New Contract Carries High Price

Wizards' guard Gilbert Arenas speaks to the press about coming off his injury and signing a six-year, $111 million contract with Washington. Video by Anna Uhls/
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Gilbert Arenas has been the face of the Washington Wizards franchise for several seasons. But the moment he signed his name to a six-year, $111 million contract on July 12, he became a franchise player.

The difference is that Arenas, who is entering his eighth NBA season and sixth with the Wizards, not only will be asked to put up big numbers, hit game-winning shots and sell tickets, he also will be expected to carry owner Abe Pollin's team to its first NBA championship since Wes Unseld led the Bullets to the title in 1978.

Pollin, who didn't hesitate to offer his three-time all-star whatever it took to keep him in Washington, spelled out what is expected of Arenas during a news conference yesterday at Verizon Center.

"Before negotiations even began, I talked to Gilbert on the phone and I said: 'Gilbert, you will never, ever wear a jersey other than the Wizards. Never,' " Pollin said. "So I'm not a very good negotiator, but I know talent and I know what Gilbert can do. So I told him, 'Gilbert, we're going to pay you a lot of money and all you have to do is win a championship.' "

That's a daunting expectation but not altogether unwarranted considering that Pollin now is committed to paying around $211 million to Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. They have formed one of the league's highest-scoring trios over the past three seasons, but also have failed to get the Wizards out of the first round of the playoffs during that span.

Injuries have been the primary culprits, as Arenas and Butler missed all of the 2007 first-round series -- a sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers -- and Arenas was severely limited by his surgically repaired left knee during a 4-2 series loss to the Cavaliers this year.

It is Pollin's belief, and one that is shared by team president Ernie Grunfeld, that the Wizards have what it takes to make a deep playoff run if Arenas, Butler and Jamison remain healthy.

Arenas believes it as well, which is why he accepted $16 million less than the Wizards originally offered. He wanted to give Pollin and Grunfeld financial flexibility to add pieces to the roster in the next few seasons.

"We're going to put a banner up there, a championship banner," said Arenas, who continues to rehabilitate his left knee and expects to resume full-scale basketball workouts on Aug. 1. "We're going to do it for Mr. Pollin. That's what kind of talent, that's what kind of team and what kind of belief we have. We need all the fans to support us this year because we're going to be on the road to winning that championship. It starts here today."

The pressure that comes with signing a huge contract has been too much for some "franchise players" over the years. Former New York Knicks guard Allan Houston, who signed a $100 million deal with the team in 2001, was ripped by commentators and booed mercilessly by championship-starved Knicks fans because he couldn't carry them to the promised land.

Juwan Howard, the last player to accept a $100 million deal from Pollin, still is booed by Wizards fans when he visits Washington as a member of other teams because he never could play up to the expectations created by his contract.

And, last season, Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd was heavily criticized by fans because he and his $91 million contract could not prevent a losing season for the team.

"I was thinking about that the whole time because I saw what happened to Juwan Howard," Arenas said. "So I know what kind of pressure comes with it, but as long as you're winning and as long as I do my best, I don't think I'm going to get criticized too bad."

Arenas was offered a six-year, $127 million contract, the maximum allowed under the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, shortly after the free agency period opened on July 1. After a phone conversation with Pollin, he mulled over the offer and decided to accept it on July 12 after returning from a trip to Asia and Europe.

The news conference, at which Grunfeld and Coach Eddie Jordan were present, was delayed until yesterday because the team's front-office personnel and coaches were in Las Vegas last week for the NBA summer league.

Arenas has endeared himself to fans with his approachable nature and quirky ways, but he also has shown flashes of immaturity at times, undermining Jordan with comments to reporters and openly stating he is not a leader.

While vowing to remain true to himself, Arenas also said he understands that he has to make some changes.

"All of those little things I've done in the past are going to come to a halt," Arenas said. "I think I'm up to the task. I just need to cut out some of the foolishness I do. But I think it's a good thing. I create hype, I create excitement, but some of that other stuff, I know I have to calm down."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company