Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Gilbert Arenas added his considerable presence and financial muscle to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort at the D.C. Armory this week, delivering $18,000 worth of clothing and toiletries to the makeshift evacuee center.

“You can see what they have been through by the look on their faces,” the 23-year-old NBA All-Star says. “I’m just trying to cheer them up.”

This is the flip side of a coin that usually lands only one way.

Professional athletes routinely see their foibles displayed in big, bold headlines in the newspaper, as we lament their sense of entitlement and lack of discipline outside their insulated venues.

But we rarely read of their charitable acts, of which there are many. Oh, we may hear of an athlete giving to this or that cause, in some sort of distant, tax-deductible way. But mostly, we read of a professional athlete engaged in a paternity suit or up on a DUI charge or some other failing.

Mr. Arenas, however, is a professional athlete who sees the world beyond the cheers at the MCI Center, and it is not always a pretty world. It sometimes is a world of hopelessness and despair, and a tiny piece of that world is coming to the District from the devastated Gulf Coast region.

The victims are without homes, without belongings, without anything, really, other than their lives and the clothes on their backs. The victims are coming out of their nightmare. But their hard journey is not done. No one is about to confuse the D.C. Armory with a genuine home. It is merely a temporary shelter being made as comfortable as possible.

Mr. Arenas went there to show a familiar face, to show that he cares, to provide a momentary tonic to the pain and uncertainty. He did not have to do that, of course. He could have written a check and sent others to do the work. He could have held a press conference and puffed out his chest and urged others to do the same.

Instead, Mr. Arenas expressed his humanity in the flesh. In this way, he has not lost his connection to those who have so much less than him. He keeps it real in a positive way. Perhaps that is his father in him, to whom he answers out of respect and love. His is the single-parent father who set him on his basketball path in Los Angeles. He is the father who still lets his displeasure be known whenever the son has the occasional knucklehead moment on the basketball floor.

This is not the first time Mr. Arenas has rolled up his sleeves around tragedy. He has come to be a surrogate older brother/father figure of 10-year-old Andre McAllister, who lost his mother, twin sister, great-grandfather and a cousin in a row-house fire in Southeast near Capitol Hill last December.

Mr. Arenas has befriended the boy in the absence of a family unit, taking him to the movies, sending him to summer camps and funding a back-to-school shopping spree.

These are genuine acts of selflessness, as opposed to a publicity stunt, none more absurd and comical than the sight of actor Sean Penn bailing water from a tiny rescue boat in New Orleans that included his personal photographer and entourage.

Mr. Arenas is cut from a different cloth, as those who follow the fortunes of the Washington Wizards have come to know. He tears off his jersey after games at home and tosses it into the crowd. The estimated $100 cost of the fan-friendly gesture comes out of his pocket. But that is him. There is a joy to him. There is an appreciative air about him.

His diligent work habits already are the stuff of legend. But you sense he feels fortunate, too. Even lucky. And it is this sense that compels him to give back to those in need in his adopted city.

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