GILBERT ARENAS · A Life Apart
The Psychic Scars That Shaped an NBA Star
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Mary Francis Robinson stood behind a security guard a few feet from where the players shoot layups before games at American Airlines Arena in Miami. On the jersey of the player she last saw when he was 3 1/2 years old was the number 0. She heard once he wore that number "because people always said he wouldn't amount to nothin'." · "Gilbert!"
Robinson yelled. · The fledgling NBA star settled on the woman's gaze. · "Gilbert! I'm your mom! I'm your mom!"
Gilbert Arenas froze, did a double-take and returned to the layup line, shaken by the woman's words. After the game, Robinson persuaded one of his teammates to bring her by the team bus to meet Arenas. She collapsed in his arms, Arenas recalled, hugging him by the waist as he held the sobbing woman upright. Ashamed that she had abandoned him 18 years earlier, continuing to cry, she handed him a piece of paper with her telephone number on it.
It was Arenas's second season with the Golden State Warriors. He was not yet 21 years old. He kissed Robinson on the cheek, turned and walked away.
Four years later, Gilbert Arenas has yet to call his mother.
"All I asked for when I was younger was to meet her," said Arenas, who on Wednesday begins his fourth season with the Washington Wizards. "That was it. God gave me that chance to meet her that day. I didn't want to know why, I didn't want to know all the things that happened. I just wanted to meet her. That was my only wish."
Before Gilbert Arenas became the antidote to Michael Jordan's bitter end in Washington, before he spun the District on his fingertips and carried the Wizards to their first consecutive playoff appearances in two decades, before he emerged from an unheralded high school career in Southern California to enjoy unexpected success at the University of Arizona and then in the NBA, there was this: a nomadic journey from a Miami housing project to the streets of Los Angeles, a caring father, a forgotten mother.
In a league filled with huge personalities and oversize egos, Arenas stands apart. A two-time all-star who last season scored the fourth-most points in the National Basketball Association, Arenas, 24, is one of the league's most enigmatic figures, an idiosyncratic loner, a charmingly candid young man who freely admits he pushes away those who get close to him.
To understand Arenas, you have to go back to the beginning. To understand his journey, where he has traveled and how he came to light up a moribund basketball team in Washington, you need to start over. To understand the player who gallops off the Verizon Center floor bare-chested after tossing his jersey into the stands following Wizards home games, who likes to practice alone in the middle of the night, who must own every DVD and collectible jersey he can buy, who is such an extroverted performer that he leaves work to become a solitary homebody, you have to go back to the rundown Overtown section of Miami. You have to go back to apartment No. 9.
You have to go back to the mother who gave him up there. And then you have to come forward, to the mother of his 10-month-old baby girl and the opulent red brick home he bought for them on a cul-de-sac in the Virginia suburbs.
"Whatever happens in your past, you get second chances," Arenas said. "Basketball is where I put all my pain and let it go. The court became my sanctuary, my outlet. Most males, we don't have outlets. A lot of females don't realize we can't go and tell our friends our problems. We don't talk about that. That's why a lot of men have stress. Some golf, some do strip clubs or whatever. Mine was going on the basketball floor.
"By showing up in the gym and looking at the rim and holding the ball, I got some of that out."
* * *
'Come get your boy'
Gilbert Arenas Sr. got an offer he couldn't refuse in 1985.
"Come get your boy."
"One day I get a phone call: 'Hey, look, you don't know me and I don't know you. But Francis is not raising your son,' " he was told.
He did not remember the woman's name, but he recalled that she said she was the grandmother of a child Mary Francis Robinson had had by her son.
"She said: 'I just happened to find your number through the agency. But I'm giving you an opportunity to be a father. I have your son with me right now in Miami.' "
"They found both of the babies in a crack house," Gilbert Sr. said.
"She had left the kids there. I said, 'Hey, look, say no more. I'll be down there."
