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For Gilbert Arenas and Wizards, reconciliation was a long time coming

Eleven years later, former Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas returned to D.C. by waving the towel over his head in familiar fashion. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

For the first time since 2011, Gilbert Arenas walked onto the floor where he performed his greatest acts as an NBA showman. While his two friends, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, looked comfortable in all black, Arenas chose a white collarless shirt beneath a sharp, tan suit. For him, the occasion called for a dose of elegance. It was his homecoming.

Before the announcer could scream his name, he twirled a towel above his head, just as he did when he owned this place. When the spotlight found him inside Capital One Arena, he was walking toward the throwback stickman Wizards logo at center court. And there were no boos. At one point, Arenas feared there might be.

On Friday night, as the Washington Wizards honored their past, they welcomed back their three best players from the mid-2000s: Jamison, who now works in the team’s front office; Butler, an assistant for the opposing team Friday night, the Miami Heat; and, of course, him. There would be no “Big Three” without him. They can say his name around here again.

Wizards' 'Big Three' reuniting for a throwback night

“I mean, it’s everything. It’s a point in history that’s pretty much not talked about for an extended period of time,” Butler said. “It never felt quite right, but now having Gilbert back where he belongs, it’s only right. It feels special.”

But first, they had to get here. To a place where the good memories outweighed the dark clouds, where forgiveness met reconciliation.

Over the past 11 years, both parties avoided that place. The end of the Big Three recast the era with four words of regret: “What could have been.” The joy that followed game-winners and the dream of greater playoff success were replaced by a shadow of sadness. That despair lingered so long because the Wizards couldn’t acknowledge or celebrate those years without resurrecting the most embarrassing moment in franchise history, when a joke went awry and Arenas brought guns into an NBA locker room. Their locker room.

All the while, on the other coast, Arenas stayed in a self-imposed exile. When the team traded him, he didn’t even say goodbye to staffers. So over the years, when John Wall, the franchise star who usurped Arenas, invited him to games at Capital One Arena, he turned down the invitations. In retirement, if he traveled long distance and the layover meant he would make a brief stop in the D.C. area, he booked a different flight.

Oh, he had no problems reminiscing about that time — Arenas, the walking quote, often poured out honesty when he addressed his knucklehead behavior, particularly the gun incident. But he had no desire in revisiting the scene of his greatest career regret.

“It was more [feeling] guilty on my part,” Arenas admitted Friday. “I didn’t get to say bye to everyone who took care of me. It was more of those, like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to see everybody I just pretended that I left behind.’ It was just one of those things where it was more me just feeling guilty about how I left.”

A decade-plus needed to pass for both parties to ease their stance. This past summer, the Wizards’ marketing team brainstormed new ideas to sell home games. The 2022-23 season would be the silver anniversary of the Wizards’ brand, an easy commemoration because the blue and bronze nostalgia plays well. Via email, majority owner Ted Leonsis shared with me how the marketing team’s conversations, both in house and with fans, made it clear the team needed to celebrate the Big Three. Which meant Arenas needed to come home.

“Our fans have overwhelmingly responded with enthusiasm at the chance to see the reunion, and all three of them are excited to reciprocate that love on Friday night,” Leonsis said in the email.

And so Sashia Jones, the vice president of player development, made the call to California. Arenas asked all the questions. Are you sure? Is Ted okay with this? ’Tawn and Caron? They’re okay with this, too? He asked for this reassurance because so much regret can build up over 11 years.

“ ‘Let me think about it. Give me about a week,’ ” Arenas said of his response to Jones. “And I had to get my little jitters out first.”

Jitters. The man who treated the basketball court as performance art — taking his bow on the Staples Center floor after he scored 60 or luxuriating in his game-winning three against Utah before the shot even went in. How could he have jitters?

Well, maybe because family reunions can be messy. And this one came ripe with complications and revisionist history. When they promoted this event, the Wizards played up all the good memories but cut out the nasty bits: Arenas’s suspension for the rest of the 2010 season, his 30-day sentence at a halfway house after he pleaded guilty to felony gun possession, the mutual desire for a divorce before the Wizards finally unloaded his contract to Orlando at the end of the year.

“We were able to take a major step forward by getting the top overall pick in the draft and selecting John Wall,” Leonsis, who took ownership of the team in June 2010, wrote in the email. “We were patient and the opportunity to make a trade presented itself approximately six months later. The deal gave both us and Gilbert a fresh start and took us into a new era that eventually led to the successful pairing of John and Bradley [Beal].”

The Wizards did not dwell on the Big Three because the franchise moved on and tried to forget. But all these years later, the Wizards finally forgave.

Still, when Arenas finally boarded a plane destined for this region this week, he felt he had to do so while hiding beneath a hoodie. Returning wasn’t easy. During a pregame news conference, Arenas sat between his teammates, but he was the only one sweating, and it wasn’t because of the bright camera lights.

All these years and he hasn’t changed much physically. He still looked like the Agent Zero who would yell “Hibachi!” But on Friday night, he looked more like the Arenas people had come to love around here: somewhat immature, a bit vulnerable and fully human.

“We always regret our past, but our past usually lets us know who we are now,” Arenas said.

My guess is that someone — or several folks — in the Monumental Sports & Entertainment marketing department grew up watching Arenas. And those fans they talked to — they probably first embraced basketball in this city thanks to Agent Zero. They remembered how television commentator Steve Buckhantz would shout “Dagger!” after his biggest shots. And how he gave away his jersey after every game. Hoops fans remember these moments. They just don’t forget their first love. And I’m also guessing Arenas never realized how much he was loved here.

“I didn’t think he actually felt that way until we had the Zoom call and then as we got close. He was like: “Man, I’m nervous. They’re going to boo me,’ ” Jamison said about Arenas’s trepidation. “I’m like: ‘Who going to boo you? Like, why?’ It kind of threw me off that he felt that way but for him to be back to see familiar faces. And I think tonight at halftime, it’s going to be unbelievable.”

So at halftime between the Wizards and Heat, the franchise embraced one of its very best. The fans cheered out loud. Even if the ovation wasn’t as thunderous as it had been during those better days when the Big Three electrified the crowd.

The appreciation continued throughout the game as Arenas sat courtside, right next to the owner’s son, Zach (Ted was out of town). He spent timeouts talking to Wizards players or smiling for pictures with nearby fans. They showed how much they missed Agent Zero but how much they still love Gil.

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