The phone rang, but Rashard Lewis couldn’t answer when he looked at his caller ID and saw Orlando Magic General Manager Otis Smith was on the other end. Lewis was trying unsuccessfully to take his usual pregame nap but overcome with angst after hearing rumors during the morning shoot-around that he was about to be dealt to the woebegone Washington Wizards for Gilbert Arenas.
Lewis let the call drift to voice mail, then called his agent, Tony Dutt, to get confirmation that he was gone. Distraught, Lewis spoke with Smith. The two exchanged pleasantries and expressed mutual respect, but when he hung up, Lewis had to deal with the reality that he was a 30-something starting over with a rebuilding team.
“I think it was most definitely devastating. Emotionally, mentally, it’s draining,” Lewis said recently. “It was a surprise when I got traded. So when you come from being on a team trying to win a championship to be on a team that barely wins road games and barely can win at home, as well . . . it was difficult. It was almost like you wanted the season to be over.”
On the one-year anniversary of the trade that ended the Arenas era in Washington and expedited the rebuilding process under John Wall, Lewis is solidly a part of the Wizards’ short-term plans and his family is settling in, with his daughter, Gianna, starting pre-kindergarten classes at Sidwell Friends this fall.
“This is home for us right now,” Lewis said. “I love it. It’s a nice city. Of course the weather is different from Florida, but we’ve adjusted. Always got to adapt to your surroundings.”
Lewis, one of nearly 40 players still remaining from the last NBA lockout in the 1998-99 season, is expected to provide leadership for one of the league’s youngest teams. Though he was initially worried, believing the five-month long lockout was partly about him, the Wizards let the deadline pass on using the amnesty clause, which would have allowed the team to remove from the salary cap the final two years and $46 million on his contract.
But when Lewis, 32, looks back at his former team, the Magic has already waived the player it traded him for — writing a $62 million check for Arenas simply to go away — and is facing a quandary with franchise player Dwight Howard requesting a trade.
“I try not to worry about other people. I worry about myself and my situation. At the same time, maybe it happened for a reason,” Lewis said. “The way that team, it seems like it’s just blowing up. You get rid of Brandon Bass, who I thought was a great player. You use amnesty on [Gilbert] and Dwight seems like he don’t want to be there no more. That’s the kind of turmoil I would be going through if I was still there.”
He has more security and comfort, which he struggled to find last season, when he dealt with the rejection from the Magic and dejection with the Wizards. Lewis also had a right knee injury that limited his productivity and contributed to his frustration.
“I wasn’t really into it like I should’ve been. It seemed like everything came so fast during the trade,” Lewis said. “My knee was bad. You wanted a fresh start. You wanted it to be over because you’re coming to a team in turmoil and you’re trying to fix it but they dug a hole so deep, they just couldn’t get out of it. I didn’t say nothing about it last year. But it was most definitely very difficult.”
The extended offseason gave Lewis the opportunity to heal and reflect. He also married his longtime girlfriend, Giovanni Fortes, who is expecting the couple’s third child in May. Lewis commuted back and forth between Washington and his home town of Houston, where he rehabilitated his knee and prepared for the upcoming season.
“I think coming back to this team, especially this year, is like a fresh start for me, almost like starting over. Like I said, over the summer, I was able to relax and get away from basketball and just think about my whole situation, what I was getting into. . . what kind of team I’m on and how I have to position myself when I came into the season. And I came in with more energy.”
Coach Flip Saunders has praised Lewis for coming back healthy, and holding his teammates accountable in practice by offering constructive criticism. “I think it’s better to be more vocal when you’re out there going to battle with these guys. And when you’re going to war, you can talk to them a little more,” Lewis said. “It’s a dramatic change from where guys were from last year to this year. Even though I was here half the season, I see a big difference. I feel good about this upcoming season. I think we’ll surprise a lot of people.”
Lewis returned to Orlando last month to participate in Howard’s charity game and was flooded with memories of making an all-star team, reaching the NBA Finals, playing with teammates who have become great friends — and possibly that uncomfortable phone call from the man who gave him a $118 million contract in 2007.
“If you know somebody that wants to buy a house in Orlando, let me know,” Lewis said with a laugh. “That era is over and I’ve got to start a new one.”