Antawn Jamison has been around Gilbert Arenas long enough to know which goofy antics to dismiss as "Gilbert being Gilbert." Jamison has seen Arenas do playful jigs after practice, heard him crack countless jokes. He has watched Arenas pick up a technical foul or two for a wild tantrum, then crack a smile afterward because Arenas never was angry and was simply looking for a way to emotionally charge his teammates.
So, when Arenas called his "big brother" shortly after Jamison was dealt to the Washington Wizards from the Dallas Mavericks on draft night, Jamison couldn't believe what he was hearing on the other end. During a lengthy conversation, during which the former Golden State Warriors teammates talked about being reunited, Arenas wasn't clowning around. To Jamison, it was like a comic playing a convincing dramatic role, Jamie Foxx in "Ray."
"That was the first time Gilbert was actually serious," said Jamison. "He called me and was like, 'I'm tired of this. I want to go to the playoffs.' " Arenas liked his chances of making his first playoff berth playing alongside Jamison again and he expressed that opinion to Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards' president of basketball operations, when Grunfeld mentioned he was interested in acquiring Jamison. "I told him, 'I like Antawn,' " Arenas said. "We play well together."
The Wizards' new combo proved what it can accomplish two years ago, when Jamison was a smooth, savvy fifth-year forward, recently comforted with a massive contract extension. Arenas was a lively, energetic second-year point guard trying to earn a reputation and a fat contract in free agency. They combined for 40.5 points per game and led the Warriors to a 17-game improvement in 2003.
Jamison and Arenas also nearly did the impossible, coming within six wins of taking the franchise -- which Wizards guard and fellow former Warrior Larry Hughes calls "the cellar" -- to its first playoff berth since 1994.
"It should give them confidence, knowing that they were the two primary scoring options on a team in [the] West, which was the toughest conference. A couple of bounces here, a couple of bounces there, they could've led us to a playoff series," said former Golden State coach Eric Musselman, now an analyst for ESPN Radio.
During that run, however, rumors circulated throughout the Bay Area of friction between Jamison and Arenas. Both players vehemently deny the charges of dissension -- "We get along great," Jamison said -- but Jamison and Arenas did have a public spat in February 2003, one that has a familiar ring to Wizards fans.
Jamison scored 39 points in a win against Boston but went scoreless on just two shots the next game, against Portland. Jamison complained about not getting the ball enough afterward, saying: "I know what I can do to help this team. I just wasn't getting the opportunity."
The next game, against the New York Knicks, Arenas decided not to look for his own offense, playing passively for 31/2 quarters and taking one shot -- a desperation heave to avoid a shot-clock violation. Then, he erupted for 14 points in the final 61/2 minutes to lead the Warriors to victory. "I decided that I was going to get him on," Arenas said of Jamison, who had 31 points and no assists that game, "and if it comes down to the end, I'm going to have to do what I do."
Arenas, 22, pulled a similar stunt last year when Wizards teammate Kwame Brown complained that the guard wasn't passing enough.
Jamison said the incident is well behind the pair.
"That was just a big brother talking to a little brother," Jamison said of his request for Arenas to spread the ball. "That's one of the things I like about Gilbert; I can communicate with him a little bit. He knew I was trying to get a point across and he has his own way of handling things and eventually he came through. That never affected our relationship on and off the court. We both were mature about the situation and we played ball and still remained friends."
Jamison, 28, said he has no problems telling his point guard if there's something Arenas is doing he doesn't like.
"I'll tell him now," he said. "I don't like it and he'll do the same thing with me. And that's the reason that a lot of teams and combos are able to get along. You have to accept criticism and you have to accept the positive things also. I wouldn't be a teammate and a friend if I let him do whatever he wanted to do, if it was hurting the team."
Jamison and Arenas parted ways in the summer of 2003 -- Arenas signed a six-year deal with the Wizards, Jamison was traded to the Mavericks -- and experienced life on the opposite end of the NBA spectrum. Arenas suffered through a 25-57 season, sitting out 27 games because of an abdominal strain. Jamison tasted the playoffs for the first time but had to accept a reserve role and limited minutes.
"As an individual, it'd be good to make the playoffs and be one of the focal guys and really contribute, but it's all about coming together as a team and winning basketball games," Jamison said. "There's only so much you can do as an individual, you can score 25 and 10 and still win about 25, 30 games. Believe me, I've been there. I'm just at a stage where I don't really care about the credit, I just want to win. If we play as a team, we're talented enough to make some noise."
The Wizards are relying on Jamison and Arenas to lead the charge, and with good reason -- they are a young, talented duo with room to grow, and the salaries of Jamison ($12.6 million) and Arenas ($9.3 million) add up to almost half of the Wizards' salary cap figure (about $45 million).
"Antawn is a leader. He is a professional. It shows in his actions and his teammates respect him," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "I really believe that Gilbert has turned the corner to become a true leader as far as running the team, and quarterbacking the team. He has made some fantastic plays for his teammates. And he is looking for his own spot. That is huge for us, for him to step up and be that type of leader for us."
Jamison, the NBA's sixth man of the year last season, has a career scoring average of 19.1 points and has the 10th-best scoring total in the past four seasons (6,697). Arenas was one of seven players -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett were the others -- to average at least 19 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds last season. "Gilbert is ready to bust out and be an all-star," Musselman said. "And, Jamison, if he's on a winning team in the East, he can make an all-star team, too."
Said Grunfeld: "They've both shown that they're legitimate NBA talents. They've both averaged [almost] 20 a game in the NBA. And they've done it on a consistent basis. We're going to depend on those guys very heavily, because they've shown they can do it, but basketball is a team game and everybody has to contribute and everybody has to step up and everybody has to pull their own weight."
If Jamison and Arenas can inspire a 17-game improvement this season, the Wizards would have 42 wins, which should be enough to end the Wizards' seven-year playoff drought. Jordan would love to see that sort of turnaround in Washington but "I'm not here to predict that because they did that in Golden State we can do it here," Jordan said.
Leave that to Arenas.
"This team is better than the team we had in Golden State. If we can't have success, that means that me and Antawn aren't doing our jobs," Arenas said.