He left Tampa immediately and drove through Alligator Alley. Four hours later, he arrived in Overtown. He drove down a side street until he reached a steel-fenced housing project, found the apartment and knocked on the door.
A rambunctious child of almost 4 greeted him as he walked through the door.
"He was full of smiles," Gilbert Sr. said. I could see that glare in his eyes, that glare that, normally when you around good things and good things about to happen, I seen it. He had this big smile on his face."
"Do you know who I am?" Gilbert Sr. asked.
"Yeah," Little Gil replied.
"Who am I?"
"You, you -- right."
"I said, 'So you have all your clothes?' He said, 'Yeah.' I look in the bag. He had like three pieces of clothing. No underwear. No nothing.
"I said, 'You ready to go?'
"He said, " 'Yeah.' "
Gilbert Arenas Jr. walked out the door of apartment No. 9 and, in the late summer sun, got into his father's car to begin life anew.
"You could tell that was the best day of his life," his father said.
Gilbert Sr. drove his son to West Tampa, to the same house on Cherry Street he and his two brothers grew up in and two blocks from where his grandfather, Hippolito Arenas, a first-generation Cuban American, rolled cigars at a now-decaying brick factory. Fannie Lee Arenas, Gilbert's grandmother, cared for Gilbert the next few years as his father tried to kick-start an acting career.
Three years after gaining custody of his son, Gilbert Sr. decided to move across the country. "Gil, let's go," he told the 7-year-old boy. "We goin' to California."
An industry guide, the Ross Reports, Gilbert Sr. recalled, had said the movie and television studios were in Hollywood and Burbank. He took the Burbank exit off the 101 Freeway until he reached Olive Park. First day in Southern California and there Gilbert Sr. was, playing softball alongside the cast of "The Days of Our Lives," who just happened to need a catcher.
"What's the guy's name, 'Wax on, wax off?' " Gilbert Sr. asked. Pat Morita, the late actor from "The Karate Kid" movies? "Yeah, he came out, too," he said. "I'm thinking, 'This is great. I'm out here with some stars.' "
The only problem was, he and Gilbert had no place to live. Gilbert Sr. saw a 7-year-old boy playing on the swings who needed a Happy Meal. He had $25 to his name.
He slept on the windshield of his blue Mazda RX-7 part of that first night and opened the hatch so some air could get in while little Gilbert slept in the back. "I'm sitting there, thinking, 'Man, this is not a good move.' "
He recalled a police officer knocking on the car window around midnight, telling him he could not sleep in the park with his son. He drove to a Thrifty drug store and parked behind the building. For the next three days, Gilbert Sr. and his young son spent their mornings and afternoons at Olive Park and their nights in the back of a parking lot, trying to sleep in a coupe on the outskirts of Hollywood.
"Me and Gil used to have this game we used to play called, 'Fly-Away,' " Gilbert Sr. said. "I don't know why, but the sound used to make him smile. 'Woo-Woooo!' Well, I wanted to fly away. The sun set and I would think to myself, 'What the hell am I doing here?' I didn't have anything, including a clue. He didn't know what I was thinking. Tears are about to start rollin' out of my eyes.
"Then Gil said, 'Daddy, what's wrong?' I said, 'Nothin'.' He said, 'We goin' be all right.' "And I looked at him and said, 'Yeah, we are.' He's telling me that at 7 or 8 years old."
Within 12 hours, Gilbert Sr. had an $8-an-hour job, $1,500 through a loan company to put him and his son into an affordable apartment, and free day care; the boyfriend of the apartment complex manager volunteered to take care of Gilbert after spending three minutes with him. Strangers who overheard Gilbert Sr.'s woes would slip $20 bills into little Gilbert's hands. The Brookstree Apartments in Van Nuys became their home for almost nine years.
"Gilbert was my good-luck piece," Gilbert Sr. said. "Everywhere I went, people fell in love with him and wanted to do things for us."
