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Quietly, Arenas Pays His Respects

By Mike Wise
Thursday, May 4, 2006

CLEVELAND

It was late, going on 12:30 a.m., so late that LeBron James had already showered and was putting baby powder on his big toes. The Cleveland Cavaliers' locker room was emptying out when one of the most unlikely people walked in.

Gilbert Arenas.

Past midnight, past overtime.

He had come to see Larry Hughes, his former teammate and one of his best friends in the league. But he also couldn't escape the gaze of the 21-year-old who shot him and his team down in a Game 5 heirloom late Wednesday night.

"Yo, that was my Game 5," Arenas said to James. "You took my Game 5. I had my speech prepared and everything after the game. And you done messed up everything."

James kept his head down, smiling to himself. He and Arenas had combined for 89 points, and Arenas had indeed done everything superhumanly possible to ensure the Wizards were going home to close out Game 6 on Friday night instead of playing for their season, including hitting two clutch free throws with 3.6 seconds left.

But this was one of those impossible-stakes, Texas hold 'em showdowns Arenas dreams of playing in, and James raised him considerably, knifing down the baseline and dumping in a picturesque layup just before the buzzer to send the arena called the Q into a state of delirium.

Now Arenas was in his locker room?

Fraternization is nothing new in the NBA between visiting players and teams, but this was after the wildest night of James's young career. He seemed stunned that Arenas would come over to affectionately badger him after such a rough loss -- a loss that left Washington one game from elimination.

Arenas wouldn't let the ribbing go as he waited for Hughes to dress.

"I was going to be Mr. Game 5, I was going to be perfect in Game 5s," said Arenas, who deadened the United Center a year ago in Game 5 with a last-second jump shot that all but ended Chicago's season. "You took that game from me. That was my game."

There were only a few people left in the locker room, and Hughes finally let out an uncomfortable laugh, as if he wanted James to know Arenas was having fun while also letting his friend know that his attempt at humor did not go unnoticed.

Arenas kept going, motioning toward Hughes putting on a pair of nylon mesh shorts -- Wizards shorts.

"Man, he has got to be fined," Arenas said. "Somebody fine him in here right now. You see this?"

James kept dressing and smiling while not completely acknowledging Arenas. He almost seemed deferential to the veteran player in his own locker room.

Maybe you're reading this and thinking Gilbert Arenas needs to develop more of a competitive streak after such a tough loss, that he should be so angry and beside himself after watching his no-account-defensive team give up a layup in the final three seconds, that he should not be joshing with the enemy in their bunker after such a dismal ending for the Wizards.

Maybe Arenas should be getting in Brendan Haywood's face and demanding to know why he had the best seat in the arena for the most defining play of the season to date, standing flat-footed in the key, earth-bound as James pirouetted, rose and won the game.

Maybe the guy who poured in 44 points for Washington, including six of the most unreal stop-and-pop three-pointers imaginable, should have demanded to know why some of his teammates didn't do more to make him Mr. Game 5 on that last defensive sequence.

What, after all, was Michael Ruffin doing behind James on the entire play, so that he was in no real position to block his shot at the end? How did they let the most gifted young player in the game catch the ball just outside the three-point line and let him go baseline?

Don't they know you don't give up the baseline in basketball? Never mind that Washington's two primary defenders, Caron Butler and Jared Jeffries, had fouled out. Couldn't have Arenas or anyone else made sure they pushed James more toward midcourt and not toward the rim with Game 5 on the line?

Shouldn't Arenas worry about that before spending time with Hughes and playfully going at James at 12:30 a.m.?

Maybe.

But what if Gilbert Arenas was caught up in the moment like the rest of us Wednesday night, perplexed and out of breath after what we had just witnessed -- an overtime thriller decided at the horn, two all-stars who refused to blink before the buzzer sounded in the middle of May, in the middle of playoff madness.

Maybe Gilbert Arenas sat in the Cavs locker room past midnight Wednesday because he was indeed like the rest of us. He wanted to talk to Larry Hughes about this amazing game they had both been a part of.

Like his counterpart sprinkling baby powder on his toes across the locker room, maybe Gilbert Arenas didn't want to go home.

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