Arenas went on to lead Arizona in scoring his sophomore season, but had never seriously thought about leaving for the NBA until teammate Richard Jefferson announced his intention to leave on a plane ride back from Minneapolis, after Arizona lost to Duke in the NCAA championship game in 2001.
Arenas Sr. called around to see the level of interest in his son. After receiving assurances that he would be a first-round pick, Gilbert declared for the NBA draft, bought himself a $55,000 Cadillac Escalade and added more than $50,000 in accessories. He watched the draft from a hotel room in Marina del Rey, Calif., but when the first round passed without him being drafted, Arenas threw his newly purchased jewelry out the window, turned off the TV, called then-Arizona assistant Rodney Tention and cried.
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)
When Tention told him that the Golden State Warriors drafted him No. 31, Arenas said: "That's the worst mistake the NBA has made. I'm going to the gym right now."
After being stashed on the injured list for half of his rookie season, Arenas quickly burst onto the scene. A year later, he was given the league's most improved player award after leading a 17-game turnaround in Golden State.
When Arenas signed a six-year, $65 million contract with the Wizards in the summer of 2003, his colorful antics overshadowed his immense talents. Wasn't he the same guy who took a shower during halftime against San Antonio -- in his uniform and sneakers -- and then scored 24 points in the second half? The same guy who used to play ridiculous practical jokes as rookie -- hiding his teammates' keys, stealing their jerseys, putting room service on their tabs or grabbing their two-way pagers and sending embarrassing e-mail messages?
"They used to make him get doughnuts, a rookie thing," said Golden State forward Troy Murphy. "I would come in early and he'd be putting baby powder [as if it was powdered sugar] on the doughnuts or licking them and putting them back in the box. He would look at me and laugh whenever someone would eat one. That's when I shut down eating doughnuts."
"He is," Golden State forward Adonal Foyle said, taking a long pause, "a lunatic."
Arenas didn't do much to dispute that assertion when he boldly declared that the Wizards were going to the playoffs at his introductory news conference. He quickly added to his legacy as a strange character throughout his first season in Washington, testing the patience of his coach.
He also was injured, missing 27 games because of a strained abdomen and leading the team to just 25 wins. In the offseason, Arenas committed himself to making a change, and when the Wizards acquired Jamison from Dallas in a draft day deal, Arenas felt that reuniting with his former Golden State teammate could be a turning point.
Then, when he arrived in Las Vegas to work out with several NBA players last summer, Arenas received a challenge from Cleveland Cavaliers guard Eric Snow. "I said, 'Man, listen. I look at your game and I look at you, you easily could be a top-five point guard in this league and what do you got to show for it?' " said Snow, a 10-year veteran who has played with Philadelphia's Allen Iverson and Boston's Gary Payton.
Arenas also earned the trust of Jordan, who met with Arenas and Hughes before the season began, placing the success or failure of the team in the hands of his talented back court. "Coming from last year to this year is night and day. He's turned his demeanor, his behavior and trust all the way around. He has made this 180-degree turn," Jordan said. "He wants to win, he wants to help his teammates, he wants to be a good defensive player. And he wants to be known as an all-star, in that realm as a complete player and a winner."
Arenas's focus on becoming one of the top players in the league keeps him confined mostly to his home in Great Falls. He spends most of his free time playing the video game Halo on his Xbox. Arenas said the only time he went out this season was when he went to a club to celebrate the playoff berth with his teammates.
"I can go out in the summer. That's when all the nice girls will be out anyway," Arenas said. "I want to stay here in the summer, sight-see a little bit and get familiar with the city because I'm going to be here a long time."
Arenas often gets stopped for autographs and jersey requests when he is spotted around town, but he finally made a real connection with someone when he met Andre McAllister, a 10-year-old who was the only survivor from a fire in the District that killed his mother, twin sister, great-grandfather and a cousin five days before Christmas. Arenas took the youngster under his wing, got him hired as a ballboy at Wizards games and helps him focus on having fun.
Arenas was once the kid some thought would never grow up, and in some ways, still hasn't. But now he is a mentor -- and a leader for a playoff team. "I don't know how people said, 'You aren't going to mature,' " Arenas said. "Everybody is immature at one point, then you grow up. That's life."