washingtonpost.com
Portis, Arenas take similar paths

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; D01

Clinton, Gilbert. Gilbert, Clinton.

It's time you got to know each other before one or both of you is shipped out of town. It's time to share commonality in career and life in fickle-fan Washington.

"I think I'm only about six months older than him," Clinton says.

Yep. Clinton Earl Portis born Sept. 1, 1981. Gilbert Jay Arenas born Jan. 6, 1982. Four months and five days apart, both about a year shy of 30.

"We live on the same street in [the same Northern Virginia town], but he's on one end and I'm on the other end of town," Gilbert says.

And Clinton played college football in Miami, where Gilbert lived as an infant.

"My parents were there, that was the thing I did have," said Clinton, who read that Gilbert had been abandoned by his mother and raised by his father. "My parents supported and pushed me. High school, college - my parents came to all my games. That's about the only difference I can think of."

They share career trajectories, too.

"Yeah, I think he got his swagger from being underrated throughout life, and I feel the same way," Clinton says. "I was reading a story about how far he was down on the depth chart at Arizona, which was like my favorite team. That was me at Miami when I came there.

"You know, he was in Golden State, underappreciated. He comes to Washington and every commercial you saw you got Gilbert Arenas in it. Myself, I was in Denver and underappreciated, I come to Washington and I was in the same position."

Barely approaching 25, they once bedazzled fans with their young, spry legs as much as those playful demeanors and the T.M.I. candor.

"Whenever I see him, I notice him because of the funky colors he wears," Gilbert says of Clinton, who never had an alter ego named Agent Zero but did pretty well with Dolla Bill and Coach Janky Spanky.

If the late Abe Pollin employed Arenas to erase some of the ugliness of Michael Jordan's end for the Wizards in 2003, Daniel Snyder acquired Portis in 2004 to help people forget about Steve Spurrier.

And did they ever deliver those first few years, no?

Gilbert let fly picturesque jump shots that won playoff games and transformed a gunner from Golden State into an NBA MVP candidate nearly four years ago - long before multiple knee surgeries, guns in locker rooms and halfway houses in Montgomery County.

Clinton galloped 64 yards into the end zone on his first carry for the Redskins in Joe Gibbs's triumphant return, churning down the sideline. He lowered his head and shoulder when his friend Sean Taylor was killed in 2007. Hitched a reeling franchise to his back as he bulled forward toward the postseason - long before concussions and groin tears and the candor that eviscerated his coach and offensive line, making it more about Clinton than it needed to be.

Their respective teams' only trip to the second round of the postseason came in the same calendar year.

They got paid exorbitant amounts of money but then suffered debilitating injuries. They restructured their deals to allow their teams to sign other players.

And when the Wizards and Redskins weren't doing well, the gum-flapping, the blogging and playing dress-up during game week didn't fly anymore. Entertainment without victories was no longer viewed as levity.

Gilbert and Clinton were seen as enabled divas, allowed by their owners to make it more about them than their franchises. Many wanted them gone. Some still do.

When Clinton's mouth kept going, past his paltry three-yard runs, his banged-up body and his $6.4 million 2010 salary, the end seemed near.

When Gilbert's goofs became criminal and the freefall of a star and a franchise went national, it appeared there was no chance he would ever suit up here again.

In fact, when I first asked Clinton about the similarities between the two in 2008, he said, "If we don't win, then we outta here. When you doing good you're hot, when you're not, you're gonna get that criticism and I think that for both of us, we could be gone."

Yet here they are, the young bucks that used to enrapture us before we went south on them - and, okay, they went south on us. Gil and C.P., close to becoming old heads on teams featuring 20-something rookies with hops and hubris and, most important, their health. Now these two persevere, hoping they can find that magic in their ligaments and hearts for at least one more season, so they can be remembered better by the people who paid to see them play.

Clinton hands the football to his mother in the stands after a touchdown in September of this year, beating out veterans and rookies brought in to take his job. On Sunday he returns from another injury to get back on the field in Nashville against the Titans.

Gilbert, playing floor leader and dropping in long three-pointers while the No. 1 draft pick gets healthy, still finds the young girl to give the jersey off his back to while everyone clamored for it Friday night at Verizon Center, where the Wizards win their second of three games without John Wall.

Fans contorting their torsos over the stands, slapping fives with No. 9 on the way to the locker room - just like when he used to wear No. 0. "Yeah, that felt familiar," he says, standing by his corner cubicle afterward. He didn't corrupt the rookie, after all.

Now it's about comebacks and respectful goodbyes, realizing they will never make everyone happy.

"They grow to love you when you carrying a team, but they forget about you just as quickly," Clinton says. "For myself and for Gilbert, you look at those situations, it's always, 'Oh, they not doin' enough.' If you look at our consistency over the years [when we're healthy, I think you will see we give all we got.

"There was a reason myself and Gilbert got the money," he adds. "We got paid for playing the way we played. But if you get a 15-year contract, they want you to play better all 15 years. We got to just keep our heads up and help the organizations we play for."

Gilbert: "The loyal fans are always going to believe. The fans that don't like me, they won't - no matter what I do. It's regaining the trust and love of the 50/50s I want. With them, it's still, 'As long as you go out there and do it, hey, we love you.' So for me it's just getting the confidence of my teammates and organization that I can still play the game.

"You know, I messed up. But my basketball skills are still there. Don't put me on a building [advertisement], but play me on the court, you know? I think I still deserve that part of the game."

He smiles, pauses and reflects on how elite, young athletes can find professional redemption as weathered veterans.

"What's that saying, 'You either die and be the hero or live long enough to become the villain?' Well, I've been here long enough to become the villain of the town.

"But I also found something else out. I found out recently that if you smile and play the game the right way, people remember why they were rooting for you."

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