The decline and fall of Gilbert Arenas

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

When the Miami Heat eliminated the Washington Wizards from the 2005 NBA playoffs, the end of the season felt more like the beginning of a new era of professional basketball in Washington. Led by all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, the Wizards appeared poised for a breakthrough, having won 45 regular season games and beaten the Chicago Bulls in the first round for the franchise's first playoff series win in 23 years.

Nearly five years later, Jamison is gone, traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Also departed are Larry Hughes, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson -- all key blocks in what once appeared to be a solid foundation. All that remains in Washington is Arenas, the public face of both the team's captivating success and its embarrassing implosion.

Arenas is scheduled to be sentenced Friday for a felony charge of carrying an unlicensed pistol to the Verizon Center locker room in December. He entered a guilty plea on Jan. 15. In a scathing sentencing memo, prosecutors recommended three months in jail, though the judge could sentence him to up to five years. Regardless, he is suspended from the NBA for the remainder of the season, and whether he will again play for the Wizards remains unclear.

Just as Arenas's arrival in the summer of 2003 signaled new hope for a Washington franchise mired in mediocrity, his experiences since that 2005 breakthrough -- from the departure of his close friend Hughes to his signing of a lucrative long-term contract to his injury and subsequent surgeries to his gun escapade -- have mirrored the team's downward arc.

As Arenas heads to court Friday to learn his immediate future from a judge, the Wizards are 21-49, the fourth-worst record in NBA.

Jamison, like many others, left town with one main question: "Where did it go wrong?"

Hughes departs

In the summer following the Wizards' second-round loss to the Heat in 2005, Hughes bolted in free agency to sign a five-year, $70 million deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The on-court loss to the team was significant; the off-court loss to Arenas was irreparable.

Hughes and Arenas had formed a special connection, dating from their lone season together in Golden State. When the Warriors drafted Arenas with the 31st pick in 2001, Hughes was among the first people the front office contacted to help him with the adjustment. He would invite Arenas to his house to hang out, and offered him clothes that were piled up in his closet.

His influence on the mercurial, unpredictable Arenas was profound.

"I'm pretty quiet and I'm pretty calming," Hughes said. Arenas "just figured that I was real."

In their two seasons in Washington, they became almost interchangeable at point guard and shooting guard.

"I could tell everything he was doing. I knew every movement, I knew why he did something before he did it," Hughes said. "And that's why it made us tough in the back court because we fed off each other. We always talked. We had that respect that we could do that for a whole game and there wouldn't be no problems."

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