THE STORY OF 0
All of his life, Gilbert Arenas has seen himself as the underdog. Now that he has become an NBA phenomenon, he may need to find new motivation.
By Mike Wise Sunday, October 28, 2007; PROPERTY OF THE WASHINGTON POST
AT THE BROOKSTREE APARTMENTS, a low- to middle-income housing complex at the dead end of Valerio Street in Van Nuys, Calif., Gilbert Arenas, 12, made his first jaw-dropping move. A kid had challenged him to jump off the top of the building into the community pool. The height was three stories, maybe 30 feet. But the distance between the ledge and the water was more than enough to produce terror. Young Gilbert would have to leap five to 10 yards through the air, like a long jumper, to miss the concrete and avoid breaking his legs.
With limbs flailing, adrenaline pulsing, he sprinted and jumped. And splashed down safely. The Brookstree boys went wild, and another great American people-pleaser was born.
One other afternoon, the kids upped the ante. Gilbert was dared to make the same jump, only this time adding a back flip. He pulled it off, but his head caught the pool edge.
Mr. Arenas! Mr. Arenas! a young boy yelled toward the apartment where Gilbert and his father lived. Gil hurt.
Gilbert Arenas Sr. came running out. He looked at his son's head and saw a gruesome gash, several inches wide. The cut was deep, and the wound bled for 30 minutes after the accident. "He kept saying, 'Dad, it's okay. I'm okay,'" Gilbert Arenas Sr. remembers. "I'm thinking, that ain't going to go away." Gilbert got stitched up at the emergency room, but the scar is visible today, near the top of his forehead. As he proudly showed it to me last spring in his Indianapolis hotel room, I asked him if now, as a 25-year-old father of two, he had come to appreciate boundaries more since then.
"Boundaries?" he said, snickering. "What are those?"
MID-SEPTEMBER, A HOT, STICKY GYMNASIUM IN THE DISTRICT, seven weeks before the Washington Wizards' 2007-08 season opener. On the court is a mishmash of Arenas's Wizards teammates, unsigned free agents and NBA hopefuls, all of whom are locked in an intense pickup game that means, for Arenas, nothing and everything. He's one of the league's top players, but after a five-month off-season hiatus from this kind of competitive workout, he needs to reestablish his dominance. Now the ball is in his hands near the end of a tight game, and the next basket wins.
"I got this," Arenas says. With a defender's hand in his face, he squares his feet maybe 10 feet behind the three-point line, rises and launches an impossibly long shot from 35 feet. All net.
"Game time!" he calls out.
The losing team trudges off the court. Arenas bobs his head and smiles. His left knee is still sore from inflammation, five months after he underwent surgery for a torn meniscus suffered in a collision during a regular-season game in April. The injury brought a deflating end to a breakout season that saw Arenas eclipse Earl Monroe's 38-year-old single-game franchise scoring record, win a bevy of games at the buzzer, backpack the Wizards to the best record in the NBA's Eastern Conference through late January and basically emerge as the league's new It Guy.
Under the pseudonym "Agent Zero," he wrote an offbeat, candid blog for NBA.com that revealed his more juvenile side, once writing that he had hoped to borrow Heather Mills's artificial leg after she had finished "Dancing With the Stars," so that he could compete in the playoffs with the injury.
In one dizzying year, he went from being considered an enigmatic gunner with questions about his maturity to a refreshing, authentic oddball who could also carry a team. Arenas came to Washington at a time when its woebegone basketball team, on the heels of a bitter breakup with Michael Jordan, was headed toward insignificance. With each season, Arenas has brought more hope and buzz to a franchise that had lost whatever promise came with Jordan.
So, after a summer in which NBA Commissioner David Stern has been dealing with a scandal involving a referee who pleaded guilty to betting on games and providing information to gamblers, and after an absolute dud of a postseason that ended with the San Antonio Spurs sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers and their league-approved poster child LeBron James in four games, professional basketball needs Arenas more than ever.
Balky knee notwithstanding, that's why Arenas is pushing the envelope again. He took one genuine vacation over the summer, a trip to Tahiti with his two young children and their mother, who recently moved into his suburban Virginia home. After he returned, Arenas got an ornate tattoo -- a sturdy tree with vines wrapped around it, covering his entire back. It reads, "Family Is a Haven in a Heartless World."
