- The Washington Times - Monday, October 26, 2009

Gilbert Arenas Part I was the tale of an unlikely hero: a second-round pick turned three-time All-Star. But the installment ended both abruptly and disastrously with the star lying on the basketball court, his left knee blown out and in need of surgery.

Arenas Part II was supposed to be the triumphant return but, as do most sequels, proved disappointing. The guard endured two more surgeries and two more failed comebacks.

The Washington Wizards are waiting to see how the third chapter of Arenas’ story plays out, but judging by early indications, there’s cause for optimism.

After seeking the services of master athletic trainer Tim Grover in Chicago, Arenas returned to the District, proclaiming his legs - even the one with the thrice surgically repaired knee - stronger than his pre-injury days and declaring he intended to regain his All-NBA status and help the Wizards rebound from the 19-63 campaign they endured in his absence last season.

Arenas went through a rigorous training camp without a hitch, then put up 14.7 points and 6.5 assists in 25 minutes a game this preseason. He even played back-to-back games and reported no problems the following day.

But can Part III really rival the original? Having been sidelined for the better part of two years, can Arenas regain the production worthy of the six-year, $111 million contract the Wizards gave him in the summer of 2008 before he was even deemed healthy (which he ended up not being)?

A dominant comeback following such a long stretch off is a rarity but not impossible. Bernard King sat out all of the 1985-86 season for the Knicks and all but the final six games of the following year while recovering from a knee injury. He found elite form again after reinventing his game, going from post-up player to one who scored with his face to the basket. His finest post-injury season was the 1990-91 campaign, when he averaged 28.4 points for the Washington Bullets.

More often than not, however, if a player experiences a serious injury and endures an extensive layoff, he returns as a shell of his former self.

But what of Arenas?

“It’s hard to say,” teammate DeShawn Stevenson said when asked to gauge Arenas’ progress. “We have some games where he looks good, then he didn’t look good because he played a lot of minutes, so I don’t know. But I’m not worried about it. He comes in and works on his game every day. There’s a reason why they pay him $111 million. He works hard, and I’m pretty much not worried about him.”

Retired NBA player Chris Webber suffered a similar injury that required microfracture surgery in 2003. He returned to play portions of the next five seasons but never regained his dominant form. He said the true test of Arenas’ health will come once the Wizards are in the thick of the regular season.

“I always think… that it’s harder for a smaller guy to get older because so much relies on them getting through picks,” Webber said. “I was frustrated [after surgery] because I couldn’t cover picks, but big guys weren’t supposed to be reliable anyway in that fashion, so I guess big guys get a little bit of a waiver. Just guarding a Tony Parker, I can’t imagine the toll that will take on his knee. I just hope he was worked out with the best.”

Thanks to Grover, Arenas believes he has and will return to his old self.

Unlike his previous comeback attempts, when he either overworked his knee prematurely or simply was unable to train hard at all, this time around Arenas has been able to prepare for the season without limitations. Because of that work, he believes he can be as dangerous as ever.

“Nobody could guard me before, and can’t nobody guard me now,” Arenas said three weeks before the Wizards reported for training camp, his confidence brimming from his strong performances in the Chicago ProAm league over the summer.

Last week, two days removed from a back-to-back against Detroit (24 points, five assists) and Cleveland (18 points, four assists), Arenas remained just as sure of himself.

“When you work out six hours a day, you’re not going to lose a step. It’s just getting your rhythm back in the game,” Arenas said before answering the question of what the greatest challenge of his comeback has been with a simple reply: “Nothing.”

Arenas - once one of the most outspoken and entertaining players in the league - has tried to maintain a low, tight-lipped profile with the media since training camp began. But Wizards co-captain Antawn Jamison said the guarded persona shouldn’t be misinterpreted as Arenas lacking confidence.

“He’s shown signs of his old self: being able to turn it on and take over quarters, making it easy for his teammates,” Jamison said. “He’s got that cocky swagger about himself again. We’ve seen him go through the preseason and not take a day off. I definitely think he’s turned the chapter as far as injuries and being healthy again.”

The Wizards are aware that they gambled when they inked Arenas to the $111 contract and that they have yet to see a return on such a hefty payday. But team president Ernie Grunfeld believes it was one well worth taking and that the final installment of Arenas’ saga soon will show why.

“Gilbert’s an elite player in this league, a three-time All-Star who makes the game easier for his teammates,” Grunfeld said. “People get hurt in this league, but for us, this was a long-term situation, not a few games. It was long term. Players like Gilbert and his talent aren’t easy to find.

“I believe in Gilbert,” Grunfeld said emphatically. “And our coaching staff and his teammates do. We’re all going to see very soon that he’s capable of making this comeback.”



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