- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The disapproving scowl. The adoring masses. The extra-large bags of ice. All of it gone. The grumpy old man has left the building, and if the Washington Wizards haven’t purged every trace of Michael Jordan’s brief, semi-inglorious tenure, they’ve come awfully close — right down to their once-drab locker room, now resplendent in track lighting.

“This [year] is a clean slate, a new beginning,” says Christian Laettner, standing outside the team’s remodeled lockers. “The room looks good. I don’t know if it goes any deeper.”

Game night. The Philadelphia 76ers are in town. It’s an hour before tipoff, and Washington’s MCI Center digs really do seem more inviting. Following Jordan’s acrimonious offseason departure, the Wizards spent more than $65million on a franchise-wide facelift. Thousands went to the locker and weight rooms. The rest paid for a new coach and general manager. Not to mention the player rummaging through Juan Dixon’s unoccupied locker, already working on his first steal of the evening.

“You’re taking his shorts?”

The question comes from Larry Hughes, who is laughing and shaking his head, rolling his eyes at the mere thought of Gilbert Arenas. Most of the Wizards already are out on the floor, shooting around. Dixon is absent. Bad idea. Arenas holds Dixon’s game shorts aloft like a fisherman with a prize catch. He flashes an Alfred E. Neuman face, the what-me-worry look of a player who once gave his former Golden State teammates a box of doughnuts … after licking each one ahead of time.

“He’s late,” answers Arenas, clearly delighted. Time for some hide-and-seek? A good ol’ fashioned short soaking? A grinning Arenas won’t say. Dixon’s shorts in hand, the new face of the Wizards exits the room. He is 21 years old. Going on 12.

“Gilbert plays around a lot,” Dixon says. “He has a lot of fun. He’s different.”

• • • •

Media day. Mid-September. Arenas sits on a white plastic folding chair. The NBA’s Most Improved Player last season, he is Washington’s biggest free agent pickup since Bernard King, the club’s most promising young talent since Chris Webber. In a few weeks, the 6-foot-3 guard will record the league’s first triple-double of the year in a home win against the Dallas Mavericks, just his fourth regular-season game with the Wizards.

On this afternoon, however, Arenas is simply the New Kid; in lieu of a name tag, he wears his uniform. First question: What would Arenas do if he didn’t play basketball well enough to fetch a six-year, $64million contract?

Be a comedian, he replies. Or maybe a model. Make that comedian-slash-model. Slash actor.

“Who’s going to read this?” Arenas asks, registering mock horror.

A half-dozen reporters take notes; otherwise, the place is almost empty. Kwame Brown sits by himself at a nearby table. Two years earlier, Jordan’s return prompted the team to build a special stage on its practice court, trimmed with Oz-like black curtains. Before the assembled throng, the Greatest Player Who Ever Lived spoke of scratching an itch. Of teaching by example. The congregation nodded. They had heard the word, and the word was good because it did not yet include swollen knees and 7-for-21 shooting nights.

Among the things Jordan was supposed to inspire: the children, the downtown economy, a team that’s made the playoffs exactly once in the last two decades.

Problem was, the old lion couldn’t relate to his teammates’ lack of urgency. The younger Wizards couldn’t relate to a middle-aged control freak whose pregame ritual involved listening to Jill Scott. The postseason never materialized. At the MCI Center sports shop, surplus No. 23 jerseys now go for half off.

“It’s a lot more fun [this season],” Hughes says. “We have a lot of guys who are close in age — five, six, seven guys who like to play video games, hang out. For the most part, we’re like the same people. It’s easier to get along.”

Arenas is of a like mind. He throws his jersey into the stands. Plays pickup hoops at a nearby gym. Before notching his triple-double, he killed time in the MCI Center arcade by blasting digital zombies with a light gun.

“I’ve got 300 video games, 300 movies,” he says. “I’m still trying to be a kid. I really don’t want to feel like an adult.”

Not a problem. Disregarding traffic, Arenas always takes the same route and the same car to MCI Center. Lucky for him, his tricked-out Cadillac Escalade sports four television screens. “Nah, I don’t watch,” Arenas says, grinning. “Actually, I do. I even played games once, just sitting in traffic.”

Raised in Southern California, Arenas chose between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Wizards by flipping a quarter. The coin said stay. Arenas headed east. Following a team practice in Chicago last season, Arenas tossed the towels of Golden State rookies Jiri Welch and Mike Dunleavy into the shower, then ambushed the wet, shivering pair with a snowball attack in the parking lot. “You don’t want to be too uptight about anything,” Arenas says. “Especially your job.”

Tell that to Brown. During two joyless seasons as Jordan and Collins’ favorite whipping boy, the stress was written all over Brown’s broken-out face. As such, he appreciates any effort at locker room levity. “Even when you feel down, you can’t help but want to hear what [Arenas] is going to say,” Brown said. “If you find a serious moment in Gilbert Arenas, let me know.”

A serious moment: Arenas is ticked. His bloody, puffy lips resemble crimson-colored cotton candy. The Wizards have just lost a close game to the 76ers; en route to a season-high 36 points, Arenas swallowed a mouthful of elbow from Philadelphia’s Samuel Dalembert.

