Arenas, Frozen in Time

Washington Post columnist Mike Wise was there for the unveiling of Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas at Madame Tussauds. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Mike Wise
Friday, November 21, 2008

Just off F Street, where 50 children wearing his jersey said his name with a shriek, Gilbert Arenas finally showed up in uniform -- No. 0 mesh top, shorts and sneakers. He raised his hands toward the rafters, just like that Saturday afternoon almost two Januarys ago when Agent Zero shot down the Utah Jazz as the horn sounded, and all of Washington stood with him, sure that change had come to its moribund pro basketball team.

Unfortunately for the 1-8 Wizards, Arenas, the children and the cameras were not at Verizon Center. We were at Madame Tussauds wax museum on 10th and F streets, where a franchise player, still rehabilitating from left knee surgery, was immortalized in paraffin.

And then the wax figure's double tried to put the best spin on this early meltdown of a season, actually suggesting that going south is not always the worst thing for an NBA franchise.

"This year, with me and Brendan [Haywood] out, some of the veterans are like, 'Man, I don't even know what to think of this year,' " Arenas said. "And I told 'em, 'If this is one of those years we don't make the playoffs, we're one of those teams that's in last place the whole year -- you know that's what happened to San Antonio and that's how they got Tim Duncan. If that happens with us, it's for the better."

You hear that, Washington? Worst-case scenario, your franchise player sees help in the lottery.

Arenas's words were more of a stream-of-consciousness, passing comment, the kind of say-anything verbiage that has made his blog as famous as the player himself. Even so, it's never a good sign when the only uplifting news about a team in November freefall is of its best player paying homage to the people who re-created a Kodak moment from two, long years ago because, really, that's all they have to go on.

"The good, old days, huh?" Arenas said, smiling ruefully as he took a long, measured look at his wax figure and smiled for the lenses.

Gil in Wax will have a second unveiling tonight during a timeout in the Wizards' home game against the Houston Rockets. But even here at Madame Tussauds, down the corridor from a stiff Morgan Freeman, Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington, it cannot square up, rise, fire and save a season.

In fact, it was rumored that the wax figure was actually supposed to suit up last December, but studio artists in London had trouble fixing the left knee.

"No, I heard it has a healthy knee," Arenas said, playing along. "I was trying to take that leg off and put it on mine, you know, go out and win some games."

Sometime in January is now the most reasonable guesstimate as to when Arenas returns. But if the Wizards are still giving up two three-pointers in the final minute of a game they had won in Atlanta on Wednesday night, if these wrenching, morale-killing losses continue, will that be too late?

"When I came back for playoffs, that's where I am now," Arenas said of his rehab. "I could go out there and play, but they want to make sure it's not two games off, two games on, can't play back-to-back. So we'll just wait till I'm fully 100 percent unless we get down by a lot.

"I'm itchin' to hurry up, but I think we're going to just wait till mid-December or January. Right now we're just playing the waiting game. Everything is going well. We're trying to wait till December 15, but if we go to January 1 everybody will be happy."

Asked if he would suit for the Christmas day game against LeBron James and Cleveland, "I was thinking after New Year's because it will just give me some time to get in shape and get the plays down because it's a new playbook."

The event was genuine, with all those kids from Arenas's Zer0 Two Her0 Foundation screaming and cheering as the curtain came up. But losing circumstances at Arenas's workplace a few blocks away gave it an odd feel, as if the stock market had crashed but not enough for the Federal Reserve chairman to preempt a ribbon-cutting ceremony across town.

Arenas was just the third NBA player to be sculpted from wax by Madame Tussauds, after Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal. Yao Ming will unveil his own figure shortly. "When they told me I was the third, I said, 'Third this year or third ever?' I was like: 'Why me? I haven't done anything special to be the third.' But it's an honor. It's unbelievable.

"It's one of those feelings where every day of your life, from now until when you're old, you can come in here or New York of wherever they have it, there's going to be a statue of yourself. That's a great feeling."

The figure, of course, looks remarkably like Arenas, right down to the tattoos, which peek out from under his jersey and shorts. Gil in Wax might have the original by a half-inch in height and the figure's head seems just a bit larger than the real McCoy. But overall: dead ringer. These Tussauds people should really consider doing this for a living.

Drew Potton, Madame Tussauds's head of brand marketing and external relations, said Arenas kept surfacing at the top in all of their visitor surveys, which is why he got the nod over, say, a LeBron or Kobe. I met Potton in September while a cadre of museum studio artists spent a day in a club lounge at Verizon Center, picking out the right color acrylic eyeballs and hair fibers for their subject.

"The hair comes from humans, but it is ethically sourced, of course," Potton said. He was presumably heading off any problems with People for the Ethical Treatment of Follicles. As for the eyeballs, Potton added, "they take individual silk strands to make the veins and get the eyes actually spot-on."

Arenas joked with the Brits all afternoon in September, standing still as they photographed him and took measurements. Then, like now, he was itching to get back on the court.

But another knee surgery followed, delaying his recovery, pushing the hope of a franchise back again, to, really, that January day almost two years ago, when everything Arenas threw up seemed to fall through the net, when the team with the Eastern Conference's best record had all the possibilities of a long playoff run in front of them.

Today, it's all on hold, as stiff as Gilbert Arenas's likeness on 10th and F, down the hall from Barack, W, Hillary and Ali -- the player and his franchise, frozen in a moment. At least Gil in Wax is smiling.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company