On a tour of Arenas's childhood haunts in July, Gilbert Sr. pointed to a bench at Olive Park, which is now called Izay Park. Across a freshly mowed field where he and young Gilbert had sat is the park's signature feature, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.
The baby blue jet arches toward the sky, rising up from the grass, its nose pointed toward the heavens. "Gil would play on that and try and climb it," he said.
When he was 16, the Wizards' star recalled recently, he began dreaming about a big spaceship in a park. "My life was good when I saw that spaceship," Arenas said. "I just wanted to ride away on it and I knew everything would be okay."
Told that the jet and the park were not his imagination, Arenas smiled in wonderment. "That wasn't a dream? The ship was real? That's where we stayed?' "
While his father escorted a visitor around the old park that afternoon in July, Arenas was in a studio called the House of Moes in Marina del Rey filming an Adidas commercial in which a robotic Arenas dominates the basketball court and, ostensibly, the world. Between cuts, Arenas rose from a nap in the star's trailer, yawned and declared, "Man, this is work."
Gilbert Sr. never starred in a movie. But he got a speaking part on "Miami Vice" once and, at age 45, has done a couple of commercials and occasionally auditions for minor roles. But he seems content in his modest North Hollywood apartment, where he's lived since Arenas left for college.
"People might look at my dad like, 'Oh, you wasn't an actor, you didn't do this.' Maybe he came to California for me, to give me a chance. Maybe he didn't do what he wanted to do, but I did," Arenas said. "So, he actually did get big in Hollywood because I got big. Sometimes, back home they can look at him like, 'Oh, you didn't become that movie star on television like you said.' Well, he can say, 'My son's on television every day.' "We're both goofy and we're both hard-working," he added. "You always try not to be your father, you know, 'I'm nothing like my dad.' But I am my dad."
Gilbert Sr. said, "A big piece of Gil is me and I'm sure a big part of me is him."
* * *
'What's my mother's name?'
The day after Arenas met Mary Francis Robinson, he said nothing about the encounter to anyone. Then he told his Dad.
"We went to the Cheesecake Factory the next night and that's when he pulled me aside and said, 'Dad, what's my mother's name?' I said, 'Why?' "
"I'm just curious," Arenas told him.
"I said, 'Mary Francis.' "
"Well," his son said, "I just met this lady last night at the game who gave me this phone number and said she was my mom."
"Well, that's all. I didn't say anything. We just hugged each other and she started crying."
Gilbert Sr. took the piece of paper from his son and phoned Robinson, the woman he remembered as a long-limbed, pretty teenager at Jefferson High School in Tampa, back when he had the same athletic dreams his son lives today.
They dated for about a year, and sometime before Gilbert Sr.'s graduation he found out she was pregnant. A multi-sport star who was known on the West Tampa courts as "Gil the Thrill," Gilbert Sr. had an uncle coaching at Florida Memorial College outside Miami who had offered him a baseball scholarship. He left Tampa and his pregnant girlfriend to better their future.
"I knew it would be a crossroads between me and her trying to make the baby thing work," he said. "I had worked it out for her to stay with my family, but Gil's mother decided she wanted to make her own life and make her own decisions. When she got out on her own, she met certain people. Certain people got in her head and convinced her to do certain things. That's where her problem lies."
He came home from spring break after Gilbert was born. Mary Francis had moved to the projects in Tampa. "I remember thinking, 'Man, this isn't good for my son,' " Gilbert Sr. said. "But I couldn't do anything at the time because I didn't have full custody.
"One particular time I was at her house, and Gil and I were asleep. I woke up and had to come down the stairs for something. She had one of her girlfriends over and they had this aluminum foil on the top of the car. I think they were doing snow at the time."
"What the hell are you doing?" Gilbert Sr. recalled asking them.
"You don't want to know," Mary Francis replied. "You don't want none of this."
"You got a kid upstairs," he told her. "You don't need to be doin' this crap."
Their son was not yet 2 years old.
"I left the house," Gilbert Sr. said. "That was the last time I ever saw her."
