NEW YORK – It had been 10 months since Gilbert Arenas played a basketball game that counted – 10 long months since he’d assumed the pose at his locker, waiting for the reporters to converge on him. Waiting for the show.
And somehow, someway, Arenas the performer was back Friday night. Not so much on the court, where he looked understandably hesitant and out of his element. But at his locker, digesting an 18-point performance in his first regular season game since a 50-game suspension for bringing guns to the Verizon Center locker room, Gilbert Arenas finally smiled.
“It was a rough ride for me,” Arenas said after the Wizards lost to the Knicks 112-91 in the official unveiling of the Arenas-John Wall backcourt. “The funny part about it is, I didn’t break down until after everything was over with. That’s the weird part. While I was going through it, I had my teammates saying, ‘Keep your head up’. And then once the season ended and everybody left, I didn’t have anybody to talk to anymore. It was like I was just stuck on that island and that’s when it really hit me hard.”
That was how Arenas looked when I walked into the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden: like a lost soul on an island. A giant ice pack on his left knee, a towel draped over his tattooed legs, Arenas had his eyes closed and his head down when the locker room opened to reporters.
I asked Arenas, the fallen star of the Wizards who hopes to rise again, to describe that breaking point.
“I thought about retiring for a minute, because I really didn’t know what to expect,” Arenas said. “I just thought it was too much negativity for me to come back in. I just didn’t know if I was mentally prepared for it again.”
With $80 million left on his contract, retirement certainly wasn’t an option. But with Wall, the No. 1 pick who had a dismal, nine-turnover night, Arenas knows he’s going to have to adjust. For one, he came off the bench in his first game back. For another, he was hesitant on the attack and did most of his damage on spot-up jumpers. More than anything, Arenas knows there’s hardly a guarantee he’ll be able to resurrect his career alongside the team’s new dominant offensive force and undisputed star of the present and future.
“Players get traded,” Arenas said. “When you look around the league, there’s only a few players that stay with one organization. So while I’m here, I’m going to contribute to the best of my ability and be a great teammate. You know, basketball is basketball, no matter what city you go to. I’ve been here for eight years and I’m happy for that. I could’ve been traded a long time ago, but they hung by and stuck with me. I’m just grateful Ted [Leonsis] believes in me.”
The grim-faced, unemotional Arenas who checked in at the scorer’s table with 2:35 left in the first quarter was a far cry from the showman who’d become one of the sport’s most engaging personalities until his infamous downfall – the joking, cry-for-help display of finger guns on Jan. 5 in Philadelphia, the last time he suited up for a regular season game. Those close to Arenas have been privately pleading with him to go back to being himself – not the caricature who was created to sell tickets and generate lighthearted buzz, but the genuine Arenas, whomever and wherever he is.
The smile, the laughs, the unmistakable look of relief that washed over him at his locker Friday night was a good first step. Though the direction and destination are unknown.
“I was anti-media for a while,” Arenas said. “But you know, it’s part of our jobs. Eventually my personality’s going to come back and kick in. I made mistakes and I’ve got to live with them. I’m just ready to move forward and try to forget about the past. I know it’s going to always be there, but I’m going to try to be a better person and a better teammate.”