The leg looked as if it belonged to someone who had been in a coma for a year, not a world-class athlete who a year earlier had signed a $111 million contract. Atrophy set in; signals weren’t being sent properly. The muscles in Gilbert Arenas’ left leg, in essence, had been switched to “off.”
Those were the findings of trainer Tim Grover when the Washington Wizards’ three-time NBA All-Star turned three-time surgery patient reported this summer to Attack Athletics, a Chicago training facility with a client roster of high-profile athletes.
“A lot of things weren’t firing - his glutes, his hips, thighs,” Mr. Grover said in a telephone interview Monday night. “I wouldn’t say his condition was the most severe, I wouldn’t say it was the best. … But if I were to classify it on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the most extreme, I’d say he was definitely in the seven, eight category.”
And now, less than two weeks before the Wizards start training camp, Arenas and Mr. Grover say the guard is at full strength and better than ever - a claim that, if true, makes his decision to finally work with Mr. Grover look brilliant and, perhaps, career-saving.
“Nobody could guard me before, and can’t nobody guard me now,” Arenas, 27, told The Washington Times last week, breaking a silence he maintained since departing for Chicago in July. “If I hadn’t come up here, I’d be starting off the season with a 95 percent chance that I’d be sitting out more games. … [Mr. Grover] saved my career.”
Arenas was one of the best and most electrifying players in the National Basketball Association when he tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee near the end of the 2006-07 season. He underwent surgery, made an aborted comeback attempt the next season, underwent surgery again, came back later that season and underwent a third surgery that kept him out of all but two games last season.
Arenas credits Mr. Grover, who earned his reputation for his work with former NBA superstar Michael Jordan, for bringing that painful saga to a conclusion and says he harbors no ill will toward the Wizards’ doctors and trainers.
Still, Arenas to some degree blames the club for his failed comebacks over the past two seasons, saying he was given too much power over his own situation.
“They handled me going off what they had seen before and said, ‘You can’t lift weights because you might chip a bone,’ ” Arenas said. “That’s their experience. Everybody has theirs. It took me two years to realize that I was a case study. Ultimately, I can prove I can get hurt, sit out two years and come back and be as good as I was.
“If you have a kid that loves basketball, that eats, sleeps, drinks and thinks basketball and all he knows is basketball and he gets hurt and he’s your franchise player, you need to hold him back from himself,” Arenas said. “If I’m saying I feel good and you know it’s supposed to take six months, instead of letting me at four months run … they should have held me back. Rather than saying, ‘Let’s let this guy do what he wants and use him to sell tickets’ - sometimes you have to protect players from themselves. I don’t feel like I got that type of protection. But, I don’t judge them for that. Some things just happen. I told them I felt OK because I wanted to play, and they did what they did.”
The experience left his body - especially that left leg - in bad shape when he reported to Mr. Grover in Chicago.
Arenas had declined offers the previous two offseasons from Mr. Grover, who recently opened a 65,000-square-foot complex on Chicago’s Near West Side.
This summer, after two frustrating years, Arenas had a change of heart.
The methods he and the Wizards’ medical team tried had failed, so Arenas charged Mr. Grover and company with rebuilding him into the superstar who averaged 27.7 points a game from 2004 to 2007.
“It was a pretty extensive process,” Mr. Grover said. “We had to get his range of motion back in the leg, did a lot of acupuncture, a lot of work. We put a game plan together and attacked it from as many angles as we could. Gil would work with four or five individuals from my staff each day. … It was, ‘OK, Gil, you’re going to be spending a good six to seven hours a day in here and a lot of treatment, and it’s all pieces of the puzzle to putting you back together to being the player you were before - and better.’ ”
That’s right - better.
“The plan was not to have him play as good as he had in the past, but to play better than in the past,” said Mr. Grover, who daily has watched Arenas play against fellow Attack clients and NBA stars such as Dwyane Wade, O.J. Mayo and Tracy McGrady. “I have no reason to believe that won’t happen. But it won’t shock me at all to see him as an All-Star again this season, a 20-plus-point scorer, probably the comeback player of the year.”
Arenas said his legs indeed are stronger than they were before his injury. And after playing regularly in Mr. Grover’s facility, a Chicago Pro-Am league and the occasional pickup game on weekend visits to Washington, Arenas appears as confident as ever.
Arenas had braced himself for the prospect that he might never return to the form that made him one of the league’s best players and most popular figures. Last spring, after averaging 13 points and 10 assists in the only two games he played during the 2008-09 season, he predicted he would morph into a traditional distributor/floor general point guard under new coach Flip Saunders.
But now, Arenas is back to his old self, eschewing the “true point guard” label and determined to attack as aggressively as ever.
“I had been hurt, was hearing everyone say, ‘Oh, they don’t have a traditional point guard,’ so I figured, ‘Hey, maybe that’s what I need to be.’ ” Arenas said. “But you know what? What is a floor general? What’s ‘pure point guard’? At the end of the day, you’re not going to be able to prove everybody wrong or right. If I average 10 points and 10 assists, then it’s, ‘Oh, he’s not back to what he was.’ If I score 45 and four assists, then it’s, ‘Oh, he’s not a true point guard.’
“So, if you don’t go out and win a championship in three years, there’s always going to people doubting you.”
But can the Wizards win a championship, a title that would require the club to rise from second-worst in the league to first?
Team captains Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison say that with Arenas, center Brendan Haywood and shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson now healthy and with the offseason addition of Mike Miller, Randy Foye and Fabricio Oberto, the Wizards have a legitimate shot at contending for a championship.
Arenas - normally the one for brash predictions and bold statements - this time declines to join in.
“Where did we finish in the East last year?” he asked. “Last. Then until we prove ourselves, that’s what we are. You can’t predict. Anyone can guess where we’re gonna be at. But until the ball goes up in the air, we’re last in the East. We took some steps in the right direction this summer, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what I saw. If you wanna say stuff, it’s just for conversation, just for the chat rooms. And it’s all great and wonderful, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Arenas has a simple list of personal goals: “Stay healthy, work hard and enjoy.” Regaining his All-Star status, he says, is not on the radar. Instead, his sights are set on more elite status.
“All-Star’s not my goal. I never wanted to be an All-Star. All-Star is the 24 hottest players at that time. All-League? That’s my goal,” said Arenas, who was named to the All-NBA second team in 2006-07 and twice made the third team. “All-League is only 15 players. So All-League and to play as many games as possible. That’s it.”
Unlike in past years when Arenas would give the new season a theme - he dubbed the 2006-07 campaign “The Takeover” and the ‘07-08 season “Reloaded” - the guard offers no such title for this, his third comeback.
“I don’t have no theme,” he said. “I just wanna go play basketball because I haven’t been able to the last two years. It’s no Takeover, it’s no Reloaded. I just wanna play.”