- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

Even before the NBA reversed a no-call against Philadelphia’s Samuel Dalembert yesterday, agreeing that the boisterous protests of Washington’s Gilbert Arenas in Tuesday’s 112-105 loss to the 76ers did indeed have merit, Wizards owner Abe Pollin had no intentions of criticizing Arenas’ actions immediately following the game.

In fact, it sounded almost as if the fighting spirit Arenas exhibited — he headed to the 76ers’ locker room to confront the 6-foot-11 Dalembert only to be thwarted in the tunnel by present Sixer and former Golden State teammate Marc Jackson — sat well with the league’s senior owner.

“Gilbert is one of the most competitive guys I’ve been around in many years,” Pollin said. “He’s also extremely talented and very young. When you mix those three qualities together, sometimes they are combustible. As he gains more and more experience, Gilbert will learn how to harness and channel those qualities and allow them to work for him.”

The last six days have been very interesting for Arenas. On the court, he has delivered exactly what the franchise is looking for: the team’s first triple double in four years and a season-high 36 points Tuesday.

But the good has been accompanied by some ugly. Along with his attempted postgame visit to Dalembert, Arenas was benched by coach Eddie Jordan for the entire third quarter of last weekend’s loss to Cleveland.

This is what Arenas is. It is what president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld knew he was getting when he made the point guard Washington’s biggest free-agent signing since Bernard King in 1987. And Grunfeld, like Pollin, isn’t anywhere near ready to cast aspersions concerning Arenas.

“Things like that happen,” Grunfeld said of Tuesday’s incident. “Gilbert is very competitive. That was a physical game, and we don’t want our players to back down from anyone. Gilbert didn’t, and he shouldn’t have. I love his spirit and his competitive nature, and I love the attitude that winning and losing matter to him.”

Arenas, who is just 21, was involved in taunting some Toronto players in an 86-60 rout of the Raptors that was part of the reason Jordan benched him against Cleveland.

However, in the MCI Center loss to Philadelphia, anyone who saw the 250-pound Dalembert’s elbow smash into Arenas’ mouth and the resulting blood knew that something should have been called.

In fact, the reason it was ruled a flagrant foul so quickly is likely because it happened in plain view of good Grunfeld friend and NBA senior vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson. However, Arenas’ reaction displayed the immaturity that was said to be part of his package when he was with Golden State.

Over and over, Arenas implored the referees to look at the replay, although the NBA uses replay only to rule on baskets at the end of quarters. And when team trainer Steve Stricker attempted to swab Arenas’ bloody lips, the player angrily brushed away his hand and spit the cotton to the floor.

However, Arenas never stopped competing down the stretch against the more experienced 76ers, even though he did miss some crucial free throws — perhaps because of a lack of focus — in the waning moments.

“I knew he did it,” Arenas said of Dalembert. “I told the ref I will give you all my money if, when we see each other again, and you say that was not flagrant. I told him I would play for free.”

Arenas and injured Jerry Stackhouse are the only legitimate stars on this 3-4 team. Still, Jordan said yesterday that no player will get star treatment, which explains why Arenas spent the third quarter of the Cleveland game unhappily shackled to the bench.

“If anybody gets outside the realm of what we say is our streak to success, if you get outside the borders, then we’re going to have to do something,” Jordan said. “Whether it’s Gilbert, [backup guard] Chris Whitney or whoever it may be.

“We’re here to help him walk the right path. We have a common goal, to win an NBA championship. And within those borders, those are the rules and regulations we have to live under. You have to live within those boundaries.”

Where the Wizards want to set up shop eventually is in the playoffs, somewhere the team hasn’t been since 1997. To that end, Arenas is as valuable as anyone in the organization.

Pollin, Grunfeld and Jordan knew that Arenas was a bit of a hothead before they bestowed a contract upon him last summer that made him rich beyond his wildest dream. But they also know that attempting to harness the drive that made him the league’s Most Improved Player last season wouldn’t work.

“We want Gilbert to be Gilbert,” Jordan said.

And Arenas, encouraged by the front office’s support, wants to deliver.

“It makes you want to go out there and play even harder when you know someone is out there fighting with you,” Arenas said. “If it’s the players, the coaching staff, the owners — if you know that somebody has got your back, that’s all you can ask for.”

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