In Los Angeles, a town where stars rule and just about everyone else worships them, Gilbert Arenas, NBA all-star, millionaire and face of the Washington Wizards, walked into the stands at Staples Center a few weeks ago looking as inconspicuous as a USC undergrad.
Sporting baggy jeans, white gym shoes and a backpack slung over his shoulder, Arenas was a half-hour removed from playing in a preseason game against the Charlotte Bobcats, yet hardly anyone who came to watch the Los Angeles Lakers play the Denver Nuggets in a rare NBA doubleheader recognized him.
Those who did received the typical Arenas treatment: With neither a posse nor bodyguard in sight, Arenas stopped and posed for a picture with a fan and his date. Then Arenas paused to slap five and sign an autograph for a young fan wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey.
The Wizards open the season tonight against the Raptors in Toronto led by a mercurial young star whose relative anonymity does not figure to last. With a man-of-the-people approach that includes flinging his jersey into the crowd after home games and playing pickup contests in a tough section of Southeast Washington, Arenas appears poised to join the league's elite.
"What is he, 23 years old, and he's already an all-star?" Bryant asked. "I think you'll see him play in a bunch more. Once you get a taste of that and then the playoffs like he did, you kind of grow and become a different player."
Last season, Arenas finished seventh in the league in scoring and averaged 25.5 points per game, finished third in minutes played and led the Wizards to a regular season record of 45-37, their best since 1979. The artists formerly known as the Bullets made the playoffs for the first time since 1998 and won a playoff series for the first time since 1982.
And it was Arenas who provided the season's indelible snapshot.
With the score tied and 5.2 seconds remaining in Game 5 of the first-round playoff series against the Bulls in Chicago, Arenas drove left, elevated and released a smooth jumper over the outstretched arms of Kirk Hinrich and 7-foot Tyson Chandler.
The ball sailed in a perfect arc before sliding through the net, giving the Wizards a 112-110 victory and a 3-2 series lead. While Bulls fans were left looking like Craig Ehlo -- the former Cleveland swingman who was famously victimized by Michael Jordan's game-winning jumper in a 1989 playoff game -- Arenas and his teammates celebrated.
"When I got here, people asked me what surprised me the most about this team and I said, 'That's easy: Gilbert,' " said guard Antonio Daniels, who was signed to a five-year contract to help replace Larry Hughes during the offseason. "I never knew he was that good. When you get on the court with him, you see just how much talent this guy has. He does things you just don't see. It's scary how good he could be."
Arenas said he knows what he needs to do to be mentioned in the same breath as players such as Bryant, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
"I have to do the little things," Arenas said. "You know, stop talking to the refs and getting kicked out of games. Dressing the right way. The media and how you react to people. Other than that, my game is still 20 to 25. After that, it's how you market yourself. The work ethic is there, so it's just a matter of working on some of those other things."
Antawn Jamison has witnessed Arenas's growth since they played together with Golden State during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons and says he sees a maturity level in Arenas that did not exist four or five years ago.
"It's like night and day," Jamison said. "Gil used to come in and just tear up the locker room. And he wasn't making that much money then, so he had to pay for everything. I'd kind of feel sorry for him a little but he was young, and as crazy as it sounds, it would motivate him a little bit. He'd come in, tear things up, then go out and score 20 points in the second half. With Gil and Troy Murphy, we really had some characters on that team."
Arenas still has moments when he slips into what Coach Eddie Jordan calls "Gilbertology." For instance, Jordan wanted to name Arenas as a team captain this season but was given pause after hearing his star guard's response.
"He told me: 'Coach, sometimes I don't believe the things that I say. I don't know if these guys believe it,' " Jordan said with a bemused look. Jordan did eventually name Arenas a captain, along with Jamison and center Etan Thomas, but the coach clearly views Arenas as a work in progress, albeit an extremely talented one.
"Gilbert can be as good as he wants to be," Jordan said. "I sincerely mean that. We all know he has the talent and the drive to get where he wants to go. But he has matured and I think he'll continue to grow as player and as a person."
Desire certainly won't be a problem for Arenas, who is known for his late-night shooting sessions at MCI Center. He also impressed some of Washington's street-ball junkies by showing up -- alone -- at the courts at Barry Farms for pickup games this summer.
Arenas was told that he was the first NBA player to take the court at Barry Farms, a place that is not for the faint of heart.
"I've got the MJ clause in my contract," Arenas said, referring to the "love of the game clause" Michael Jordan used to have in his contracts with the Bulls, allowing him to play pickup basketball. "I love to play. I don't care where it is."
One thing everyone agrees on is that Arenas can improve on defense. Last season, with sidekick Hughes taking on the role of defensive stopper, Arenas played loose, attacking the passing lanes but otherwise saving his legs for offense.
This season, Jordan wants Arenas to be a better on-the-ball defender and to do a better job of rotating to the open man while still patrolling the passing lanes.
Arenas, who earned praise for his defensive energy as a rookie with Golden State and clearly has the athletic ability to be a great defender, appears to have bought into the plan.
"In this league, it's about growing up," Arenas said. "That's one of the areas I've got to grow up in. Everyone knows I can score. Everyone knows I can do all these great things, but if you want to be MVP in this league, you've got to do everything. I've just got to become a better defensive player."
If he continues to grow as a player and if the Wizards continue to improve as a franchise, Arenas will start to draw the attention awarded to the game's elite players. He certainly picked up a few fans during the team's recent West Coast trip.
When the Wizards played the Lakers in Bakersfield, Calif., a woman who was celebrating her 49th birthday spent $125 apiece for a pair of front-row tickets that turned out to be right next to the Washington bench.
When the game ended and he had just scored 27 points before taking a seat late in the fourth quarter, Arenas ripped off his jersey and handed it to the woman before disappearing into the tunnel.
Asked if she was a Wizards fan, the woman replied, "No."
Then, holding the jersey up so everyone could admire it, she added, "But I am now."