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No Big Deal or Here We Go Again?

By Mike Wise
Thursday, September 18, 2008

On crutches again, about to spend more time in physical therapy than he will in a gym, Gilbert Arenas actually doesn't comprehend the fuss and worry.

"Why's everybody tripping out?" he said from his cellphone yesterday, less than five hours after debris was removed from his surgically repaired left knee -- the same knee that's now been opened three times in 18 months.

"Big picture, if I start rehabbing now and get through the pain that prevented me from running or jumping this summer, I'll be back on the court sooner," he said. "How's that a bad thing?"

It's not -- unless a three-time all-star, who made the post-Michael Jordan Wizards matter, hadn't somehow morphed into the most maddening and confounding issue surrounding Washington's pro basketball team.

It's why the news made most fans collectively moan, "Here we go again."

The backlash began a year ago, when Arenas returned from the injury he originally suffered in April 2007. After not following the team's rehabilitation advice, he re-injured the knee eight games into the season and underwent surgery again.

He managed to get himself healthy enough to compete in the playoffs against Cleveland last spring, only to realize, after some scintillating moments, he had probably rushed his comeback and needed to shut it down again. The experiment ended after Game 4 of the Wizards' third straight playoff loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, amid a general feeling that Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and the fellas were better off without a banged-up scorer.

After signing a six-year, $111 million contract in July, the doubters didn't need much more ammunition. Some compared Arenas's knee problems to Grant Hill's recurring setbacks from foot surgery that ruined any hope for his career in Orlando, which was extreme considering that Hill's left ankle was swollen and badly scarred, with zipper-like incisions, from five surgeries in four years.

This has the feel of another rotten omen for the Wizards.

But Arenas yesterday underwent the least-invasive procedure an athlete can have performed on his knee. Arenas and Wizards officials said they were aware of the possibility he would have to undergo surgery long before he signed his new contract.

"The beginning of the summer they told me I'd have to do it if the pain kept occurring," Arenas said. "I haven't run or jumped up and down since Game [4]of the playoffs. It wasn't going to get better if I didn't do this."

Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant have undergone similar procedures after knee surgeries, and it's not like Arenas had his anterior cruciate ligament reconstructed with a piece of tendon from his right knee. But the way in which Arenas became the source for his own news yesterday, soon followed by the team's press release, again brings up the issue of whether the franchise is on the same page with its No. 1 investment and ticket-seller -- and vice versa.

A season after playing just 13 games, Arenas said he won't be back until December, while the Wizards put no timetable on his return in their announcement.

Either way, that puts a lot of pressure on a 33-year-old point guard like Antonio Daniels or a still relatively inexperienced backup like Dee Brown. It probably was going to cost too much to keep Roger Mason in Washington, but Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld would sure like to have his dependability in the back court on that roster.

More than that, Arenas missing training camp and the first month of the season brings up all the old chemistry questions about whether the Wizards are genuinely better off without their franchise player. If the oncoming barrage couldn't be sensed in the blogosphere, it certainly could be found in Arenas's annoyed tone on the phone yesterday.

"I wasn't going to play in training camp or preseason anyway, so I don't know why it's such a big deal," he said. "They cleaned the knee out. I can't walk on it for three days. Monday I can start rehabbing. I knew this was going to happen. Dwyane Wade will probably have a debris clean-out next summer. People are making it much worse than it is."

Part of Arenas should be flattered by the attention every time he undergoes anesthesia.

If Boston proved anything last season, it's that you can buy an NBA championship with one decent offseason in a league that has no super team in the same realm of Jordan's 1990s Bulls.

But when Cleveland adds a guy like Mo Williams, who has shot down the Wizards before, and much of the Eastern Conference has become about young, up-and-coming teams such as Atlanta, even a relatively youthful squad like Washington might grow old before its time.

Bottom line, this is a minor surgical procedure. After all the drama, the feeling here is Arenas will return with much of the same explosiveness and again work his game and mesh with Butler and his teammates.

The idea that the player who lit up the arena and gave the District's hoopheads hope is now crippling its future simply because he's on crutches months after signing a $111 million deal and will be out for probably yet another month?

It just goes to show what he meant to everyone in the first place.

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