At halftime of Friday’s game against the Miami Heat, the Washington Wizards will recognize the trio of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, who formed the franchise’s “Big Three” from 2005 to 2010 and made three consecutive playoff appearances together. The reunion, part of the team’s throwback night as it celebrates 25 years since the Bullets became the Wizards, was a long time coming.
Friday will mark Arenas’s first return to Capital One Arena since Feb. 4, 2011, when the three-time all-star and Wizards legend, nicknamed “Agent Zero” during his eight seasons in D.C., was greeted with “a mix of boos and a standing ovation” seven weeks after he was traded to the Orlando Magic. Arenas was scheduled to make a 2020 appearance in D.C. with a different Big3 — Ice Cube’s three-on-three basketball league — but the outfit’s season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m the only one that has anxiety right now,” Arenas, 40, said of his upcoming return during a recent interview with Butler, Jamison and former Wizards TV analyst Phil Chenier. “Oh, my God, what are [the fans] going to think? Am I going to get booed? I have so many emotions.”
While Jamison and Butler have maintained close ties with the team in retirement — Jamison was named the Wizards’ director of pro personnel in 2019, and Butler, now in his third year as an assistant coach with the Heat, served as a Wizards analyst on NBC Sports Washington — Arenas has been largely estranged from the franchise since he was traded to the Magic in December 2010, a move that came about a year after he was suspended for bringing guns into the locker room. The infamous incident stemmed from a dispute between Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton on a team flight over a card game gone wrong and prompted the team to clean house. Butler and Jamison were dealt ahead of the 2010 trade deadline.
“When we looked at the history of the Wizards name, we wanted to focus on the best players ever to put on the Wizards jersey,” Hunter Lochmann, Monumental Sports and Entertainment’s chief marketing officer, said in a phone interview. “Gilbert is obviously one of them, so it felt very natural that, with this anniversary, this was the time [to bring him back].”
In a team release, Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said: “Gilbert, Caron and Antawn represent a definitive era for the franchise and they deserve to be recognized for the excitement they generated on the court and the impact they had in our community, both of which led to a new generation of Wizards fans.”
Arenas signed as a free agent with Washington in the summer of 2003 and helped change the fortunes of the franchise. Jamison arrived via a trade with the Dallas Mavericks the following year. During the 2004-05 season, Arenas, Jamison and Larry Hughes led the Wizards to 45 wins — their most since 1979 — and their first playoff berth since 1997.
After Hughes signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent, Washington acquired Butler in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. Butler came off the bench to start the 2005-06 season, but by December he had forced his way into coach Eddie Jordan’s starting lineup, and a new Big Three was born. The trio’s run ended after three first-round playoff exits — all against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Friday will be the first time Arenas, Butler and Jamison have been together in years.
“I knew when those other two guys were on the court with me, it didn’t matter if it was Boston, Miami, the Lakers, I had two other guys that were going to compete at a high level,” Jamison, who once called Arenas the best teammate he ever had, told Chenier. “It’s a genuine friendship between all three of us.”
Despite Arenas’s concerns and some of his repugnant comments in the past, including misogynistic remarks about WNBA players, he figures to receive a warm reception Friday. The scene inside Capital One Arena should also look familiar. The Wizards use a classic court — designed to look as it did before the franchise changed its colors back to red, white and blue in 2011 — for games when they wear the classic white, blue and bronze throwback jerseys they introduced this season, as they will against the Heat.
Adding to the nostalgia of the night, the arena’s digital displays, including the scoreboard, will feature a classic look, and R&B artist and producer Teddy Riley, of Blackstreet fame, will headline a postgame concert. The first 10,000 fans at Friday’s game will receive a Wizards hat designed by Jamison and inspired by the black and gold alternate uniforms from the Big Three era. (In an unfortunate throwback, the hat was designed in partnership with and features the logo of FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange that filed for bankruptcy this month and was formerly the naming rights partner of the Heat’s arena.)
“We’re really proud with how we’re taking the classic concept and the look,” Lochmann said. “When you come to a game, the jerseys, the court, the signage, what our entertainment teams are wearing, the broadcast all have that same look. You know you’re tuned in or at a classic game. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been fun.”
The team plans to recognize other Wizards alumni at additional throwback games throughout the season. Beloved former TV play-by-play man Steve Buckhantz, who called Wizards games for 22 years and, alongside Chenier, narrated most of the Big Three’s greatest moments, will be celebrated at some point in the coming months. Lochmann declined to comment on whether Buckhantz will be part of Friday’s festivities, but he said Buckhantz and Chenier are an “integral part” of Wizards history.