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For Wizards, It's Back to Ground Zero

By Mike Wise
Friday, March 27, 2009

Don't bill it as a triumphant return. Not yet. If Gilbert Arenas wants you to know anything, it's that the image of No. 0 rising and firing for the Wizards again tomorrow night should not include heraldic trumpets or catchphrases like, "He's ba-a-a-a-ck."

"I know everybody is harping on 'What do you feel like?' and all that, but I'm still looking at it as rehab," Arenas said yesterday afternoon via his cellphone. "I'm not looking at it as a comeback. This is the final stage of rehabilitation, me learning what I can do, what I can't do and what I need to work on."

In other words, after three knee surgeries in 18 months, don't expect the guy who dropped 60 points on the Lakers or 54 on the Suns in a sublime performance two seasons ago to show up at Verizon Center against the Pistons, Arenas's first game action since Game 4 of the Cleveland playoff series last April.

But don't expect a $111 million gimp, either.

Let's be clear: Arenas never had reconstructive surgery to have his anterior cruciate ligament replaced. He's not Anfernee Hardaway in training, that surreal young player whose body and game deteriorated until his early retirement, about whom people now say, "Man, when I first saw Penny, I thought he was going to be in the Hall of Fame."

But after playing just 13 regular season games last season, can the son of Gilbert Arenas Sr. still co-opt his father's nickname from the asphalt courts of Tampa?

If not tomorrow, will Gil the Thrill show up to play again?

"As far as being the player I was, I'm not worried about that," Arenas said. "I am still that player. It's not like I was a big jumper. It's not like I'm worried I can't do a 360, half-spin; I never could. I was a shooter who knew how to score. I knew how to get to the rim and get fouled. None of that is going to change."

Remember fans and basketball savants last spring, who with moral certainty in their voices, said the Wizards were better off without Arenas? When I think of that poor lot hiding from public view today, as the worst record in franchise history is threatened, I want to ask them one question:

How is 17-56 working out for you?

Beneath the all-access existence of a player who quickly morphed into a national media darling, who had no filter before he said something outlandish or typed another mind-blowing blog entry, there was, first and foremost, a 'baller -- a player whose entire life and career were dedicated to becoming a star. He used the court as a sanctuary to heal early childhood wounds and adolescent slights.

The good news is, that guy still remains. Physical setbacks, emotional drama and all, he's still the best chance this franchise has of contending the next five years.

During his rehab period, Arenas was bothered by the notion that he was dogging it. "I heard, 'You don't want to play.' No, I had three surgeries. I'm not just sitting on the bench; I'm injured. It's wild how perceptions change so quickly.

"At one point, you're seen as the hardest-working player in the league. And in one moment, you're a thief. How does that work?"

As this dreadful Wizards' season draws to a close, I selfishly tried to enlist the three-time NBA all-star in some I-told-you-so vindication after he returned my call, get the franchise player to go off on the haters now in hiding. You know who his main target was?

Himself.

That's right, Arenas pointed the finger at Agent Zero for not helping develop the young players on the team, for not getting Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Javaris Crittenton, JaVale McGee or Andray Blatche to progress enough during an 82-game gift of an opportunity -- though he said McGuire worked for everything he got.

"Nick, Javaris, JaVale -- I felt personally that they didn't get better this season due to the fact I wasn't around," Arenas said. "All of us are at fault, but I blame myself for them three not getting better."

"We didn't realize what happened, how we got too young too early too fast," he said of the Wizards. "We got rid of veterans every year, and we're bringing in kids. We kept getting draft picks. We kept acquiring projects. Nick is a project. JaVale is a project. Javaris is a project. Eventually when you have enough projects, you live in the 'hood."

Seventeen and 56 is indeed the NBA's 'hood.

"At the end of the day, our problem is we don't have a veteran team," he said. "A team like Cleveland, they went to the finals and got rid of two veteran players and they brought in two veterans. It was hard to watch us fall off. We were right there with Cleveland. Orlando and Atlanta got older, better. Now they all surpassed us. Damn, look at Miami? They were above us, then we passed them and now they're ahead of us again."

Arenas said he has committed to spending most of the summer working out with Young, Crittenton and McGee, to "teach them what I know."

The hardest part of this season, Arenas said, was disconnecting from a team he felt helpless around. It got to the point where he begged team physicians three times to give him a clean bill of health so he could play -- in November, which he now realizes would have set back his recovery. He finally knew that focusing on his own recovery would be his greatest contribution.

"I was like: 'I can't watch this. This isn't basketball,' " he said. "Earlier in the season, I'm even cussing Antawn [Jamison] and Caron [Butler], telling them to get on the young players, 'Y'all need to do something, what the [expletive] are you doing?' But after a while when you don't play, everyone tunes you out. You can only get in their heads so much when you're not on the floor with them."

Bottom line, with maybe the exception of McGuire, none of the young fellas got better late in the season. There seemed to be two teams in the locker room -- the old heads who honored their profession and were Obama-serious about their careers. And the young knuckleheads, who, left to their own devices, enabled one another to stay children and put off adulthood. They could have used the self-proclaimed "goofball who worked out six hours a day." He bridged the locker room gap; Arenas knew when to play and when to work.

"I will say I just don't see the same craftsmanship that was given me as a young player," he said. "If I went into darkness mood, like training camp, maybe it would have been different. But like I said, when you're not playing, they're not going to listen."

It's almost comical to remember the grief Arenas received in the fall for opining that the Wizards -- without an injured Arenas, Brendan Haywood and, well, hope -- might want to consider thinking about 2009-2010.

"When I made that comment, I saw this coming," he said. "I'm a realist. I'm not living in denial. Of the 12 players who suited up, seven of them are young. I told them in training camp, when we were getting beat by 20 and some of them were saying, 'It's just preseason,' I'd say, 'Well, it's preseason for them, too. So what does that mean?'

"Look, we have Kevin Durant talent here. We have a player who can score 30 [Young]. We have an Andray Blatche who can give you 12 [points] and 12 [rebounds] every night. We have a JaVale McGee who can be a factor every night. They could have been that type of player this year. They had the opportunity to do that."

Asked whether owner Abe Pollin's declining health had anything to do with his desire to return to the court, Arenas said, "Me and Abe Pollin, we have that father-and-son relationship. He told my father when I first signed, 'As long as he's on this team, this is my son and I'm going to care for him.'

"To this day, for all my goofball ways, if I'm in public, I'm not going to embarrass him or the organization. I don't think me playing in front of Mr. Pollin is what he cares about; me performing for those fans is what he cares about. Showing up on that floor for the organization is more important for him."

Before he got off the phone, I asked Arenas if he had any preference on whom the Wizards draft in June with their lottery pick. I could hear him sighing at the thought of another young buck to tame. "I don't pay attention to the JV until they get here," he said.

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