By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 12:48 AM
Gilbert Arenas's drive to work was probably a lot less stressful on Tuesday morning. He showed up to play a game for the Orlando Magic against the Dallas Mavericks, rather than taking those familiar roads from his home in Great Falls to Verizon Center and stepping into the locker room a year after the worst decision of his career placed him and the Wizards in a situation that few could have anticipated.
On this Dec. 21, the Wizards celebrated a rare blowout win over the Charlotte Bobcats and Arenas played his second game with the team he has longed to play for ever since he was suspended for bringing guns to the arena in a dispute with then-teammate Javaris Crittenton. As the anniversary approached, Arenas's mind was elsewhere.
"What's funny is I didn't even think about it," Arenas said after making his debut with the Magic on Monday in Atlanta. "That's something that happened in the past and I can't think about the anniversary and all this."
The past 12 months have been difficult for Arenas, as he's lost millions in salary, gained an unfortunate reputation, lost his estranged mother, and completed a divorce with the Wizards after more than seven years when he was shipped to Orlando in exchange for former all-star Rashard Lewis.
As they prepare to host the Chicago Bulls at Verizon Center on Wednesday, the Wizards (7-19) bear little resemblance to the team that was in place at this time last season. Only three players remain: Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. The team is trying to forge a new identity around John Wall, whom they drafted with the No. 1 pick after that forgettable, regrettable campaign generated some good fortune.
"We could've moved forward with him and we had been moving forward with him, but when this opportunity presented itself. We felt like it was a better opportunity for us to move forward," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said after completing the deal.
Arenas admitted that he struggled trying to find his place within the organization this season. He wanted to part ways before training camp but understood that there was nowhere for him to go. The challenge was harder because he never trusted that the Wizards had plans to keep him around for the long term, no matter what owner Ted Leonsis and Grunfeld may have said publicly.
"It was weird at first, because I didn't know how I would be welcomed back in Washington," Arenas said. "I was nervous, scared, trying to do anything just to fit in. I felt that's where I was just trying to fit into something where I felt really that I wasn't a part of. I tried to do everything to stay out of headlines and stay out of people's way."
Magic General Manager Otis Smith observed how Arenas appeared uncomfortable as he returned from his 50-game suspension. Smith felt that Arenas needed a fresh start somewhere, and that the three-time all-star could help Orlando get back on the right track. "I think he was trying," Smith said. "I'm not sure if he was trying to do everything everybody was telling him and then some, I thought. So it had a tendency to take some of the fun out of the game for him. He's excited about the opportunity to get back what he once had."
Arenas changed his jersey to No. 9 to symbolize a new beginning with the Wizards but said that the uncertainty of his role - he started, came off the bench, played off the ball, then played point guard - and the cloud of his past put him in a dark place that he couldn't overcome. "Maybe more mental darkness than actual, for me. It was just the mental darkness, because I'm looking at everything. I'm seeing what's going on and I'm like, 'Aw, this again.' It's like, well this isn't a fresh start. You guys are still judging me. It was just frustrating at times. I was like, 'I thought this was a fresh start, but it's really not.' "
Dwight Howard approved the Magic's acquisition of Arenas and has encouraged him to be aggressive and not try to ease his way into the fold. He also said the team is not worried about any of Arenas's past baggage. "Why bring it here? It's a fresh start for him. He's looking to get going. We're just going to welcome him with open arms. We don't have any ill will toward him or whatever happened while he was in Washington."
Now that he's with the Magic - which already has an established franchise cornerstone in Howard - Arenas feels unburdened. "I don't have the pressure of anything right now. I don't have the pressure of trying to fit in where I'm not wanted," Arenas said. "Everybody welcomed me and they just want me to be me. You're going back to a team where you don't know if you're welcome. Everyone is trying their hardest to make you feel welcome. When it's forced, it's never going to work. Here, everyone has the same personality. It's easier to come to a team where everyone is upbeat."
And he no longer has to look back on the day that changed his life, and the course of the franchise he once ruled. "I think both sides are free from it," Smith said. "I think Washington is probably more relieved than he is, because you don't have that hanging on your head."
Young was the remaining Wizard closest to Arenas, but he understands how the team and Arenas have changed in the past year. He also knows that he has an opportunity to flourish now that his good friend is gone. "It was bittersweet. But it's something to learn from. I know he learned from it," Young said. "We've been through a lot. We lost a couple players, changed the team and we're more of a family right now."
It was an odd coincidence that Arenas made his debut with the Magic on the same day that the Wizards trounced the Bobcats and Gerald Wallace, since Arenas's fall began when Wallace fell on his left knee in April 2007.
Arenas was unable to hide his happiness about wearing the same jersey of his favorite player growing up, Penny Hardaway. His Magic teammate Jason Richardson said Arenas is smiling like he hasn't smiled in years. "Probably since I got hurt. That injury stopped my career cold," Arenas said. "This is the first time, I'm proud to play basketball."