As confetti rained down from the rafters at MCI Center 11 days ago, when the Washington Wizards clinched the franchise's first playoff berth in eight years, Gilbert Arenas stood shirtless near center court after performing his postgame ritual of tossing his No. 0 jersey into the stands. He gazed upward, a huge smile on his face.
The fiercely competitive and often comedic Arenas had done what most thought was impossible: Through his leadership and work ethic, he helped bring the postseason to a moribund organization that even Michael Jordan -- considered by many to be the greatest to play the game of basketball -- couldn't rescue. And, at the ripe old age of 23, Arenas also shed the labels that have followed him throughout his National Basketball Association career -- a natural talent too immature, too erratic and too selfish to lead a team anywhere.
Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas makes it a point to do things his own way, including tossing his jersey into the stands after home games.
(Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
"You can just see how much he's matured," said forward Antawn Jamison, who along with Arenas and Larry Hughes has given the Wizards the highest-scoring threesome in the NBA, averaging 67.1 points per game. "He's really amazed me."
Arenas seemed an unlikely candidate to reverse the fortunes of the Wizards, who begin the playoffs tonight against the Bulls in Chicago at 5:30 p.m. Coach Eddie Jordan coined the phrase "Gilbertology" to describe his offbeat point guard. "He's not moving to the beat of a different drummer," Jordan said. "He's moving to a different beat."
There's the shirt-throwing, of course -- something Arenas says he has done his whole career but which didn't attract much attention until this season. And wearing size-13 shoes on his size-14 1/2 feet because he's afraid of making his feet look too big. And the pregame superstitions such as always eating a meal from Boston Market, parking his car in the same spot, listening to the same music in the same order and tickling Jamison's armpit before the opening tip-off. Not to mention his habit of showing up at MCI Center for late-night workouts, rather than sleeping in and risking someone else outworking him.
But that hard work and competitive streak resulted in a team-high average of 25.5 points and Arenas's first all-star appearance. And Arenas's fun-loving personality proved to be the perfect addition to a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity for most of the past 25 years; a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since 1997, won a playoff game since 1988 or a playoff series since 1982, the year Arenas was born.
"I'm grateful, happy, proud, that I came here and did something -- made history," Arenas said. "My name is going to always be remembered for that, and that's a great feeling."
In leading the Wizards to tonight's first-round matchup with the Bulls, Arenas managed to eliminate some of the distractions of past seasons -- collecting technical fouls, trashing locker rooms in frustration, etc. And, though single, he took on responsibilities in his private life, becoming a big brother for a local child who lost his family in a fire in late December.
"Gilbert is going to be Gilbert," said Orlando Magic Executive Basketball Operations Director Otis Smith, who worked closely with Arenas during Arenas's first two seasons in Golden State. "He's a special, quirky kid and people misinterpret that to [mean] he's just weird. But I think he's just a different kid. His uniqueness is that he does whatever it takes to win."
Arenas's "uniqueness" begins with his unorthodox upbringing. He was raised by a single father who gained custody of his son shortly before Arenas turned 3. (He has seen his mother once as an adult, after a game in Miami during his rookie season.)
When Gilbert was 8, his father packed up his Mazda RX-7 and drove from Florida to California to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Arriving in Burbank, they only had $50, no plan and no place to stay. After surviving on McDonald's and living out of a car for three nights, Gilbert Arenas Sr. found employment, bouncing between odd jobs until he acquired some acting gigs.
When his father took a night job at UPS, Gilbert would watch his father leave for work at 2:30 a.m., and he'd be right behind, heading to a nearby park to work on his game. "All I knew was, he's working and working. So, I always knew, if I want something in life, I got to work," Arenas said.
Arenas became the first all-star from his 2001 NBA draft class but has dealt with slights throughout his basketball career. He wound up going to the University of Arizona only because a player backed out of his commitment, leaving a scholarship available. Arenas chose jersey No. 0 for the number of minutes several doubters told him he would play at a school that won the NCAA championship two years before.
"When he got there, people were like, 'Who is this Arenas guy? Is he Mexican? Is he Puerto Rican?' " said Arenas Sr., whose grandfather emigrated from Cuba. "I know a lot of people question his ability to do things, but that's what he loves -- challenges. He takes things on his shoulders because he knows what he's capable of doing."