Can John Wall become the face of the Wizards when its previous one, Gilbert Arenas, remains?
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:52 AM
The realization that good fortune had finally shone on the Washington Wizards had barely sunk in, and Ted Leonsis already knew what his next move had to be. He was weeks away from taking over as owner, but after an unexpected draft lottery victory offered the team the chance to draft John Wall with the No. 1 overall pick, Leonsis understood the importance of reconnecting with Gilbert Arenas.
Five days after the lottery, Leonsis had Arenas at his McLean home for a friendly discussion about basketball and the direction of the franchise. For the Wizards' rebuilding efforts to be successful, the team's highest paid and most immovable asset needed to be on board. Leonsis admitted to already being "predisposed to really liking" the three-time all-star guard and that feeling was solidified during their conversation.
"He said, 'I'm committed to be in love with basketball again and to be a great teammate and a great player,' " Leonsis recalled recently. "I said, 'Okay, all I can do is judge you by your actions.' "
The arrival of a new, baby face of the franchise in Wall and an innovative and interactive owner in Leonsis this season has injected considerable excitement into an organization that appeared to be stripped of all hope during one of the most embarrassing, disheartening and dysfunctional campaigns. The Wizards are among the NBA's top 10 teams in new season ticket orders, with nearly 2,000 fans signing up to catch a glimpse of Wall, a 20-year-old phenom with dynamic talent and maturity that belies his age.
But the rebuilding project is an awkward endeavor, like constructing a swank, new luxury condominium complex around one holdout brownstone. During the preseason, the effort has been upstaged by the actions of Arenas, the prominent leftover from an aggressive roster shake-up last season that was expedited by his 50-game suspension for bringing guns to the Verizon Center locker room.
Arenas will miss the Wizards' nationally televised season opener against the Orlando Magic on Thursday plus at least one more game with a strained tendon in his right ankle, one of many ailments - real or otherwise - that have sidelined him throughout the preseason. He missed the final three games with a mild groin strain.
If Arenas is unhappy, he hasn't said so publicly, but his odd comments and behavior since training camp raised questions about his level of comfort with all the changes going around him.
It began when Arenas showed up on media day looking despondent with an unkempt beard. The man who once was one of the NBA's most engaging players refused to smile for photographs and solemnly said that his joy only comes from being on the court.
Arenas then clumsily expressed his willingness to help Wall become a star by making it sound as if he was ready to leave. He clarified his statements the next day by saying that he planned to fulfill the remaining years on his contract with the Wizards.
He tried to help his friend Nick Young get a start in a preseason game, but lied to Coach Flip Saunders about soreness in his surgically repaired left knee to make it happen, resulting in a $50,000 fine. Young shrugged it off as "Gil being Gil."
Arenas apologized for faking the knee injury, saying: "I messed up again. I'll never do it again."
Despite this and other transgressions, Arenas remains incredibly popular among Wizards fans who remember his remarkable career trajectory before he injured his left knee in April 2007. "This is the city that I've played the last eight years," Arenas said recently. "I know they love me here."