- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

The recent on-court performances by Gilbert Arenas have been off the hook. His cell phone, however, remains unnervingly silent.

Arenas is waiting patiently for those calls. The calls that say, “Hey, come do a commercial for us.” The calls that say, “Help sell my product.” The calls that say, “You’re just as hot as LeBron James, as Dwyane Wade, as Shaquille O’Neal.”

The Washington Wizards star has a couple of nice endorsement deals, of course. There is a big one with Adidas and another with Glaceau, the maker of vitaminwater.

Still, Arenas hasn’t busted through to the upper tier of marketable players in the NBA despite the dazzling performances, the MVP-caliber numbers and the long-range buzzer-beaters that now are part of his nightly routine.

“Every player would like some endorsements and to do some things other than basketball,” Arenas said. “I’m just waiting for some opportunities. When someone calls my name, I’ll be ready to go.”

It does seem a little bit off.

Arenas highlights appear on “SportsCenter” nearly every night. He’s personable, good-looking, likeable. He is a prolific scorer, a compelling performer. His team is winning, and there is a rare excitement in Washington for a franchise long associated with losing.

Arenas ranks second in the league in scoring behind Carmelo Anthony, the Denver Nuggets forward who has played in about half as many games. He scored 60 points against the Los Angeles Lakers last month and topped 50 on two other occasions in the past five weeks.

Arenas has made a specialty of making game-winning baskets and hitting field goals from far beyond the 3-point line. He ranks among the league leaders in minutes, steals, assists and overall efficiency and has led the Wizards to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.

Stats aside, Arenas is no marketing dope. He refers to his ascendance this season as “The Takeover,” a phrase that has caught on nicely with fans. He calls himself “Agent Zero,” a reference to his jersey number, and “Hibachi,” nicknames that have been picked up by fans and “SportsCenter” anchors, as well.

His recent 25th birthday bash, which featured rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs as host, garnered national headlines. And he’s done subtle yet noticeable things, such as changing from one pair of his “Gil Zero” Adidas shoes to another in midgame. He’s also in the process of starting his own marketing agency.

“He wants to be in the same boat as the Dwyane Wades, the LeBrons and the Carmelos,” said Paisley Benaza, Arenas’ personal marketing consultant. “He takes his own risks, and he’s really seen what can happen when you do stuff like that, but it’s frustrating him to wonder why companies don’t partner with him. If he doesn’t break through now, I’m not sure what else it would take.”

What else it would take, sports agents and marketing experts say, is the one thing Arenas always seems to get when he goes up for a game-winning three: separation.

“If Gilbert continues to score 50 points and get on ‘SportsCenter’ and if the Wizards can make some sort of playoff run, he’ll start getting calls,” said Scott Sanford, senior client director at Davie Brown Talent, a firm that helps match companies with celebrity endorsers. “And he will eventually, but he may not get into that top five without doing something that completely separates him.”

A recent report from Davie Brown highlighting the league’s most marketable players makes no mention of Arenas at all. And a look at Arenas’ body of work does show some holes. He has no MVP awards, just two All-Star appearances and one playoff series win. He has never won a scoring title, has never set an NBA record and has never made an Olympic team.

He’s working on all that.

There are, however, a few things Arenas can’t control. Like the fact that, as a 6-foot-4 guard, he’s not a beast above the rim. Like the fact that Washington, D.C., is not Los Angeles. Like the fact that unlike LeBron, Carmelo or D-Wade, he broke into the league with about as much fanfare as Michael Ruffin.

Never a high school phenom, Arenas initially struggled for playing time at the University of Arizona and was overshadowed by NBA-bound teammates like Richard Jefferson, Loren Woods and Mike Bibby. On draft day in 2001, he fell to the second round and was selected by the Golden State Warriors, a team coming off seven straight losing seasons.

“For a guy that’s taken in the second round, his visibility was at zero, and he has had to build it from nothing,” Sanford said. “It takes a lot of time to build up your endorsement value and marketability.”

It doesn’t help that, according to Arenas, some players are eyed by companies even as teenagers playing in high school and Amateur Athletic Union leagues.

“You have chosen ones who were chosen from their AAU days,” Arenas said. “The names you hear at AAU are the ones you know. You’ve got [Greg] Oden coming in and O.J. Mayo. Those are the studs. Those are the guys who are going to get multiple endorsements.”

Adidas, however, said it has been drawn to Arenas’ “underdog” status, believing it ties in nicely with the company’s “Impossible is Nothing” slogan.

“When you look at how determined he was to get where he’s gotten today — that was something we saw in him,” spokesman Travis Gonzolez said. “He’s so determined and fits perfectly with our brand values.”

The folks at Glaceau, meanwhile, see themselves on the cutting edge in launching a campaign with vitaminwater to get fans in the District to vote him as a starter for the All-Star Game.

“Vitaminwater has been a fan of Gilbert’s for many years,” said Rohan Oza, Glaceau’s senior vice president of marketing. “We felt that now was the time for everyone to know him.”

