- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

LAS VEGAS.

Playing a combined 25 minutes, scoring only eight points and missing 12 of his 15 shots, Gilbert Arenas’ first two NBA All-Star Games weren’t exactly coming-out parties. He came off the bench and got lost in the shuffle behind Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Dwyane Wade.

But Arenas’ time in the All-Star shadows has officially ended.

The Washington Wizards guard, who is tied for second in scoring this season, will start for the Eastern Conference tonight at Thomas & Mack Center.

And Arenas, never one to give a boring sound-bite, issued his teammates and opponents a challenge after the East’s practice yesterday at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

Arenas wants this All-Star Game to be unique.

“I’m going to do something different,” he said. “As soon as the ball tips, I’m going to go hard and see if everybody responds to that. I go back and remember games like in 1995 and they went hard the whole way and were playing basketball.

“That’s the approach we need to have. We have to get back to that. I don’t want to lose. You can do all of the little fun stuff like throwing the ball between your legs. But for me, it’s about winning and that’s when my competitive mode will kick in.”

Arenas has scored 40 or more points in seven games this season, including 60 against the Los Angeles Lakers in December. Playing in a game that frowns on defense, on a team coached by the Wizards’ Eddie Jordan and with stars that are willing to pass, the stage seems ideal for Arenas.

“Gilbert’s going to go off, definitely,” said Wizards teammate Caron Butler, an East reserve. “He can score 50 or 60 points in any game and in a game like this, where everything is pretty loose, he’s going to have his opportunities.”

Two years ago, Arenas played 15 minutes and was 3-for-11 from the field. Last year, he played 10 minutes (the fewest of any player), missed all four field goal attempts and managed a single point.

In those two games, Arenas admitted the games were still “amazing,” despite playing the role of spectator.

But this season — because he has continued to round out his game, because the Wizards lead their division and because he has solidified his standing as the face of the District sports scene with his post-game jersey tosses, prolific scoring and boundless energy — is different for Arenas.

He wants to play a lot (which he will), he wants to get scoring opportunities (which he will) and he wants to improve his personal All-Star record to 3-0.

The Arenas the league will see tonight is different than the 2005 and 2006 versions.

“He gets better and better each year and just when you think he’s gotten to his peak, he gets better,” Butler said. “That’s what you love to see from a great player.”

Arenas’ story has been well documented. Only two scholarship offers after college … selecting No. 0 to reflect the playing time his myriad doubters thought he would receive at Arizona … leading the Wildcats to the 2001 national title game … falling to the 31st pick in the NBA Draft … playing two solid but not spectacular seasons with Golden State … signing a $66 million free agent deal with the Wizards … and becoming a franchise player during his three-plus seasons in the District, raising his scoring average from 19.6 to 25.5 to 29.3 and averaging 28.8 this season.

“His confidence is at an all-time high level right now,” Detroit guard Chauncey Billups said. “He’s a problem out there for every team they play.”

Unlike former top picks like Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Tim Duncan — who will also start tonight — Arenas broke through barrier after barrier, which makes his starting assignment more gratifying.

“I came from the bottom to where I am now,” he said. “I can say I know what it feels like to work for everything. … I never imagined this growing up. You always wanted to be an All-Star, but three consecutive times? That’s amazing.”

In the voting process, Arenas rallied from more than 200,000 votes behind to edge New Jersey’s Vince Carter by 3,010 votes, the fourth-closest margin for a starting spot in league history. Arenas — who admitted he used to vote for himself on the Internet but saw his fans do the heavy lifting this year — paid some of his fans back yesterday.

After the East team’s practice (and O’Neal’s impromptu break-dancing contest), Arenas distributed 100 No. 0 All-Star jerseys, valued at $175 apiece, to the crowd. The jersey had “Agent” instead of “Arenas” on the back.

“Those are the people that made me a starter,” he said. “It’s become my signature move. When I leave this league, I want people, when they think and talk about me, to remember that I gave back. … It does feel different because this is what you dream of. You dream of playing in this game. I always used to vote from my favorite players, guys like Penny Hardaway and so for me to get picked, it’s been a wonderful thing.”

Arenas, who hails from nearby Southern California, has several friends and family members in town for the game and bought 21 tickets. But as much as he likes to have a good time, he said Friday, “I’m going to bring it down a notch,” which means he’s either totally serious about creating havoc for the West All-Stars or doesn’t want to mingle with the nearly 100,000 people who have stormed the Strip this weekend.

Arenas said he turned in at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, giving him plenty of rest for the 11 a.m. practice, during which he hit a halfcourt jump shot.

“It’s been wild here but fun,” he said. “Just getting outside the hotel and getting in the car last night was tough. It was like, get in the car at 11, get to the first stop light at about midnight, get to the second light at 1:30. And by the time you get to the club, the party is over and you’re left saying, ‘Boy, that car ride was great!’

“We’re having fun but we’re also professionals. We’re being reasonable and know we have to be on time for everything. This group knows how to hang out but knows when to call it a night and when to go to work.”

Arenas also knows how to create some additional interest in a game that is usually seen as a glorified pick up game. He has challenged his teammates and opponents (and he certainly wants to go mano-a-mano against the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant) to match his intensity level. Arenas obviously subscribes to the Chaos Theory — the good kind. It keeps him interested.

“It’s like a kid who has a favorite doll and he doesn’t go anywhere without it,” he said. “That’s how I am. That’s what I know. I have to create a buzz to stay motivated and keep me going.”


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