I wasn’t a part of. I just tried to do everything just to stay out of the headlines and stay out of people’s way. I was going back to a team where you don’t know if you’re welcome. Everyone is trying their hardest to make you feel welcomed, but when it’s forced, it’s never going to work.’’
That hasn’t been the case in Orlando, where the Basketball Operations department is run by Otis Smith, one of Arenas’ closest confidants since he was 19 years old and first breaking into the NBA in 2001. Smith considered Arenas almost a son, saying that outside of his true son, Otis Jr., he talked to Arenas more than anyone else in his life.
Smith always considered Arenas ``a sleeping giant,’’ feeling that if the point guard ever landed in an ideal situation again he could go back to being a dazzling player again. Even though Arenas is making $18 million this season and is owed another $62 million over the next three years, Smith felt that the mercurial point guard was worth the risk.
``I am not sure how much a risk is it once you get past the health risk with me. If he’s healthy, he’s a pretty good basketball player,’’ Smith said. ``The risk from a character standpoint I don’t have as much as most would probably have, because of the relationship I have from him. I probably, on average, talk to him two to three times a week, so I know him well enough to know almost what he’s thinking, which is kind of crazy and scary in a way.’’
Arenas said he owes Smith a lot of credit for helping through ``the dark times,’’ saying: ``Otis staying in my ear really helped me get through last year. He was the one person who actually believed in me the whole time. I’m grateful that he came and got me.’’
He laughed when he said that, showing his delight for starting anew. Arenas said he wondered if there would ever be a time when he could move on, and now he thinks that it’s here.
``For me and Washington, it was like I was in a dark tunnel and the light was really far away,’’ Arenas said. ``Now, I feel like I can finally see the light again.’’