Gilbert Arenas set to face home crowd for first time since suspension

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:22 AM

After Gilbert Arenas made his way from the Verizon Center practice court and up some stairs, new Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis greeted his highest-paid player with a hug and a smile. Leonsis stepped back and commented on Arenas's unkempt beard. Arenas grinned and said, "I'm cutting it. I'm cutting it."

Leonsis then rubbed his chin and made a request. "You're going to at least keep the goatee, like me," Leonsis said, after which he lowered his head and raised his right fist in the air as if he was staging a protest. "You know, for solidarity."

Arenas laughed as he traded some shaving tips with Leonsis, then, rubbing his beard some more as he walked away, said, "This was a preseason look."

Arenas's "preseason look" and seemingly melancholy demeanor have been a topic of discussion ever since he made his first public appearance on media day - about four months after his release from a halfway house on a felony gun conviction - sporting a scraggly beard and refusing to smile for photographs.

And, as No. 1 overall pick John Wall and the new-look Wizards are unveiled on Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks, there will also be some interest in the reception the three-time all-star will receive as he steps on his home court for the first time since he was suspended the final 50 regular season games. Will Wizards fans "re-embrace" Arenas as Leonsis already has and as he has asked others to do?

Arenas hasn't played a game at Verizon Center since Jan. 2 - the day after news of his gun dispute with Javaris Crittenton became publicized - when he scored 23 points and heard a smattering of boos as he was announced in pregame introductions. But Coach Flip Saunders said Monday that if the crowd on Tuesday is anything like the ones that attended the Midnight Tip-off and the FanFest during training camp at George Mason, then Arenas should be fine.

"Out there, he probably had the second-biggest applause," Saunders said. "I think there's people, that deep down in their hearts, they still have a soft spot for him. People are always willing to give people another chance and I think that's where a lot of people are right now."

Fans will also get their first look at Wall, who will make his preseason home debut after leading the Wizards to a 2-1 record. "I know it's going to be fun and exciting," Wall said. "Same as when they drafted me."

Saunders named Wall and new arrival Kirk Hinrich team captains. "Those are the guys that to this point have shown the leadership through camp. That's where we're at right now," Saunders said, then deflected a question about whether he considered Arenas, who was a captain, along with the since-traded Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, last season. "I just thought those two guys have been our two most vocal guys and guys that have shown leadership."

Wall, 20, is the youngest player on the Wizards but Saunders said he has earned his title. "He's shown very good leadership ability at a young age. You can't just give a guy leadership. It's something you either have it or you don't. He's one of those guys that fortunately have it. Similar to how [Kevin] Garnett was. I don't think he looks at himself as being a 20-year-old player."

Wall said he was honored by the selection. "That means a lot," he said. "My teammates don't have a problem with it. Like I said, from Day 1, I don't want to step on nobody's boundaries and having any problems with my teammates. I'm cool with them. Best thing I'm trying to do is be more of a vocal leader, like me and Kirk are doing, learning a lot from him. Talking to players on the court and then talking to them off the court and encouraging them to do better."

Arenas said he is committed to playing out the four years and $80 million remaining on his contract with the Wizards and helping Wall become a star. He has moved aside, taking on shooting guard duties, and has been an efficient offensive player in the preseason. Being flanked by Wall and Hinrich has really worked to Arenas's advantage because he doesn't have to be burdened as the sole decision-maker. He has just three turnovers in the first three games and is averaging 13.7 points, on 50 percent shooting (16 for 32) from the field, with 3.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 26 minutes.

His latest incarnation - sparked by the fallout from his gun incident last season and the new direction of the franchise - has led to speculation that Arenas needs a fresh start elsewhere to get back to being his old self. But during practices and games, Arenas has been cracking jokes and communicating on the court and hasn't separated himself from the group, accepting playful banter from his young teammates, who refer to him as the "old man" on the team. When he was asked last week if he needed to go elsewhere to have a more desirable role, Arenas said, "I'm content on what I'm doing right now."

Teammate Andray Blatche said Arenas's teammates already have accepted him back and he expects the fans to follow. "I think we have forgiving fans," Blatche said. "So I think when he comes out, they are going to salute him, welcome him back and let him start over fresh as a person. They know he made a mistake and he's learned from it."

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