* * *
'He comfort me so much'
Twenty-one years after Gilbert Sr. picked up his son, the door to apartment No. 9 in the Town Park Plaza North Condominiums in Overtown opened again, this time for a visitor.
"You wanted to meet Gilbert's mama?" said Virginia Huggins, the woman who had phoned Gilbert's father and asked him to come get his son two decades earlier. "She's upstairs. She'll be down in a few minutes."
A slim woman of 43 in a casual jean skirt, lime green floral-print blouse and seashell necklace sheepishly walked into the living room and sat down on the plastic covering of Huggins's sofa. "I don't go by Mary, I just go by Francis," she said.
She began to peel back the layers of a hard life, which changed dramatically, she said, after she got pregnant with Gilbert and his father left for college.
"I just felt abandoned," Francis said. "I was so angry, I just moved out in my own apartment instead of trying to work at it with Gilbert's father. I just . . . if I knew what would have came of things, I would have done things differently."
She spoke in a raspy, weathered, sometimes unintelligible voice, and wept often between sentences, pausing to laugh when the 22-year-old man comforting her on the sofa gave her grief about her tears.
"Stop cryin', Ma," said William "Blue" Robinson, Gilbert's half-brother, the kid Gilbert once accidentally bounced off a water bed and dragged behind him while teaching Blue to walk.
"Shut up, Blue," she said, wiping her eyes and laughing. "Gilbert changed your Pampers."
Blue never met his father. He was shot and killed in Tampa, bleeding to death in Mary Francis's arms a month before she gave birth to her second son. By then, she had fallen into drugs and depression.
Huggins, 66, was so traumatized by her son's death, she moved the family to Miami, and Francis followed. "I just stopped caring after a while," Francis said. "I lost the strong side of me."
"He comfort me so much," she said of Gilbert. "Even when he was so little, Gilbert was the man of the house. He would hold me and tell me, 'We'll be all right.' He couldn't have been more than 2 years old, but he used to bring me something to eat. In all my dreams, he was still 3 years old coming across the street to see me."
Wanda Huggins, Virginia's daughter, was awarded custody of Blue, whose jocular gait, soft complexion and sinewy body frame today make him a spitting image of his older brother. Wanda also is raising Wanisha, Gilbert's 14-year-old half-sister. "She love Gilbert," Wanda said. "She always see him on TV. She want to get to know him."
In all, Arenas has five half-brothers and two half-sisters. They range in age from 7 to 22. He has never met them.
* * *
'I don't need his money'
On the way to a buffet restaurant a few miles from the housing project, Blue spoke about his desire to become a detective despite forgoing college for a job at a Publix grocery warehouse. He proudly showed a cellphone video image of himself at a shooting range, and spoke to his mother about the second firearm he had recently purchased.
"You got two guns, Blue? I didn't even know you had one," Francis said.
"Mom, it ain't like we live in the damn suburbs," he said, pulling a silver-plated, 40-caliber Taurus handgun from the pocket of his oversize jean shorts.
"Can I hide this under your seat while we go in the restaurant?" he asked, politely.
Francis relies on men on the street in Overtown, men with nicknames such as "Kool-Aid," "Cornbread," "Wine" and "Bonnie," to keep her abreast of her eldest son's exploits. "Mostly Kool-Aid," Francis said. "He always tellin' me, 'Oh, Gilbert on the injured list,' or 'Gilbert got selected to the all-star team.' Kool-Aid always say, 'If you ever do meet him again, get me a jersey.' Everybody on the streets tell me, 'Girl, you crazy. He got all that money and you his mama?' I tell them, 'That's his money.' I don't need none of it. I just want my kids to get together one day and meet each other."
Francis said she lost track of Gilbert for several years until a family member told her that her son was a star basketball player at the University of Arizona. It would take a couple of more years until she reached out to him at that game in Miami.