He also shot a commercial for Adidas in Los Angeles and another in Tennessee for Spalding with Titans quarterback Vince Young. Besides that, his summer was composed of knee rehabilitation. Physical therapy. Lifting. Biking through downtown Washington. Running with two parachutes attached to his back on the track at Cardozo High School, where he recalls a few kids looking down from their classroom windows and yelling, "Gilbert! Gilbert! Is it him? It's him!"
If there is a next plateau for Arenas, it's not merely to lead the Wizards to an NBA title. That's just a destination. Arenas hates the perception that players who never won a championship -- current or future Hall of Famers such as Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller, to name a few -- had disappointing careers. For Arenas, it's about the journey.
"When I leave the NBA," he says, "I don't want my legacy to be, 'He won a championship ring.' I want my legacy to say: 'He played for the people. He gave everybody in the world hope that they can be just like him.'"
LAST SEASON, THERE WERE NIGHTS, BEFORE HE SCORED 40 POINTS or sent another arena into a state of delirium with some implausible circus shot to win a game, that Arenas sat by his cubicle in the Wizards' locker room, bobbing his head to and fro. Lyrics from hip-hop artist The Game penetrated his senses. One of Arenas's favorite riffs by the Compton, Calif., rapper is a duet with 50 Cent. The chorus goes like this:
Hate it or love it, the underdog's on top
And I'm gonna shine, homie, until my heart stop.
From the moment his father picked him up from a dilapidated Miami public housing complex as a young boy to his formative years in Los Angeles, Gilbert Arenas has viewed himself as the under-dog. But why has the NBA's newest superstar -- and arguably the most intriguing Washington athlete in the past two decades -- always felt like he had so much to prove to so many?
He was born January 6, 1982, to 18-year-old Mary Frances Robinson, who dropped out of West Tampa's Jefferson High School once she became pregnant. She and Gilbert Arenas Sr. had already broken up by the time their baby was born. Gilbert Sr. had gone off to Florida Memorial College in Miami to play baseball for an uncle who coached the team and promised him a scholarship. Robinson had moved to public housing with young Gilbert.
A year later, while home for spring break to visit his son, Gilbert Sr. says he came upon Robinson and a friend doing drugs outside. He scolded her, telling Robinson she had a baby upstairs. "You don't need to be doing this," he recalls telling her. Determined to someday obtain full custody of Gilbert, he left angrily.
Two years later, Gilbert and his infant half brother were left alone in a crack house. Gilbert was 3 years old. Soon after, his father received a call from the grandmother of Robinson's other son. Gilbert Sr. recalls the woman, Virginia Huggins, saying: "I have your son with me right now in Miami. I'm giving you an opportunity to be a father."
"I said, 'Hey, look, say no more,'" recalls Gilbert Sr., who was a four-hour drive away in Tampa. "I'll be down there."
When his father arrived, Gilbert slung a plastic bag with three pieces of clothing in it over his shoulder and jumped in the car.
He would never return to Apartment 9 in the Town Park Plaza North Condominiums in the Overtown section of Miami, and he would not see his mother for 18 years.
For the next three years, Gilbert lived in the house his father had grown up in on Cherry Street in West Tampa. His grandmother, Fannie Lee Arenas, raised him while Gilbert Sr. tried unsuccessfully to forge an acting career. When Gilbert was 7, his father had a romantic notion of going to Hollywood and becoming a huge star. Without an agent and armed only with an industry guide that he used to locate studios, Gilbert Sr. and his young son wound up homeless for three nights in Burbank, sleeping in the blue Mazda RX-7 hatchback he had driven across the country.
Gilbert Sr. eventually got a job at an office furniture store and was able to move with his son into the Brookstree Apartments in Van Nuys, where they lived for several stable years until Gilbert's emergence as a basketball player.
ARENAS'S HIGH SCHOOL COACH, HOWARD LEVINE, handed me a dozen photos and two DVDs this past March, saying, simply, "This is who Gilbert was."
We had just finished eating at a Chinese restaurant on a rainy night in Dominguez Hills, Calif., where Levine had performed in a Frank Sinatra tribute band, replete with tux and tails. "It's what I do," he said, as he unfastened his bow tie.
