By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Now, however, Arenas will have to share the spotlight with fellow guard Wall.Franchise gets new face
Wall certainly has more pressure on him to lead the Wizards' revival. Having been appointed one of the team's captains, along with veteran newcomer Kirk Hinrich, Wall doesn't sound overwhelmed by his responsibilities.
"I think they think I'm the franchise guy that can start the thing over," Wall said. "I don't want to be bigger than nobody or bigger than the Wizards organization. I don't really care about my expectations for myself. The main thing is getting better as a team. I don't want anybody to say it's my team or I'm the main guy of the team. I just want to be a leader and help this team get back to where [it] was before."
Wall and Arenas have gotten along well since training camp and they share a mutual respect. Arenas has already said that he is willing to be Robin to Wall's Batman. He also said that he has no problem moving to shooting guard after being a scoring point guard throughout his professional career.
"I don't have to pass the ball anymore? That's always great," Arenas said with a laugh. "If you go back in the league's history, name two guards that never got along together. It's usually the guard and the big man, because the big man wants the ball and the guard has the ball. But two guards always play well together."
Arenas's unfiltered candor once propelled him to stardom, but after playing just 47 games the past three years because of injury and immaturity, he has been less forthcoming, leading to more scrutiny of his every move, comment or change in mood or facial hair.
He has started to return to his old demeanor some, joking and laughing with his teammates, and he also shaved.
"He's part of our team," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said. "We realize that we've been going through a phase where we have younger players and we're building for the future, but at the same time, we feel that we can be a competitive team. Just because you have a younger team doesn't mean that you can't be competitive."
Those who have been around Arenas the longest admit that it was strange for him to return to a team that lacked longtime teammates Brendan Haywood, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson, who were all dealt near the trade deadline last February.
"I think he's adjusting to it better, getting better with it," Young said. "I know it was hard for him coming back from everything he dealt with last year, to have a whole new team, really, except for me, Andray [Blatche] and JaVale [McGee]. Seeing a lot more new faces. He just got thrown right into it. I think he's trying to deal with it the best way he can."
Haywood, however, said "it makes perfect sense" that Arenas is the last starter remaining from the team that made four consecutive postseason appearances, since he is still has three years and nearly $63 million left on his contract after this season.
"If you look at it, he's probably the most untradeable player on the team," Haywood said earlier this year. "If he's playing well and playing up to the level that we all know he can, management is not going to want to trade him. If he's not playing well, who's going to trade for him? You got the knee issue. You got the gun issue and then you got the amount that he's making. He's got a very hard contract to trade. But it doesn't shock me that he's still there. I think it makes sense that he's still there."Staying put, for now
The Wizards made exploratory calls about trading Arenas last season and also contacted Orlando about obtaining Vince Carter before the draft, according to several people in the NBA, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Magic General Manager Otis Smith has been an Arenas confidant dating from their time together in Golden State but has denied discussing a deal for Arenas.
A rival Eastern Conference executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that the only way the Wizards could ever separate themselves from Arenas is through a buyout of his contract because no team is willing to take on that salary. "Nobody wants to deal with all that," the executive said.
But Leonsis has made it clear that he prefers to keep Arenas around. And while he was initially leery about his unfamiliar surroundings, Leonsis said Arenas helped push for the Wizards' style transformation from finesse to more physical after encouraging the team to get more beefy players.
Leonsis asked Wizards fans to "reembrace" Arenas at his introductory news conference as team owner and has yet to let go. He told Fox News Sunday this week that Arenas "is still in my good graces."
"I believe that if he's in shape, and if he is part of the team and he is a great player and a great teammate and the team experiences success, that he's such a charismatic, caring, person and player, that it'll take care of itself," Leonsis said recently. "Fans will embrace him, because he's a great player and they love great players and they love positive production from the team."