By Mike Wise
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
'We finally got us one," said an old head named Steve, who has worked Bullets-Wizards security for the past 16 seasons. "We finally got a bona fide superstar. Michael was nice, but that was different than this."
After Gilbert Arenas had equaled Michael Jordan's 51-point arena record with yet another deep, arching rainbow for the win at the horn, the man who always stands sentry outside the team locker room understood the moment, too. Dave immediately decided Arenas would beat out Steve Nash for the NBA's most valuable player award this season.
"No question, it's his," he said, surveying the box score. "Fourteen of 29 from the field, 7 of 12 from three-point range, 16 of 17 from the line and five assists. Woo-eee. That's definitely the MVP."
It doesn't matter that Arenas is unlikely to win the award this season. No. What matters is that a supernova from Washington, which hasn't had an athlete in the running for such an honor since Mark Rypien finished fourth in 1991 in NFL most valuable player balloting, is in the conversation. What matters is the hope and pride Arenas brings to an area dying to live vicariously through a young star in his prime.
Taken as just another pulsating win at home, Arenas winning a fourth-quarter, playground duel with Mehmet Okur and ultimately shooting down the Utah Jazz, 114-111, was huge. But the resounding chants of "MVP!" on MLK Day, the utter pandemonium that filled the building after he had dropped in his second, long three-pointer at the buzzer in as many weeks at home -- he hit one from 32 feet against Milwaukee 13 days ago -- has now forced Arenas into a historical discussion.
A week after his 25th birthday, Arenas has three of the franchise's 10 50-point performances, joining Jordan, Earl Monroe, Phil Chenier, Bernard King (who did it twice), Moses Malone and Tracy Murray. (Hey, they can't all be indispensable.) Arenas has now hit 11 shots to end a quarter, half or game this season -- and eight of those shots have been long jumpers behind the arc. Throw in his 60- and 54-point eruptions against the Lakers and Suns recently, and, barring injury or fatigue, this is quickly becoming one of the signature seasons for any player in league annals.
In the past 18 seasons, two other players in NBA history have had three 50-point games within a 15-game span: Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
"In the conversation for MVP?" veteran Wizards guard Antonio Daniels asked incredulously. "There's not a guy in this league who's playing as well as Gilbert right now. Not one."
Lumping Arenas in with the preeminent stars in the game is important. But not as paramount as watching civic spirit grow because of one incredibly gifted professional athlete. Arenas's play is about one of the 10 best ballplayers in the world restoring a franchise to real prominence -- not the kind you import for a couple of years.
When he was asked how it felt to tie Jordan's record, Arenas quipped, "I'm glad it was an older Michael instead of a younger Michael." Apropos, no?
Jordan, looking back, was Abe Pollin renting a legend to restore credibility. Michael in Washington was Sitting Bull posing for pictures at Buffalo Bill's Wild West extravaganzas. He was a living relic who minded neither the cash flow nor the sideshow:
" Come see the Greatest Player Ever Endure Incredible Arthritic Pain and Rotten Team Chemistry." Michael was passing through. Arenas is of the District.
He will go down as one of the top three players in franchise history, if not the greatest. With all due respect to Chenier, Gus Johnson and, yes, Monroe, who played just four full seasons, it says here that Arenas is at the moment behind Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld.
Arenas, who is averaging 30.2 points over 37 games, is already on his way to becoming the franchise's most prolific scorer. Outside of Walt Bellamy, no one has ever averaged more than 30 points per game for a season. That's if you count Bellamy, who did it for the Chicago Packers in 1961-62.
Watching Arenas go back and forth with Okur yesterday in the fourth quarter was not watching King hit an off-the-wrong-foot, crazy runner in the lane in a blowout. Or watching the Pearl spin and whirl after the game had long been decided. This was grand theater, with both players trading long three-pointers that either resulted in a tie or a lead change, until the very end, when Arenas squared and fired from 25 feet to send the masses home shaking their heads in disbelief again.
"When Okur got hot, I decided I was going to go back and forth with him until the game was over," Arenas said. "I don't care about pressure. Ever since I was small, I always wanted to take the last shot."
Arenas is probably not going to win the MVP award this year. Even he knows it's a long shot. Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are again having phenomenal seasons. Cleveland is the best team in the East today, and a lot of observers feel LeBron James should have been closer in the voting last year. Kobe is Kobe, and so on.
"Right now, Steve Nash is above everybody," Arenas said. "You have to do something really dramatic. Kobe scored 81 last year and it didn't do much. You take a really bad team to the playoffs and not even get consideration, that tells you something."
But again, that's not what this is about. Gilbert Arenas is in the conversation. They're talking about the man from Washington as if he's their own kin. Pollin's old employees. His new ones. The people who left Verizon Center euphoric and smiling on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Everyone from the region, really, who longed for a star and finally got one.