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After Gilbert Arenas's plea, Washington Wizards try to refocus

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010; D07

CHICAGO -- In the time he usually spends making his final preparations for a game, Washington Wizards Coach Flip Saunders was on his cellphone, text messaging with Gilbert Arenas. Earlier Friday afternoon, Arenas pleaded guilty to a felony count of carrying a pistol without a license and discovered he wouldn't be sentenced until March 26, placing in doubt his return to the Wizards this season.

"The thing he said to me is, he messed up and he's got to be responsible and he's got to accept the penalty," Saunders said before the Wizards faced the Chicago Bulls at United Center on Friday night.

From the moment Saunders was hired as coach last April, he made a concerted effort to establish a solid relationship with Arenas, exchanging text messages and phone calls with the player for whom so much of this franchise has been built around. Saunders fell out of contact with Arenas after NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended him indefinitely on Jan. 6.

Saunders said he was "disappointed" by what has transpired. "I don't think he's malicious," Saunders said. "From my standpoint, I hope he can get everything worked out because he did everything I asked of him as a player on the floor and I respect him for that."

Before Arenas appeared in court, Antawn Jamison said he was concerned about what the future holds for his teammate. Jamison added that he hoped people, athletes in particular, can learn from Arenas's situation.

"The Michael Vick situation should've opened up a lot of eyes. This is another situation that should let you know you have to do things a certain way," Jamison said. "You're under a microscope. You're a role model. People, kids look up to you. I hope it opens up a lot of people's eyes, lets them realize, you have to cherish the moments. You have to make smart decisions. These couple of incidents in the last couple of years have shown, if you don't make the right decision, you can be in deep trouble."

Arenas's guilty plea raises questions about his future with the Wizards, with speculation that the team could look to void the remaining four years and $80 million left on his contract. He has already lost more than $1 million sitting out the past six games.

The Wizards released a terse statement shortly after Arenas's hearing, saying the organization was disappointed in his behavior. "Gilbert used extremely poor judgment and is ultimately responsible for his own actions," the statement said.

Several of Arenas's teammates declined to comment when approached before the game. Many have been overwhelmed after addressing the issue each day for the past few weeks, with at least nine players subjected to interviews with law enforcement authorities and NBA investigators.

"They are mentally drained," Saunders said at Friday's morning shoot-around. "This has been a surreal situation for the past two weeks, until there is closure and everyone knows what the ramifications are, I think then you'll see maybe more of the true emotions come out at that point."

Jamison and a few teammates have reached out to Arenas since his suspension, but as of Friday morning Arenas had yet to reply to their phone calls and text messages.

"When he reaches out to me, I'll be there for him," Jamison said. "I hope he's doing better than I would be doing in this situation. One thing about Gilbert: He's a tough-minded individual.

"It's still going to be tough. We miss him," Jamison said. "This is a guy you wish he was out there playing with you and he's not. [Arenas's guilty plea] doesn't make the situation better or make us sleep better at night. Something serious has happened and you wish it never did happen."

Jamison pointed out the distraction would remain for some time. "It really hasn't changed. No matter where we go, right before the game, after the game, it's still the same questions," he said. "Just when you think you can get away from it, something new comes back. We're kind of used to it right now, but for us, we've got to really concentrate on playing basketball.

"I got a job I got to do. Whether I have good distractions or bad distractions, you still have to do a job," Jamison said. "To be honest, those three hours [on the court] are an outlet just to have fun and do the thing I love to do, which is compete."

When asked if having a game so soon after Arenas's hearing would be good for the team, Saunders said, "I hope so."

Before the Wizards fell to 1-5 without Arenas this season, Jamison said winning games would be better than just playing them. "It's the only cure," he said. "If we win eight or nine games out of 10 or 12, it goes away a little bit. That's the only thing -- I don't want to say make it go away -- to make it easier to come to work on a day in and day out."

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