By Ivan Carter and Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Though he says he does not know whether he will return to game action this season, three-time all-star guard Gilbert Arenas acknowledged yesterday that he has been practicing at full speed with his Wizards teammates since Feb. 16 and that his left knee, which has undergone three surgical procedures since April 2007, is nearly at full strength.
"I'm out there feeling like the old Gilbert Arenas again," Arenas said, shortly after Washington practiced at Verizon Center. "I'm running, jumping, dunking, feeling good. No pain, no swelling. My balance is back, my speed is back. The only thing I have to get used to again is being around other bodies out there on the court. I'm working on getting my timing back. The only thing I'm not doing is playing in games."
While that is good news to Wizards fans wondering whether his knee would ever be the same, Arenas wouldn't answer the question that is on everyone's mind: Will he play before the Wizards (13-43) finish the regular season?
"I don't want to promise that and I'm not even ready to think about that right now," said Arenas, who has been limited to 13 regular season games since originally injuring the knee in a game against Charlotte on April 4, 2007. "The way I look at it, I rushed back twice and got hurt again twice, so this time I'm going to take my time and make sure. I came back quick twice and it didn't work for me or the team. I'm just going to keep practicing on it, make sure it's all the way right and then go from there."
Arenas said he experienced stiffness in the area behind the knee until late January, when he met with a knee specialist in Miami. The specialist, according to Arenas, was able to identify the problem and improve the range of motion in the knee. "I went from 50 percent to 90 percent overnight," Arenas said. "Then I've just been able to steadily increase the amount of stress without experiencing any problems. Now, I'm just pushing it, pushing it, pushing it, just testing to see how much I can do and it feels good."
When asked recently if he expects Arenas to play before this season ends, Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said: "Yes. He's doing more and more. His activity level has been increased. He's making good progress."
But Grunfeld said the team is not encouraging Arenas to come back before he is ready. "If he's healthy -- not if, when he's 100 percent healthy, he'll be back. It's going to be a decision from our medical staff and depending on how Gilbert feels. When the medical staff gives the clearance, he'll be back. He's not going to be rushed. We're hopeful that it's only a matter of time."
Arenas, who signed a six-year, $111 million contract in July, said he asked teammates and coaches not to tell anyone that he's been practicing because he didn't want to feel pressured into coming back too quickly. "I was thinking that as soon as people hear that I'm out there practicing, they're going to pressure me to get back in games and after what I went through last year, I don't want to risk that again," Arenas said. "I don't want another setback. That's why I just shut down and stayed quiet while working on getting the knee right."
Arenas said he also felt responsible for the team's poor performance this year, which cost Eddie Jordan his job as Wizards coach. "If I wouldn't have rushed back last year, Eddie Jordan wouldn't have been fired," he said. "No way we start 1-10 if I'm right. Eddie would still be here."
Arenas believes that he can beat the odds and return to his level of play prior to the original injury. "There's a myth out there that someone can't come back after missing two years and be an all-star again," Arenas said. "I plan on proving that wrong. I'm going to come back. Watch."
That myth has been debunked twice in the past 25 years. Bernard King and Grant Hill, two players who were forced to miss full seasons and large portions of others because of debilitating injuries, each returned to the all-star game.
King, a former teammate of Grunfeld's at Tennessee and on the New York Knicks, tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the peak of his career in March 1985 and was released by the Knicks two seasons later. Hill suffered a severe ankle injury at age 27, months before signing a seven-year, $93 million deal with Orlando in 2000.
If any player can relate to Arenas, it's Hill, who made five all-star teams before losing four years of his prime in Orlando. Without knowing Arenas's full health situation, Hill suggested that Arenas sit out the rest of the year and start over with his teammates next season.
"I think Gilbert will figure it out. The main thing is putting together days, weeks and months of good health," said Hill, who missed the entire 2003-04 season after having another ankle surgery that caused a near-fatal staph infection. "Do that, and you feel healthy for an extended period of time, then you get back."
Hill returned to all-star form in 2005, in his first full season in Orlando, but said he never feared that he wouldn't be the player he once was. "You know, things change, you get older. Ultimately, it's all about playing," Hill said. "The pressure [to come back], the contract, that's not a big thing. You just want to go out there and help your teammates. But you've got to be smart. If your body talks, you've got to learn to listen to it."
Detroit Pistons assistant coach Darrell Walker, a former Washington Bullet and Wizards head coach, was King's teammate in New York and Washington. King played in a different era, when a torn ACL was considered career ending. But after the Knicks cut him, King's career was reborn when he signed with Bullets before the 1987-88 season. King averaged more than 20 points in three of his four seasons in Washington, making the all-star team in 1990-91, when he averaged 28.4 points -- the second-highest scoring average of his career.
Walker said King told him the injury forced him to rely more on his brain than his body, adding that the greatest obstacle King had to overcome was the mental aspect of the injury. "He did have a little doubt, because you're talking about being a Hall of Fame [caliber] small forward before he tore his knee up," Walker said. "Gilbert is going to have those same fears. Can I take my guy off the dribble like I used to? Can I raise up to hit the shot with lift on my leg?"
But Walker still remembers what King always told him: "Bernard said: 'You can't run from it. Sooner or later, after all the rehab, you're going to have to get out there and test it.' "
Though the Wizards are suffering through the worst season in franchise history, Arenas said he remains confident that the team has a bright future.
Injured center Brendan Haywood, who has missed the entire season with a right wrist injury, has recently ramped up his level of activity, and the team will have a lottery pick in the NBA draft this summer.
"I want the fans to know that next year, when we're all healthy, we are going to compete for a championship," Arenas said. "This has been a rough season but there's always a blessing in disguise. Teams are kicking us right now but next year, when we're right, they won't be kicking us anymore. I can guarantee that."