Former Wizard Gilbert Arenas returns to Washington a fallen hero

By Mike Wise
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:44 AM

On Friday night, sometime during the first quarter, Gilbert Arenas will mosey up to the scorer's table and perhaps look toward Verizon Center's rafters, where the jerseys of Wes, The Big E, the Pearl and Gus Johnson hang.

When the whistle blows and the Orlando Magic's backup point guard checks into the game, will you boo the irresponsible multimillionaire who embarrassed the franchise and its fan base by bringing guns to work 14 months ago?

Or will you respectfully cheer one of the most dedicated athletes this city has ever seen, a guy who drove to the gym in the middle of the night because he still had that nobody-wants-me chip on his shoulder - left over from being told he would never play a minute at Arizona, left over from sleeping in a Mazda hatchback before his father found a job to support himself and his 7-year-old son?

Will you remember what was or regret what might have been?

"You know, some people just can't forgive," Arenas said Thursday. "And that's just the way life is. You know, I can't forgive some things, either. At some point I hope they can forgive me as a person.

"Maybe not as a basketball player. Maybe I wasn't worth the contract. Hey, I don't think anyone's worth $100 million if Michael Jordan wasn't, but hey, that's what Abe Pollin thought I was worth, and if someone puts $100 million in front of you, you're gonna take it, too. . . .

"So for the people who can't forgive some of the stupid things I've done and did, I was just trying to be entertaining. And the people who love me, I just want to say thank you for hanging in there and I love you guys and all the support you gave me."

In the end, the downfall of Arenas with the Washington Wizards was getting hurt again and again after signing a $111 million contract and a horrendous lack of judgment that resulted in a felony gun charge.

The consummate professional was done in by the knucklehead. He went from being the premier athlete in D.C. sports, circa 2004-07, to a pariah.

In a wide-ranging, 30-minute interview, Arenas said he worried for the team's No.1 overall pick, John Wall; he worried for the team's highest-paid player, Andray Blatche; he worried, really, for the young players he left behind, unable to free themselves from a losing mind-set.

But the person I always felt Gilbert Arenas should have spent more time worrying about was Gilbert Arenas.

Arenas's vulnerability, his willingness to peel back his own layers in an era of managed news and photo ops, was one of the reasons he became so likable. When every other mainstream star was trying to create a buffer zone, Arenas let everyone in.

In the many days and hours I interviewed him the past seven years, Gilbert was by and large the same guy, floating with ease among every race and class.

What was disconcerting was Gilbert's need for approval from them all. He needed to be accepted so badly by everyone around him, he was willing to do anything for it.

In fact, he told me once that anyone who got too close to him he had to push away - because only then would he know they were true. The ones who didn't come back, he said, "they're like a leaf that blew off a tree."

That whole "I'm going to test you" mantra, in part, nearly cost him his career.

"My whole persona now is basically from my blog," Arenas lamented. "When people think about me, that's all they think: He's crazy, he's psycho, he's this. No, that was just my blog, that was Agent Zero; that was my persona that I was putting out there. And eventually that all caught up with me.

"My in-the-gym persona got caught up with my real life, and that's what I'm dealing with now."

When the beef between Arenas and Javaris Crittenton escalated into guns in the locker room, so many level-headed observers cried, "What kind of three-time NBA all-star does these kind of things? What kind of guy who made it, triumphing over perceptions and slights throughout his life and career, would do that to himself?"

How about a guy who never viewed himself as making it, a guy who never saw himself as anything but an entertainer? To this day, he seems almost surprised that his talent and eccentricities actually interest people, as if he doesn't deserve this life.

It's partly why he spent 30 days in a Montgomery County halfway house last year.

"It's hard to recover from you being the man and then you get dropped to nothing, so I just tried to look at everything as a learning experience," he said. He taught himself to play chess in those 30 days. He rested. He stopped performing for others and did something for himself.

"For some odd reason, [rest] was what I needed at the time," he said. "I just needed to get away, be alone and just hide."

He needed to be with Gilbert Arenas - to get to know someone hiding behind the facade of a carefree gunner. Those who chalk that up to amateur psychology didn't sit five years ago with the mother who abandoned him. They didn't see her tears flow at the mere mention of his name, how that guilt riddled her until the day she died last March at just 46 years old.

The family told me Arenas paid for Mary Frances Robinson's funeral. Arenas actually asked me for his half-brother's number after his mother died, wanting to fulfill one of her only wishes: that he connect with the eight half-siblings he had never met as an adult. "Most of the summer," he said Thursday, "I've been trying to track them down."

He said he can't fault the Wizards, adding: "They didn't do anything wrong. I messed up. It was my fault. It was all my doing."

The pranks. The mischief that sadly became criminal. Mostly, the ignominious end of an era that for a few brilliant moments seemed to have a chance at ending with deep playoff runs, standing ovations and maybe another retired jersey in the Verizon Center rafters.

Will you remember what was? Or what might have been?

When he checks into the game Friday night, will you think what could still be if Gilbert Arenas ever realizes that he made it, that he's not an underdog any more, that he has no reason to keep himself down and every reason to stop fighting himself?

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