The Story of 0
All of his life, Gilbert Arenas has seen himself as the underdog. Now that he has become an NBA phenomenon, he may need to find new motivation.
AT THE BROOKSTREE APARTMENTS, a low- to middle-income housing complex at the dead end of Valerio Street in Van Nuys, Calif., Gilbert Arenas, 12, made his first jaw-dropping move. A kid had challenged him to jump off the top of the building into the community pool. The height was three stories, maybe 30 feet. But the distance between the ledge and the water was more than enough to produce terror. Young Gilbert would have to leap five to 10 yards through the air, like a long jumper, to miss the concrete and avoid breaking his legs.
With limbs flailing, adrenaline pulsing, he sprinted and jumped. And splashed down safely. The Brookstree boys went wild, and another great American people-pleaser was born.
One other afternoon, the kids upped the ante. Gilbert was dared to make the same jump, only this time adding a back flip. He pulled it off, but his head caught the pool edge.
Mr. Arenas! Mr. Arenas! a young boy yelled toward the apartment where Gilbert and his father lived. Gil hurt.
Gilbert Arenas Sr. came running out. He looked at his son's head and saw a gruesome gash, several inches wide. The cut was deep, and the wound bled for 30 minutes after the accident. "He kept saying, 'Dad, it's okay. I'm okay,'" Gilbert Arenas Sr. remembers. "I'm thinking, that ain't going to go away." Gilbert got stitched up at the emergency room, but the scar is visible today, near the top of his forehead. As he proudly showed it to me last spring in his Indianapolis hotel room, I asked him if now, as a 25-year-old father of two, he had come to appreciate boundaries more since then.
"Boundaries?" he said, snickering. "What are those?"
MID-SEPTEMBER, A HOT, STICKY GYMNASIUM IN THE DISTRICT, seven weeks before the Washington Wizards' 2007-08 season opener. On the court is a mishmash of Arenas's Wizards teammates, unsigned free agents and NBA hopefuls, all of whom are locked in an intense pickup game that means, for Arenas, nothing and everything. He's one of the league's top players, but after a five-month off-season hiatus from this kind of competitive workout, he needs to reestablish his dominance. Now the ball is in his hands near the end of a tight game, and the next basket wins.
"I got this," Arenas says. With a defender's hand in his face, he squares his feet maybe 10 feet behind the three-point line, rises and launches an impossibly long shot from 35 feet. All net.
"Game time!" he calls out.
The losing team trudges off the court. Arenas bobs his head and smiles. His left knee is still sore from inflammation, five months after he underwent surgery for a torn meniscus suffered in a collision during a regular-season game in April. The injury brought a deflating end to a breakout season that saw Arenas eclipse Earl Monroe's 38-year-old single-game franchise scoring record, win a bevy of games at the buzzer, backpack the Wizards to the best record in the NBA's Eastern Conference through late January and basically emerge as the league's new It Guy.
Under the pseudonym "Agent Zero," he wrote an offbeat, candid blog for NBA.com that revealed his more juvenile side, once writing that he had hoped to borrow Heather Mills's artificial leg after she had finished "Dancing With the Stars," so that he could compete in the playoffs with the injury.
In one dizzying year, he went from being considered an enigmatic gunner with questions about his maturity to a refreshing, authentic oddball who could also carry a team. Arenas came to Washington at a time when its woebegone basketball team, on the heels of a bitter breakup with Michael Jordan, was headed toward insignificance. With each season, Arenas has brought more hope and buzz to a franchise that had lost whatever promise came with Jordan.