- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

The mission was to make 100,000 baskets, a little excessive, but Gilbert Arenas thought it was doable.

Until the pain kicked in.

“My wrist, elbow and arm started hurting and I was scared of maybe getting another injury,” said Arenas, who stopped counting at around 50,000 baskets, 23 days into his project. “But I wasn’t balancing out the workout. I didn’t want to get tendinitis in those areas.”

The three-time All-Star says he has pushed himself harder than at any point in his career to bounce back from the season-ending surgery on his left knee that forced him to miss the final eight regular-season games and the playoffs.

He has transformed his body through a newfound love for weightlifting, and he has spent just about every waking moment pushing his body to limits that he didn’t even know he could reach.

“I’m in better shape now than I have ever been before in my life,” Arenas said yesterday at Verizon Center before conducting an all-access workout for local media. “I don’t have any doubts about it.”

If a tear to the anterior cruciate ligaments are Category 5 hurricanes when it comes to knee injuries, then the a torn meniscus, which Arenas suffered, is probably a tropical depression.

It is the most common reason for knee surgery in the United States, with about 850,000 operations performed on meniscal tears each year.

A sedentary person experiencing such a tear can expect to return to work in about four to eight weeks. And even though that time is longer with professional athletes, full recovery can be expected in about three to four months after surgery.

Dr. Ken Fine, director of sports medicine at George Washington University, is not familiar with the severity of Arenas’ injury but he expects the player to rebound.

“[Meniscal tears] can vary and they are not all the same,” Fine said. “But if the rest of the knee is OK and there is no damage to the ligaments and they are stable, then [Arenas] should be able to get back to playing basketball at a very high level.”

Arenas suffered some stretching of the ligaments that strengthen and support the knee. So he had to wear a walking boot for a month to stabilize the ligaments.

And if Arenas had not gone about his rehabilitation to the letter, he risked a less-than-full recovery.

Maniacal in his approach to conditioning and training, the likelihood of this happening was, well, less than zero.

Since June 1, Arenas has rehabbed nearly seven days a week, splitting up four hours between morning and nighttime workout sessions.

This has put a pinch in the social life of Wizards strength and conditioning coach Drew Cleary, but he is used to it when dealing with Arenas.

In each of the three seasons that the Wizards have been eliminated from the playoffs, Cleary said his phone rang the very next day — Arenas was calling — wanting to get back in the gym and start preparing for next season.

“He has immense talent and he’s addicted to working out,” Cleary said. “That’s a deadly combination.”

Cleary, who says Arenas is obsessive about his workouts, agrees that Arenas is in better shape than he has been at any point in his career with Washington. The 6-foot-4 Arenas cut his weight to 209 pounds — down from the 215 to 220 he played at last season — and estimates that his body fat is less than 5 percent.

On a recent balmy night in August, when other 25-year-olds are preparing for the club scene, Arenas has just finished running up and down every flight of stairs in the upper bowl at Verizon Center — with a 20-pound weight jacket draped over him.

Earlier that day Arenas was on the practice court, a windowless room that on that day felt like an incubator. Everyone else on the court wore on shorts, some were bare chested. But Arenas — who has lost 10 pounds in the last month — played in a heavy, cotton, hooded sweat suit.

“He likes to sweat,” Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld said, half-smiling.

The night time weight training also has paid off.

“He’s ripped,” teammate Caron Butler said.

Arenas has worked out at different times this summer with Butler, who like Arenas was an All-Star last season. Washington’s 2006-07 season — when the Wizards ranked second in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break — imploded when in the span of 72 hours in early April, Butler (broken hand) and Arenas suffered their season-ending injuries.

They have shared the practice court in the mornings, with both players getting up “1,000 makes” each, according to Butler.

Butler also proclaims himself fully healed. And he too is sporting a more defined physique.

Earlier this week he recalled watching Arenas take the court for the first time, back in August, after suffering the injury.

He remembers a player that was tentative and unsure of himself. He recounted seeing Arenas’ confidence taking baby steps all summer, starting with pickup games at Berry Farms.

So does Arenas.

“First week I couldn’t touch the rim. Second week I could grab it. Third week I was dunking and then, finally, I started to dominate.”

Still, just how ready Arenas will be for the start of training camp on Tuesday at VCU’s Siegel Center remains a mystery to his teammates.

“I haven’t seen him go full speed yet, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” Butler admitted. “From a basketball standpoint, you see basketball people go through transition and adversity.

“I saw him early on,” Butler continued. “Saw him at Barry Farms and you could see him getting stronger. Now he is starting to show flashes and he’s not playing in any pain. So I’m like, ‘OK, he’s getting back to his old self.’ Now you can see the rhythm coming. I think he’s not there yet, but he’s going to be his old self in a couple of weeks.”

Arenas has kept up the Spartan workouts despite the distractions that are natural once a player achieves elite status.

On Thursday he was in New York to promote EA Sports NBA Live — he’s on the cover this year. He has just recently released his own sneaker through Adidas (GilZero), and he also has endorsement deals with Spalding and Vitamin Water.

Pushing all of these products resulted in a demanding summer full of travel obligations, but Arenas says he never missed a workout.

“Basketball is still one of the most important things in my life — I love it,” Arenas said.

That may be true, but his father, Gilbert Arenas Sr. says that the births of his son’s children in the last two years have reshuffled the deck.

He has always had the work ethic, even when he was at Golden State and the veterans on the team saw him as a little loopy. But when daughter, Izela, and her younger brother, Alijah, were born, Arenas, Sr., who raised Gilbert Jr. by himself, says his son changed in an instant.

“The kids have changed him more than anything,” Arenas Sr. said. “He’s more humble, more responsible. I see a lot of me in him when I was raising him. When I had him I couldn’t do the parties and I couldn’t hang out.”

It is this kind of focus that the father believes will drive the son back to the high level that he has achieved since the Wizards signed him in the summer of 2003.

“From Day One when he starts something and says he will be ready by a certain time you can believe that he will,” Arenas Sr. said. “He is not going to come in half-stepping. He understands that the things he goes through, as long as they don’t kill him, will only make him stronger.”

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