A Couple of Stars Brighten the Whole Scene

By George Solomon
Sunday, December 31, 2006

A final look at 2006. What we liked and what we didn't.

And what better way to begin such a year-ender than with Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, who may be the hottest player in the NBA. In 13 games, from Dec. 4 to Dec. 29, Arenas has averaged 37.2 points as the Wizards won 11 of those 13.

Those totals include scoring 60 points in a 147-141 overtime win over the Lakers in Los Angeles and 54 in a 144-139 overtime victory at Phoenix -- the first time in 20 years Washington won in those cities in the same year.

But more than box scores or stats, Arenas brings an excitement and electricity to the arena. He also has his own vocabulary (Gilbertology), interacts with fans and walks the city. But mostly, Verizon Center rocks. We haven't had that in Washington very much. Michael Jordan, in his two seasons here (2001-02, 2002-03), brought it, even though Jordan wasn't the same Jordan who won the six rings in Chicago.

Riggo had it often -- but never more than that January day 24 years ago when he bowed to the fans after a playoff victory over Minnesota at RFK Stadium. Sonny Jurgensen had it 32 years ago when he brought the Redskins from behind to beat the defending champion Miami Dolphins at RFK. And Darrell Green had it when he stepped on the field at FedEx for those final games in 2002.

But if you're looking for chills this warm winter, Arenas and the Caps' Alex Ovechkin are your guys.

Arenas's 25 points in the first half against Memphis the other night was typical: the moves, the slashes and flashes at the baskets, the three-point shots and steals. Before you knew it the Wizards had 77 points by intermission, leaving most of the 18,778 fans breathless and the Grizzlies down by 26.

"I'm in the zone right now," Arenas said Tuesday night. "I feel my shot; I'm so comfortable. I'm just so lethal right now."

Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan is awed at Arenas's accomplishments this month. "I played on the same Laker team as Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and never saw anything comparable to what Gilbert did this month."

Glen Hanlon, the coach of a Capitals team that has battled its way into playoff contention when most experts predicted them for last place in the NHL, has a similar feeling about Ovechkin.

"Greatness comes over 15 years and championships won," Hanlon said. "But Alex has removed himself from everyone else in the league for his ability to play every aspect of the game. He's the kind of player to take a whole franchise to another level. It's what Wayne Gretzky did for the Kings when he played in Los Angeles."

Ovechkin, 21, with 25 goals and 25 assists so far, does things on the ice comparable to what Arenas does on a basketball court. Who knows how good both can become?

On the Other Hand

If Arenas and Ovechkin gave Washington fans pleasure, the Redskins provided pain.

Nothing seemed to work in the third year of Joe Gibbs's return. The offense under associate head coach Al Saunders never got untracked, even with Jason Campbell replacing Mark Brunell and the emergence of Ladell Betts. Gregg Williams's defense, which carried the team to the playoffs in 2005, sank near the bottom of the NFC.

The annual collection of high-priced free agents yielded little except fodder for venomous sports talk-show hosts and callers seeking the heads of the team's owner, coach, personnel boss and many of the players. But the fans kept showing up to the games -- prompting Gibbs to thank them weekly even though too many were too hung-over to appreciate the compliment.

A Mixed Bag

If the Redskins left their fans grumpy, the Maryland football team's home victories over Florida State and Miami brought their fans out of the stands in jubilation. I liked that.

Didn't like the brawl at the Orange Bowl between the players from Miami and Florida International. Nor could I believe the NBA slugfest involving the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks.

Liked the warm farewell RFK fans gave Frank Robinson on his last day as manager of the Nationals and the excitement in the stands for Ramon Ortiz's almost no-hitter against the Cardinals on Labor Day and Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off home run against the Yankees last June.

Do not like Nationals strategy of standing still while waiting for "new" revenue streams to kick in with the new ballpark in 2008.

Can't wait for the anticipated Hall of Fame induction next summer of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn.

Do not like the steroid controversy surrounding Barry Bonds's march toward Henry Aaron's all-time 755 home run record. Or any of the other steroid clouds engulfing cyclist Floyd Landis, sprinter Justin Gatlin, Mark McGwire, Chargers linebacker Shawn Merriman and too many others.

Liked the World Cup -- won by Italy.

Did not like France's Zinedine Zidane's head-butt of Italy's Marco Materazzi that may have cost France the championship. Nor did I like the treatment of Bruce Arena, who was dismissed as national coach after guiding the United States to a top 10 position in world soccer.

Liked the emergence of young superstars LaDainian Tomlinson, Reggie Bush, Dwyane Wade, Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, Lorena Ochoa, Vince Young, Michelle Wie, James Blake, as well as surprise college football teams Rutgers, Wake Forest and Louisville.

Did not like Terrell Owens's act -- or Mike Tyson's refusal to leave the ring for good.

Disliked Gibbs's former players cheap-shotting him in the guise of fair comment.

Love the Bowl Championship Series (who doesn't?) that pits wonderfully talented Florida -- the Michigan (academically) of the south and the alma mater of so many talented journalists -- against Ohio State for the national title on Jan. 8.

Liked the high school sports year and appreciate what Title IX has done for young women.

Do not like adults who use talented kids to improve their own lot in the world of high school and AAU sports, encourage transfers and ignore educating young athletes.

Love D.C. United's diverse and enthusiastic fandom.

Liked Barbaro and the vets who saved the horse.

Really liked Tiger Woods and Roger Federer's work in 2006 and will miss Andre Agassi and Martina Navratilova.

Did not like WRC-TV-4's decision to cut sports director George Michael's staff (and time), resulting in Michael's impending departure. Will miss Arch Campbell, too.

Liked the response to Jimmy Lange's work on the boxing cards at George Mason.

Like Maryland's women's basketball team -- defending NCAA champs, still ranked No. 1.

Really like watching baseball games at RFK Stadium with young men named Bennett and Bryan Solomon.

Have a question or comment? Reach me at talkback@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company