He recalled the first time he saw Arenas play in 1996, during a summer league game. "The first 10 minutes, there was this incredible explosion," he said. "I'd seen it maybe once or twice before in my life. And this lateral movement that was smooth. It was not jerky or anything that came from a 14-year-old kid. He was probably only a half-inch taller than me, maybe 5-9 1/2. But I knew."
Levine immediately pulled Arenas into a vacant corridor outside the gymnasium. "I don't know you from Adam, Gil," he recalled saying to Arenas. "I don't know your background or anything else about you. But watching you play, I know if you really work at this thing, you have a shot at the NBA. I'm not going to give you that line to make sure you play over here. I've seen a lot of basketball players over the years, but I've never seen one like you. If you put your mind to it and work at it, you can play in the NBA."
Arenas says now that Levine was so earnest that he had no reason to doubt him.
"In my mind, I was like, 'Really? I could be in the NBA? Cool. I mean, wow.' Who says that to someone at that age?"
Levine became a seminal figure in Arenas's development. Besides Gilbert Sr., he was the first person who understood and appreciated Arenas's talent and potential. That set him apart from most other high school coaches in Southern California.
Arenas was short and skinny as a young teen, unable to crack 5-foot-8 until high school. He would show up at popular summer basketball camps such as Southern California's annual Pump-N-Run as a virtual unknown among 200 larger, taller kids, many of whom were being recruited by prestigious area high schools. "No one ever knew who I was, but I still ended up making the camp all-star team," Arenas recalls.
His first genuine slight in basketball came his freshman year while failing to start on the junior varsity at well-regarded Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. Al Bennett, the school's longtime varsity coach, made it clear to Arenas and his father that Gilbert would never play for him, Arenas says, and that he simply did not have the tools to play in a highly disciplined offense. Bennett doesn't recall any such conversation, but he acknowledges feeling that Gilbert would play more at another school. Within months, Gilbert Sr. moved to a new district, and Gilbert transferred to Grant High School in Burbank to play for Levine.
In an offense Levine built around him as point guard, Arenas averaged 22 points his sophomore season, 29 his junior season and more than 32 points per game his senior season. One spectacular game in February 1998, during his junior year, catapulted Arenas into conversations regarding the best high school players in the United States.
Against Crenshaw, a national power, he scored 42 points on a buffet of pillowy jump shots and improvisational layups. He used Crenshaw's players as traffic cones. As Levine remembered, fans at the game were screaming in wonder every time Arenas scored, even though Grant lost by 39 points.
In another game as a junior, Arenas scored 46 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had 10 steals and 14 assists -- in basketball parlance, a quadruple-double.
But none of the numbers do the DVDs justice. A bashful, 17-year-old kid in braces fills up the screen, in utter awe of the Los Angeles sportscaster interviewing him. The words overlay amateur video of a Grant High game. In one sequence, Arenas, rather than actually coming down with a defensive rebound, pirouettes in midair and swats the ball past half court to a streaking teammate. But the other kid blows the layup.
Suddenly, a figure comes into the camera frame, rising up over three opposing players, throwing the ball down with two hands. Arenas had covered the length of the floor, dunking back a miss he had rebounded on the other end of the court.
Levine's days as Arenas's mentor were coming to an end. "I knew I was done with Gilbert when he finally beat me in free throws," the coach said. "We shot 100 one day. I really got into an incredible rhythm, you know, just flowing. I [made] 96. Gilbert went for 98."
AMONG THE COLLEGE BASKETBALL POWERS IN HIS OWN BACK YARD, neither UCLA nor USC seriously recruited Arenas, which stung the young star. He attended summer school between his junior and senior years to make sure he would be academically eligible for an NCAA Division I program. But that meant he missed most of the elite summer camps for prep basketball talent, including the Adidas camp in New Jersey and the Nike camp in Indianapolis, where the country's top high school players are evaluated.
Arizona became interested in Arenas only after Coach Lute Olson was spurned by two high-profile recruits. The previous season, Olson had started Ruben Douglas, a freshman point guard, also from Burbank, who appeared to have locked up the position for the foreseeable future.
When Arenas accepted, coaches at other schools questioned his decision to sign with the Wildcats, who three years earlier had won the national championship. "They told him he would play zero minutes for me," Olson says.
