It has been circled on the calendar ever since Gilbert Arenas scored 60 points and took a bow, and Kobe Bryant scored 45 points and took what sounded like a swipe at Arenas's career-best night, then said, "See you next time."
Next time is here, tonight at 7 at Verizon Center, and fans in Washington haven't had a more highly anticipated regular season game since Michael Jordan made his home debut for the Wizards in November 2001. The Wizards' game against the Los Angeles Lakers has been sold out for weeks, and some overly ambitious fans are even trying to scalp tickets in the 400 section -- better known as the nosebleed seats -- for more than $250 each.
"I tried to get tickets the other day, because I want to watch the show," Arenas said with a laugh. "Everybody else wants to see it."
They want to see how Bryant responds to Arenas upstaging him in Los Angeles on Dec. 17, when Arenas led the Wizards to a 147-141 victory and set an NBA record by scoring 16 points in the five-minute overtime with Bryant guarding him. And they want to see how Arenas responds to Bryant's comments that he had "no conscience" as a shooter and benefited from making 27 trips to the foul line.
Arenas, the league's second-leading scorer at 29.5 points per game, and Bryant, who ranks fifth at 28.6, have combined for six of the 10 highest-scoring games this season, and both players have recorded three 50-point performances in a 15-game span. They also usually bring out the best in each other. In their last three games against each other, Arenas and Bryant have combined to average 80 points.
Arenas's profile has mushroomed since that night at Staples Center. He has made two game-winning, buzzer-beating, didn't-bother-to-see-them-drop shots. He recently came back from 214,460 votes down to surge past Vince Carter and earn his first all-star start for the Eastern Conference in Las Vegas on Feb. 18. His No. 0 jersey is eighth in sales and he has been mentioned as a candidate for the league's most valuable player award.
Bryant, whose new No. 24 jersey is the league's hottest seller, is a three-time NBA champion and one-time scoring champion. He will make his ninth all-star start after receiving the third-most votes.
This week, both players attempted to play down any possible rivalry and went on to gush about each other. "It's us against the Lakers," Arenas said. "It's not going to be me and him." Asked if the rematch of their Dec. 17 battle carried any special meaning, Bryant shook his head. "That stuff just doesn't excite me anymore," he said. "It just doesn't get me up."
But Wizards forward Caron Butler, who spent a season playing with Bryant in Los Angeles in 2004-05, said he can't imagine that Bryant sees it as just another game. "Oh, he's big into film. I guarantee he's watched it a bunch," he said. "Kobe's the kind of guy who circles the calendar for certain games, and this is one of them."
Bryant, a notorious gunner, repeatedly has said that his words about Arenas's shooting were taken out of context. "That was somebody who just didn't understand the game of basketball and took that and misinterpreted that. Because when I said that, that was a high compliment because there's not too many players around the league that can have that type of explosiveness," Bryant said this week. "So when you say a player doesn't have a conscience, you mean that with the utmost of respect. That means they can go out there and have the confidence to put the ball up and get hot. But they chose to write it and interpret it in a wrong way and they went and ran with it."
Bryant added that he and Arenas have a "mutual respect" for each other. "Everything I hear about him and understand about him is that he's a really hard worker. He puts the time in the gym, much like myself. You can't help but have respect for a player like that. So for somebody to try to create something that's a rift or something like that, just a made-up rift, is a bunch of b.s."
Arenas initially was upset when he heard the "no conscience" comments from a player he reveres -- he ordered a DVD of Bryant's 81-point game against Toronto on Jan. 22, 2006, and Bryant's poster once hung in his bedroom. Five days after his 60-point game against the Lakers, Arenas scored 54 points in Phoenix, declared that he wasn't some mad bomber and that he had replaced his falsetto "hibachi!" with the phrase "quality shots!" whenever he took a jumper. Arenas later said that from a statistical standpoint, "My numbers are blowing his out of the water the first six years in the league."
Arenas, 25, has since backed off from a war of words, saying this week that after speaking with some of Bryant's teammates, he doesn't believe that the 28-year-old Bryant meant anything derogatory. "I didn't take offense to it," Arenas said. "At the end of day, he's my idol. That's who I grew up watching. That's who I grew up trying to be like when I was still in high school. I'm not going to sit here and say: 'Aw man, that's my idol. I'm not going to talk to him no more.' No, I'm a fan. The blood is still good between me and him."
So there won't be a personal battle? "I didn't say that," Arenas said. "I didn't say I won't be in attack mode. I'm going to be in attack mode. You can believe that. It's going to be a good game. He has a reputation he's trying to uphold and everybody is saying, 'What is Gil going to do?' I'm going to do what I've been doing. I'm attacking him."
Bryant said he expects to guard Arenas. "I'm sure I'll be on him a little bit. That's one of the things that was puzzling to me. After the game it was like, 'Gilbert gives Kobe 60.' I didn't even guard Gilbert until overtime. It was pretty silly to me. But that's how it goes. That's how it is."