Someone to turn to in tough times

"He was my mentor in Golden State, and we've had a close relationship since," Gilbert Arenas said of Magic GM Otis Smith.
"He was my mentor in Golden State, and we've had a close relationship since," Gilbert Arenas said of Magic GM Otis Smith. (John Mcdonnell)

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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010

When he heard rumors last summer that the Washington Wizards had spoken to the Orlando Magic to gauge its interest in trading for him, Gilbert Arenas called a trusted friend and confidant for a straightforward answer: Magic General Manager Otis Smith.

Smith has been close with Arenas dating from Arenas's rookie season with Golden State, where Smith was the Warriors' executive director of basketball operations and spent countless hours listening to Arenas vent his frustrations about waiting for an opportunity to play. Smith never sugarcoated anything, and Arenas respected his counsel.

The professional relationship between the two hadn't intertwined with their personal one since the summer of 2003, when Arenas signed a free agent deal with the Wizards and Smith departed Golden State to take a front-office position with the Magic. When Arenas called last summer, Smith let Arenas know that if a reunion were to happen again, this wouldn't be the time.

"I asked him if the rumors was true, he was like: 'Hey, I've got a business. I don't know if you're healthy enough,' " Arenas said. "It's like that. There's no favoritism."

Arenas understands that the speculation linking him with Orlando likely won't go away for some time, even as he continues to find comfort with his new role as one of the veteran leaders on a young Wizards team - and after owner Ted Leonsis recently proclaimed, "Gilbert's not going anywhere."

According to multiple league sources, the conversations involving an Arenas-for-Vince Carter swap before the draft didn't go very far, even though a deal would match up financially, with Arenas earning $17.7 million and Carter making $17.3 million in the final year of his deal this season. Arenas is owed nearly $63 million over the next three seasons after this one.

But with Orlando visiting Verizon Center on Saturday, Arenas knows why talk about him possibly joining the Magic - though nothing solidly suggests that Smith is interested in ever moving in that direction - will continue to percolate.

"That's all because of the relationship that I have with Otis Smith. He was my mentor in Golden State, and we've had a close relationship since," said Arenas, who also maintains a residence in Orlando. "Because of the connection we have, I think people just associate us. It's a personal relationship. He was like a father to me. When I decide to make deals, that's who I call, and he takes his bias out of it and tells me to think like a professional."

In January, the Magic came to Washington the day after Arenas was suspended indefinitely for bringing guns into the locker room. Smith dropped by Arenas's Great Falls home and the two spoke for several hours. At the time, Arenas was dealing with his fractured relationship with the Wizards organization and his stressful legal situation. "We didn't talk about trades or if he was coming to get me. We was just talking about life," Arenas said.

Arenas doesn't expect that relationship to change. He admitted that "it is kind of weird" to be close to someone who runs an NBA team, "but if I call him, I just ask him, 'How's the team doing?' I'll congratulate him if he has a big win, or talk about a big loss. Tell Dwight [Howard] I said hi. During the playoffs, I'll go down there and speak to some of the guys. It's like a friendly thing."

Arenas missed the Wizards' season-opening blowout loss in Orlando last month because he was still recovering from a strained tendon in his right ankle. He struggled to find his rhythm in his first four games as a reserve, but Arenas has elevated his play and is averaging 20 points and 6.6 assists over the past seven games.

In that span, Arenas has had a 30-point game in Chicago and handed out a career-high 16 assists against Detroit. He also directed the Wizards to two wins in the four games that No. 1 overall pick John Wall missed with a sprained left foot. He is shooting just 39.1 percent from the field this season, which would be among the lowest of his career, but he is also connecting on 39.7 percent of his three-pointers, which would be a career high.

Arenas had some apprehension about playing this season, given the negativity of the past one, but he credited the enthusiastic response from fans, unyielding support of Leonsis and his young teammates for helping him breakthrough and return his old, gregarious ways. He said his primary concern now is helping the Wizards find a way to compete against the better teams in the league, starting with the Magic.

"We've been playing bad against great teams," Arenas said. "We just got to come out and give effort, that's all it is. Especially when you're so young. We just have to complement each other. The guards right now, we play well together. We've just got to get the bigs on the same page. They just got to play off each other and everybody has to be on the same page."


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