The perception that he would sit on the bench at Arizona became a powerful motivation for Arenas. He ditched the No. 25 he had worn in high school in favor of 0. The zero-to-hero theme was born.
"I made myself into what I thought was a big-time player, and nobody in L.A. seemed to care or believe I was any good," Arenas says. "When I started hearing I wouldn't play in college, I would just let it simmer inside me and then be like, 'Okay. That's what you think? Okay.' The number zero was the only way I could express that."
After the first few days of practice, Olson says, he realized a driven Arenas was better than Douglas, who became disenchanted splitting time with Arenas and by midseason transferred to New Mexico.
From the moment Olson gave him free rein in the offense, Arenas delivered. In December of his freshman year, he was named the most valuable player of the preseason NIT tournament at Madison Square Garden -- scoring 20 points against Kentucky in the title game, distributing to teammates and displaying a guile and savvy belying his 17 years.
"When most freshmen would be scared to death, he goes in there like he owns the Garden," Olson recalls.
In two seasons, he averaged 15.8 points a game and helped lead Arizona to the national title game his sophomore year against a veteran Duke team that defeated the Wildcats to win its third championship in 11 years. The 19-year-old Arenas was torn about whether to stay at Arizona or jump to the NBA. When his future agent and at least two NBA teams told him he would be chosen in the first round, he declared himself eligible for the 2001 draft. Olson believed Arenas had an NBA game, but thought one more year at Arizona would enhance his draft status.
The difference between being a first- and second-round pick in the NBA is monumental. Players selected among the first 30 picks are slotted into a salary structure that guarantees the first three years of their contract, which often spirals into the millions. Second-round picks sign for league-minimum salaries and must make the team's roster before they are fully compensated.
Believing he would be selected in the first round, Arenas took out a loan, spent tens of thousands of dollars on a customized Cadillac Escalade and began living like a lavish NBA millionaire. The night of the draft, he sat crestfallen when his name was not called in the first round. At No. 31, he was the first pick of the second round by the Golden State Warriors.
He would have to wait four months to make the team before he could begin to pay off his creditors. Two guards taken ahead of him that day were North Carolina's Joseph Forte, at No. 21, and Southern Methodist's Jeryl Sasser, at No. 22. Neither is still playing in the NBA. Arenas's oft-maligned Wizards teammate Brendan Haywood was selected at No. 20. That year, Michael Jordan and the Wizards chose first and plucked Kwame Brown, who signed a four-year deal worth $17.3 million.
"I was emotionally destroyed after not getting drafted" in the first round, Arenas says. "It wasn't just the money and the fact that I had started spending like crazy. There were other things going on no one knew about."
Sometime before he was drafted, Arenas says, he learned his then-girlfriend had been intimate with two other players already in the NBA.
"So she's sleeping with them two; I just got drafted; I'm trying to make a basketball team; I just bought this Escalade; and I don't have any money," Arenas says. "I don't have a guaranteed contract. My life is just going downhill.
"I decided right then: The only way I'm going to repay her is to become big. Cheating on her is not going to do anything. So I dedicated myself to becoming better. Half of that pain was in the gym every day."
Arenas held off from ending the relationship until the day he made the Warriors team and signed his first contract, a two-year, no-cut deal for the league-minimum salary of $375,000. He says he had rehearsed his final conversation with his girlfriend for months. "I was playing the whole scenario out. I finally called her up: 'I totally forgot to tell you two weeks ago that we're not together and I'm moving to California, so buh-bye.'"
MIDWAY THROUGH HIS FIRST SEASON AT GOLDEN STATE, Arenas looked like a hard-luck, second-round pick. Nursing a severely sprained ankle, he was unable to practice and was put on the injured-reserve list. Reporters covering the team, who had heard his earlier boasts that he was going to start at point guard and knew of his love for locker-room pranks, mocked him for his bravado and silliness.
The Warriors referred to Jason Richardson as the "good rookie," which left Arenas with the "bad rookie" label. Arenas seemed to delight in it. Asked one morning to perform the mundane task of bringing doughnuts to the veterans, Arenas went by Krispy Kreme, walked into the locker room giggling and whispered to Richardson: "Yo, dawg, don't eat these. Whatever you do, don't eat 'em."
The veteran players dug in and began spitting them out as Richardson and Arenas rolled on the floor laughing.