"I feel like since I abandon him, I didn't know how he was going on with his life and if he wanted to hear from me," she said. "I barely came up to his waist when I saw him that day in Miami. I was cryin' and so ashamed."
Under the alias Alexandra Delphing, Francis has a criminal record in the Miami Police Department database dating from 1989, according to a public information officer at the department. "I came up with that name 'cause I didn't want things to keep going back to my name," she said. She has been drug-free for some time, though would not elaborate. "I still drink my beer now and then," she said.
"The life I been livin', I ain't happy with it," she added. "I'm trying to maintain on the outside. I joke to make people laugh. But little do they know I'm hurting inside."
Outside the restaurant, Francis broke down again. "I scarred Gilbert real bad," she said through her sobs. "I know I did. Not just him, but myself, too. I scarred myself.
"I don't need his money. I just want him to know I love him regardless. Regardless. I know it's not right for me to ask, but if he can ever find it in his heart to forgive me. . . ."
* * *
'I don't hate my mother'
Gilbert Arenas says he's not interested in reconnecting with his mother at the moment.
People close to him say this is not because he carries any animosity toward her. In fact, those who know him best say his encounter with her had deeply traumatized him.
"It's definitely caused some issues," said Howard Levine, Arenas's coach for three years at Grant High School in Burbank, Calif. "Just imagine you don't have the love of your mother. This is a kid who doesn't trust people too much. This is a kid who thinks people will abandon him."
Arenas says his father once tried to tell him the story of how he came to Miami to pick Gilbert up as a child. "I was watching TV and told him, 'I really don't care. If you want to, get it off your chest,' " Arenas said. "He's like, 'You don't want to know how I got you?' I never even thought about it. It's the past. You move forward.
"Everyone is not built to be parents," Arenas continued. "You can't judge anybody. I don't judge her because my Dad did a great job with me.
"I'm here. I could have been against the world. 'Oh, my mom left me,' and blamed everything on that. But I can't be like that. She had me at 17. . . . Seventeen, you're still trying to become a young lady." [Robinson was 18 when Arenas was born.]
Told of his mother's wish for forgiveness, Arenas paused and thought.
"Everyone forgives," he finally said. "But you go 24 years without somebody, it's like a stranger, you know. What can you say? I don't hate my mother [or] hate women because of what happened in my childhood."
* * *
'I'm always in the middle of life's problems'
Laura Govan lives in a new, 7,000-square-foot home in Northern Virginia that Arenas purchased for her and their 10-month-old daughter, Izela Semaya, whom Gilbert calls "Iza" and "Cheyla." His place is about a three-minute drive away.
They met about five years ago, as he was emerging as the best player on the Golden State Warriors. Half African American, a quarter of Mexican and Hawaiian extraction from her mother's side, Govan is an attractive 27-year-old, 2 1/2 years older than Arenas. She grew up in a prominent family of nine in the affluent Bay Area community of Orinda.
They dated for about two years, but slowly grew apart after Arenas signed a six-year, $65 million contract with the Wizards in the summer of 2003 and moved to Washington. She was working in the public relations department of the Sacramento Kings at the time after having worked briefly for Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal.
Such was the on-and-off nature of their relationship that Arenas was surprised last year when he learned Govan was carrying his child. But Arenas, having secured permission to quietly leave the Wizards during a Western Conference road swing, was on hand in the birthing room in Oakland last Christmas Eve when Govan gave birth to their daughter.
Within weeks, though, Arenas and Govan were arguing over issues of custody, paternity and the fragile state of their relationship. Govan hired an aggressive Bay Area law firm, which threatened to embarrass Arenas by serving him with a paternity suit on national television during a game in Sacramento on March 28.
Arenas was advised by his attorney to avoid being served a subpoena in the state at all costs, noting that he could suffer a severe personal loss of wealth because of California laws governing paternity and child support.
Arenas said Wizards owner Abe Pollin agreed. "Abe Pollin was like, 'This can't happen,'" Arenas said.