Arenas finds Dalembert just outside the Sixers’ locker room. The lanky center has eight inches and 60 pounds on Arenas. No mind. “You don’t do that here!” Arenas says angrily. Sixers center Marc Jackson convinces his former Golden State teammate to calm down. Heading back to his locker, a simmering Arenas passes team owner Abe Pollin. Close call. “I guess he got hit in the mouth,” Sixers guard Aaron McKie says. “But I don’t get into that. Every guy gets upset after games.”

Some guys more than others. With the Warriors, Arenas was known to smash clipboards; good friend and former teammate Jason Richardson nicknamed him “baby Ron Artest,” a homage to the Indiana Pacers’ resident hothead. When the San Antonio Spurs took a 16-point halftime lead over Golden State last season, Arenas threw his chair into a locker room wall. He then took a cold shower — in uniform. Soaked, he returned to the floor and scored 24 second-half points. “As happy as I am off the floor, on the floor I’m the opposite,” says Arenas, whose 13 technical fouls led the Warriors last season. “I don’t take any crap.”

Pollin doesn’t mind. At least not for now. Maybe he appreciates performance: Through 10 games, Arenas is averaging 20.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Or perhaps the league’s senior owner recalls last season’s bitter end, when Jordan carped about his teammates’ lack of fight. The Wizards responded with a 20-point loss in Jordan’s final game. Washington’s opponent? None other than the Sixers.

“Gilbert is one of the most competitive guys I’ve been around in many years,” Pollin said after the Dalembert incident. “He’s also extremely talented and very young. When you mix those qualities together, sometimes they are combustible.”

• • •

Arenas needs a haircut. So he claims. As he slouches on a couch in the MCI Center player’s lounge, a Wizards staffer asks whether he’s ready to film a spot for the team. Uh-uh, he answers. Not when I look like this. Truth be told, Arenas is simply camera shy. He once tried out for a Sprite commercial starring Orlando Magic forward Grant Hill. Though he went with his father, Gilbert Jay, a part-time actor, the audition lasted all of five minutes.

“When I saw all the bright lights, I was like, ‘I can’t do this, dad,’” he recalls.

Father and son are close. When Arenas was 3, his mother walked out of his life. (Arenas has seen her once since, at a game in Miami last year). Arenas was a day away from a foster home when his father assumed custody; five years later, he packed his son into a Mazda RX-7 and headed off to California. The two arrived in Burbank with less than $200 and briefly lived in a YMCA. Arenas Sr. later worked the graveyard shift for UPS, waking up at 1a.m. to lift boxes.

“By the time I got home from school, he was off to audition [for acting parts]” Arenas recalls. “I was an only child. I wanted attention. I had all this energy.”

Arenas became a neighborhood nuisance — breaking windows, carving his initials into car doors, picking fights with other kids. Basketball was his outlet. He began playing at age 11. Soon, Arenas was sneaking off to a nearby playground in the middle of the night.

“I never told my dad this, but when he’d go to work, I’d get up right after him,” he says. “It would still be dark, and I’d be working on stuff before school.”

The Warriors made Arenas the 31st pick in the 2001 draft — a bitter pill for a college standout who expected to be a lottery selection. Pro scouts saw Arenas as a classic ‘tweener: Too short to play off-guard, too shot-happy to play point. As a rookie, he found himself buried behind Hughes, Mookie Blaylock and Bobby Sura. To keep sharp, he finagled a key to Golden State’s practice court, where he practiced at all hours. He also played pickup ball at local parks — never mind that his $850,000 rookie contract didn’t allow it. “Those guys come at you hard because you’re in the NBA,” he says. “So at least you get to work on something.”

Arenas is still working on his maturity. Benched during the second half of a Golden State game last season, he skipped practice the next day. Last June, he was charged with driving without a license and possessing a concealed weapon. For disciplinary reasons, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan sat Arenas during the third quarter of a recent game in Cleveland. “That’s my problem right now,” Arenas says. “I don’t want to grow up. But I have to.”

Game night, again. Eddie Jordan stands outside Washington’s locker room, chatting with reporters. The Wizards are caught in a four-game skid, but for the first time in a long time, the franchise is functional . The coach is just a coach. The de facto GM isn’t wearing a Bullets throwback jersey. The other Jordan rebuilt the club with youth. He didn’t have the patience to see things through.

“Last year was more of a let’s get this playoff thing done now, now, now, by all means necessary,” the Wizards’ new coach says. “Now, we have the same mindset. We want to compete for a championship. But we want to be realistic. We have to grow, let these guys mature.”

Around the corner is a hallway. The walls are decked with framed photos of past and present Wizards. The former President of Basketball Operations is MIA. Inside the locker room, Brendan Haywood slips on a pair of Air Jordans, a totemic reminder of days past. For his part, Arenas prefers low-cut track shoes.

“I don’t have a shoe deal,” he admits. “I’m a free agent.”

The New Kid tightens his laces. He has the rest of his life to get his silhouette on a pair of signature sneakers. For now, nondescript footwear will do just fine. Such is youth. Vive le difference.

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