"Gilbert licked every one of them, then he put talcum powder on the top to make it look like powdered sugar," Richardson recalls. "I couldn't believe it."
There was also a more troubling side to Arenas's life that few knew about.
In December 2002, Mary Frances Robinson came to a Warriors-Heat game in Miami and stood behind a security guard a few feet from where the players warm up. "Gilbert!" Robinson yelled. "I'm your mom! I'm your mom!"
The shaken 20-year-old NBA player found the woman's gaze and returned to the layup line. After the game, Robinson met Arenas near the team bus, collapsing into his arms, crying inconsolably as she apologized for abandoning him almost 18 years earlier. He held her up and kissed her on the cheek as she gave him her telephone number. Arenas gave the piece of paper to his father, who then called Robinson to see if she was indeed who she said she was.
"Don't try to force yourself to find Gil [again] because he's working right now," Gilbert Sr. recalls telling Robinson when he spoke to her. He said, "He's not even stopping for me because I understand the mission he's on." Robinson honored Gilbert Sr.'s request. "Her getting in contact again, it all sounds good now," Gilbert Sr. told me last year. "It really does. You know what I mean? But there [were] some days he needed to be held. He's doing fine now, but there [were] days he really needed to be held. She wasn't there. She was never around when I was struggling. Gilbert didn't come easy."
Almost five years after that Miami encounter, Arenas has yet to speak with his mother.
Meanwhile, between injury and no playing time, the first half of his rookie season was a bust, and it wasn't until the Warriors' 41st game of the 82-game season that he got a genuine opportunity.
Teammate Larry Hughes had injured his ankle, making room for another guard. When the veteran Bobby Sura turned down the chance to start, saying he had become comfortable with his sixth-man role, Arenas went directly from the injured list to the starting lineup.
In Arenas's second game as the team's floor leader, the Warriors lost to San Antonio, but Arenas scored at will, outplaying Tony Parker, the Spurs' darting point guard. On a losing team, Arenas began to stand out nightly, dumping in points and making clutch steals at the end of games.
Within two years, he became one of the most sought-after guards in the NBA free-agent market. In the summer of 2003, the Wizards won the bidding by offering him a contract worth $65 million over six years.
The misfortune of being chosen in the second round ended up benefiting Arenas financially. As a second-round choice, he was able to sign a deal after two years, while first-round players had to wait three seasons to seek a more lucrative contract. When Arenas's deal exceeded the contract given Shane Battier, the No. 6 pick in the 2001 draft, the NBA and the players union altered the collective bargaining to prevent such disparities in salary. The change became known as the Arenas rule.
Within hours of agreeing to a contract with the Wizards, he was on a plane to resuscitate a franchise that had not won a playoff series in nearly two decades.
THE WIZARDS WERE IN MAJOR TRANSITION WHEN ARENAS CAME ABOARD IN THE SUMMER OF 2003. Abe Pollin, the NBA's senior owner, who bought the franchise in 1964, had recently fired Michael Jordan as the team's general manager -- and Washington was split over whether Jordan's imperiousness had led to the firing or whether Pollin had simply used and disposed of the greatest player in the history of the game.
Eddie Jordan, then the Wizards' new coach, acknowledged to me this past February that he did not originally want Arenas to lead his team. Arenas was turnover-prone and not known for his defense. His play vacillated between explosive and erratic. Also, Jordan had heard that Arenas was immature. Jordan wanted a more stable, veteran presence running the offense.
Yet by Arenas's second season, the Wizards' stench of multiple losing seasons was gone. He was named to his first all-star team, along with teammate Antawn Jamison, and his last-second, pull-up jumper to beat the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series in May 2005 was a harbinger of big shots to come.
Arenas began to be viewed less as a no-conscience shooter and more as a tremendous competitor and an elite scorer. But he was still feeling aggrieved. When he was not voted onto the all-star team in 2006 by the Eastern Conference coaches, he called it the ultimate snub. He eventually was named to the team as an injury replacement for Jermaine O'Neal, but Arenas held onto the resentment.
From the high school coach who told him he would not play on the varsity, to the people who doubted his chances of ever getting off the bench at Arizona, to his fall to the second round of the NBA draft, to his inauspicious beginning at Golden State, he had collected slights like badges -- remembering each one and the wound it caused his ego.