The team concocted a story: Arenas had the flu. "I called my teammates. They said: 'Don't worry. We're going to win this game. We'll meet you on the plane.' " Arenas watched on television in his hotel room as the Wizards beat the Kings without him. The team spent the night in Sacramento, but Arenas flew to Houston with at least two teammates, he said.
The Wizards did not deny the episode. When asked about it last week, the team issued a statement by Pollin. "We're proud of Gilbert as a player and as a person," he said. "He has overcome a great deal in his life, he has exceeded most people's expectations, and he has become an integral part of the Washington, D.C., community. Most importantly, Gilbert is a member of our family, just as everyone is that works for me."
What began as a lovers' spat morphed into a cross-country, cat-and-mouse game in which the Wizards' star hid in hotel rooms under aliases to avoid being served in person. The entire Wizards organization played its part to keep the matter out of the public eye.
Arenas believes his personal troubles actually helped unite the Wizards last season. "I think that's when my players looked up to me," he said. "They knew everything I was going through and I'm going out there fighting, doing everything I'm doing on that floor and it doesn't look like it's fazing me. I told my teammates: 'I'm not going to worry about what's going on now; we have to worry about what's going on on the floor. Don't think I'm thinkin' about something else. I'm going to deal with that after the season.' So I was like, 'You guys just protect me here and we'll work that out after the season.' "
The ordeal went on so long it actually became a running gag with some of the Wizards. "We made it into a big joke," Arenas said. "My teammates would say, 'Gil's on the run again,' or, 'You dodged that one like "The Matrix." ' Oakland, Sacramento, Houston, Chicago. They were trying to serve me everywhere. I would stay under an alias."
In Oakland, Arenas narrowly escaped being served when teammate Donnell Taylor was mistaken for him at a practice, giving Arenas enough time to flee.
"All I heard was: 'We're going to get him by any means necessary. If he's shooting a free throw, we'll run on that floor and embarrass him, that's what we're going to do.' It got that crazy and nasty," Arenas said.
Arenas finally called Govan and asked her to pull back. "I said: 'Why are you doing this when I told you if you give up custody I will take my daughter. I want my daughter. I will do anything for her. I don't understand what you're trying to do.' "
Govan now regrets what she put herself and Arenas through. "I called the lawyer one day and said, 'I didn't want you to serve him, I just wanted you to scare him,' " she said. "He took it to World War II extremes."
Arenas called Govan's father, with whom he says he is close, and negotiated a mutually beneficial plan that would allow her to live near Arenas with her own house, car and financial allowance. After Govan's attorney had been paid off -- Arenas said it cost him about $10,000 -- and they had agreed to raise the child together, the two met face-to-face.
"We realized how much money we wasted, how much time we wasted," Govan said. "In the end, we just sat down and looked at each other."
Arenas took a paternity test two weeks after the season to ensure he was the father.
"I'm always in the middle of life's problems, I'm so used to the chaos," he said. He refers to himself as a single parent and says he is unsure whether he and Govan will ever work out as a couple. "We're in hot water right now," he said. "It's so hard to be a parent when you're not with the woman. Especially when you see what you don't want to be. I don't want to be like my mother. I don't want to be like every NBA player that sits there and pays child support. Never meet your kid."
"We're still working on this," Govan said. "Today, we're on. Tomorrow, we're not. One of the problems is, Gilbert and I are both so stubborn."
She is almost five months pregnant with their second child, a boy.
One day during an argument, she said, Arenas stormed out of the house. He came back minutes later. "He said: 'I'm sorry. I can't help it. Everybody I love, I push away. That's who I am.' "
"It's true, I catch myself doing that all the time," Arenas said. "I think that's the only way you know who's true. If you push them away and you push them to where they hate you, and if they're still around, those are true people. But if you push them away and they leave, it was never meant to be. You're just a leaf on a tree that just blew off."
Coming Tomorrow in Sports: Gilbert Arenas' strange summer.