Benaza, Arenas’ marketing rep, said she believes things are on the verge of happening for her client. He’s not getting bumped off of magazine covers as often, for one thing (though ESPN the Magazine did replace him with Peyton Manning last week).

“I think everyone has just been playing catch-up to what he’s been doing,” Benaza said. “It’s a bit slow, but this year is different. He’s seeing more receptiveness.”

It is easy to forget, of course, that Arenas is only in his fifth season and that many of the players with whom he’s competing for endorsements have been in the spotlight for much longer.

“Gilbert is 25 — these things will come,” Gonzolez said. “He’s got plenty of time. When you look at the bigger picture, he’s right on par with what everybody else is doing.”

WHAT DO THEY HAVE THAT GILBERT DOESN’T?

The most marketable players in the NBA, according to Davie Brown Entertainment. A look at the players’ pluses and minuses as endorsers:

LeBron James

Pros:

• Top overall draft pick in 2003 and the most-hyped rookie in league history.

• Appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior.

• Energetic, clearly loves the game.

• Named rookie of the year in 2003.

• Three-time All-Star.

Cons:

• Plays in Cleveland.

• Has won just one playoff series.

Dwyane Wade

Pros:

• Won a title with the Heat and was named MVP of the finals.

• Named one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2006.

• Is there anything objectionable about Dwyane? We couldn’t find anything.

Cons:

• Overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by teammate Shaquille O’Neal.

• First name gets misspelled a lot.

Shaquille O’Neal

Pros:

• A larger-than-life personality, even for a 7-footer.

• He’s intelligent and has a sense of humor — and a police badge.

• Four-time NBA champion.

• Named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

Cons:

• No longer the best player on his team, much less in the league.

• Still can’t shoot free throws.

Yao Ming

Pros:

• First pick overall in the 2002 draft.

• At 7-6, one of the tallest players in NBA history.

• The most high-profile player to come from China, a market targeted by the NBA.

• One of the most easily recognized players in the league.

Cons:

• Has been injury-prone over the past two seasons.

• Has yet to win a playoff series.

Carmelo Anthony

Pros:

• Won an NCAA championship at Syracuse.

• Third pick overall in the 2003 draft.

• Member of the U.S. Olympic team.

• Stylish and highly popular among young fans.

Cons:

• Plays in Denver.

• Viewed as kind of a thug. Appearance in “Stop Snitchin’ ” video didn’t help.

• Now teamed with Allen Iverson, he may never see the ball again.

Vince Carter

Pros:

• Fifth selection overall in the 1998 draft.

• Seven-time All-Star.

• Rookie of the year in 1999.

• NBA slam dunk champion in 2000.

• Still an exciting player to watch.

Cons:

• Has won just two playoff series.

• Intensely unpopular in Toronto, where his career began.

• His play never is equal to his ego.

Steve Nash

Pros:

• Two-time MVP, four-time All-Star.

• Named by Time Magazine as one of its “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

• He’s a nice guy.

Cons:

• Well-spoken but too soft-spoken.

• Not a prolific scorer.

• Can’t pull off a tomahawk dunk from the free throw line.

• He’s from Canada, a country better known for pucks than roundball.

Kevin Garnett

Pros:

• Eleven-time All-Star.

• MVP of the league in 2004.

• Member of gold-winning U.S. Olympic team in 2000.

• One of the most versatile, hard-working and durable players in the NBA.

Cons:

• Plays in Minnesota.

• Went seven years before winning his first and only playoff series with the T’wolves.

Tim Duncan

Pros:

• Named the nation’s best college basketball player in 1997.

• First pick overall in the 1997 draft.

• Named rookie of the year in 1998.

• Led the Spurs to three NBA titles.

• Three-time MVP of the finals.

• League MVP in 2002 and 2003.

Cons:

• Plays in San Antonio.

• So good, he’s downright boring.

Dirk Nowitzki

Pro:

• Best player on playoff-perennial Mavericks.

Con:

• Not exactly the sexiest guy on the court.

Tony Parker

Pro: Two-time NBA champion.

Con:

• He dates Eva Longoria. We don’t.

Arenas and Adidas

About a year ago, Gilbert Arenas was ticked off at Adidas. He was feeling a bit disrespected, believing the company was giving greater exposure to its other clients.

Things have been smoothed over since.

In December, the company began selling the new “Gil Zero” shoe, one of the few low-top basketball shoes on the market. A high-profile launch event and national television spots followed.

Adidas now is in early discussions with Arenas to make him one of the most visible spokesmen for not only its basketball division but the company as a whole.

Arenas has done his part, promoting the shoe whenever possible and finding little ways to give it additional exposure, as he did last week by changing shoes midgame.

Taking his vitamins

Arenas has been drinking Glaceau’s vitaminwater for years simply because he likes it. Now, he’s a paid endorser for the company and an investor, too.

[ Glaceau is preparing to roll out a new drink that was formulated with input from Arenas and a handful of other athletes.

“GIlbert is very strategic about who he partners with,” said Rohan Oza, Glaceau’s senior vice president of marketing. “With him, it’s about finding a product that works for him.”

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