By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 12:12 AM
ATLANTA - The smile was back. That playful joking nature that only made cameo appearances in Gilbert Arenas's last few months as a member of the Washington Wizards, was on full display, on the huge video screen at Philips Arena.
During the second quarter of the Orlando Magic's 91-81 loss against the Atlanta Hawks, the camera focused on Arenas and his longtime friend Jason Richardson on the Kiss Cam. Richardson blew a few kisses, but Arenas decided to really play to the crowd, wrapping his arm around Richardson, leaning in and started laughing.
Arenas is with a new team, wearing a new number, and seemingly in a much better place, mentally and physically, after the Wizards dealt on Saturday the former face of their franchise.
"I'm already feeling upbeat," said Arenas, who came off the bench and made his first shot, a three-pointer, but finished with just 10 points, on just 2-of-11 shooting, with three assists in his Magic debut. "In any dark tunnel, there's always light. You just keep moving until it comes."
He was so eager to get started on the next chapter of a career that has been defined by comebacks and supposed rejuvenations, that when he found out the trade was official, he personally bought a ticket to Orlando and made it to Amway Center by halftime of the Magic's loss to Philadelphia. When asked if that was a sign of how excited he was to move on, Arenas said, "It had to be, I went to the airport and left. I didn't have a chance to say bye to anybody. I didn't even say bye to the kids. I'm going somewhere I wanted to be. I couldn't ask for more."
The timing of Orlando's dramatic roster makeover - in which the Magic dealt away Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus and brought back Arenas, Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark - may have seemed a bit premature but Magic General Manager Otis Smith had grown impatient with the performance of his team through 25 games. And, Arenas's trade from Washington actually spared him from having to drive to Verizon Center for practice on Tuesday and step into the locker room on the anniversary of the day he brought four unloaded guns and forever changed the course of a franchise he once lifted to a playoff contender.
Arenas wasn't even thinking about the anniversary was approaching, but believed the incident forever damaged his legacy in Washington, where he ascended to stardom with his electrifying play and quirky off-court antics. And he never felt comfortable with his new role in the organization after the team drafted point guard John Wall with the No. 1 overall pick and shifted him to shooting guard. Arenas had an uneven 21 games with the Wizards, as he struggled in his role as a veteran leader on a rebuilding team, but hopes that fans remember the good times.
"That I gave them something that they didn't have before. A player who came from nothing. Embraced the city and let the city embrace him, and just played hard," he said. "Besides getting hurt and the legal troubles, I think I entertained the people of Washington. Anytime I think about any part of my career, I think about all the big shots I hit, and just the love the city. That's where my youth was. That's where I raised my kids and have my family. So Washington is close to my heart."
He has found a safe landing spot with the Magic, since he has had a close relationship with Smith dating back to when the two were in Golden State. Arenas had privately hoped that Smith would come after him following his 50-game suspension last season. The Wizards contacted the Magic about a deal before the NBA draft, but Smith was worried about Arenas's health. Smith called Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld more than a week ago, and the deal was agreed upon shortly thereafter.
"At the point, anywhere would've been a fresh start for me," Arenas said. "I lucked out coming here. I think going through the whole process of last year, really helped me get through last year and it's like, the one person who actually believed in me the whole time. I'm grateful he came and got me."
Smith had to make a nearly 75-minute pitch to Magic owner Rich DeVos to convince him that Arenas was worth the risk, with his reputation and the three years and $60 million remaining on his salary after this season. "Quite frankly, to be honest, I put my neck on the line as it relates to him," Smith said. "I don't have a problem doing that, because I've been doing that, pretty much since he came in our league."
Smith sat down and spoke with Arenas after the trade and told him to focus on basketball and being himself, while blocking out his past indiscretions. "Regardless of what he does, he's still going to be linked to the gun thing. That's never going to go away," Smith said. "In this country, we'll forgive anyone but a professional athlete. We just never forgive a professional athlete. That's just where we are as a country. He has to realize, he has to go out, play basketball and let that speak for itself."
Born in Florida, Arenas maintains an offseason home in Orlando and grew up rooting for the Magic and Penny Hardaway, whom he honors by wearing No. 1. After abandoning Agent Zero, is he Agent Uno? "I don't know what it is right now," Arenas said with a laugh, "I'm just happy to wear the same jersey that Penny wore."
Arenas is ready to leave what happened in Washington in the past, as he returns to a playoff contender, on a team with the league's best big man in Dwight Howard and which has reached the Eastern Conference finals the past two years, including an NBA Finals appearance in 2009.
Richardson, who was Arenas's teammate during their first two years in the league, said this could be an ideal place. "I think it's good for him," said Richardson, who was acquired in a separate deal from Phoenix last Saturday. "The situation in Washington was kind of tough for him, the situation with the guns, but everybody needs a fresh start. He can leave everything that happened in Washington, in Washington. A new organization, new city, new fans. They're not worried about anything that happened in Washington. Only thing he needs to do is just go back to playing the way he knows how to play, having fun and being himself."