There was still rejection to come. He was named to the U.S. national team in the summer of 2006 and spent part of that time in grueling tryouts with contemporaries LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony. But he fell out of favor with Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke icon hired to coach the team, and the rest of the U.S. coaching staff.
When a nagging groin injury sidelined him for a few days in South Korea, he was encouraged to return home by Jerry Colangelo, the head of USA Basketball.
Neither Colangelo nor Krzyzewski would use the term "cut" then, and Krzyzewski has not explained the decision since. Being one of the 24 players selected to the national team meant Arenas would be eligible to represent the United States in future international competitions -- including the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But being cut is essentially how Arenas viewed it. The hurt he felt went much deeper than basketball, he says.
"I had done everything they asked and just felt like: 'You can't use me against some of these international teams? I'm tearing up the NBA, and you've decided I can't help you?'" he says. "I finally thought I had proved myself as one of the best players in the world, and it turns out I was wrong. At least in their minds."
That final slight, he says, helped stoke the fire that burned through last season.
"I never got mad, broke anything, committed any crimes," Arenas says. "I just put my anger and resentment into basketball. Even the stuff from my childhood. To this day, that's how I get everything out, let everything go."
In the past 18 years, just three NBA players have had three 50-point performances within a 15-game span: Michael Jordan, Gilbert Arenas and Kobe Bryant. Arenas has clearly evolved into one of the top 10 talents in the league.
He will shoot from anywhere, anytime, and the higher the degree of difficulty the better. He not only broke Monroe's franchise record for points in a game last December -- erupting for 60 in an overtime victory over the Los Angeles Lakers -- five nights later, he dropped 54 points on the Suns in Phoenix.
Arenas finished as the league's third-leading scorer last season. For the first time in his career, fans -- not coaches or the commissioner -- sent him to the all-star game. With every accomplishment, the criticism and the slights are fading away. With each game-winning jumper, another detractor is silenced.
Universal acceptance and praise now leave Arenas in a position to which he is wholly unaccustomed. His motto has expired.
Or has it?
"AM I THE UNDERDOG?"
"I don't know if I'm the underdog," he said, sitting in his hotel room, pausing to think about the question. "Am I?"
Before last spring's injury, Arenas signed an eight-year, $40 million endorsement deal with Adidas International. In addition, next year he will become a free agent and will likely command a $100-million-plus contract. Arenas says he intends to stay in Washington. Except for coaching concern that his playful demeanor detracts from his ability to be a team leader, no one is dismissing Arenas. He is running out of people to create artificial motivation against.
"Mentally, I've convinced myself I'm still the underdog. I'm not the No. 1 person in the league. I'm not the No. 1 scorer. Someone else is. Even if I finish No. 1, I still have to find something else."
Paisley Benaza is Arenas's consultant for marketing and business ventures. She was director of operations and client management for his former agent, Dan Fagan, until she left that job to return to school and pursue a career as an educational psychologist.
"Crisis intervention-type stuff," she says, smiling. "It's relevant to what I've been doing the last six years."
Her first day in Fagan's office in 2001 was Arenas's first day as a client.
They became close friends. Benaza was so moved by Arenas's resilience in his life and career that she began putting a presentation together for Adidas nearly two years ago. She had heard about the sporting goods company's "Impossible Is Nothing" campaign and remembers saying to herself, "That's Gilbert."
It would be two years until the sneaker and apparel giant grasped what Benaza knew all along: Arenas was a living example of a marketing catchphrase, the most real piece of advertising imaginable. In December, as Arenas began his rise to an otherworldly level, Benaza watched Arenas's coming-out party as an NBA supernova. It came, officially, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles against Bryant and the Lakers -- the player whose posters he'd tacked on his wall as a kid and the team for which he always dreamed of playing.
After shooting the Lakers down in overtime and scoring 60, he bowed to Jack Nicholson and the crowd at midcourt.
"About a month later, he called me up one day and said, 'I'm starting,'" Benaza says. "I said, 'Like a business venture?' Gilbert said: 'No, all-star. I'm a starter. Can you believe it?' It was like a little kid that couldn't believe that was happening to him. He was so excited."
And as the rewards for his work and perseverance keep piling up, much higher than the resentments, Arenas faces a new challenge: If all his survival skills are honed for dealing with adversity, how does a man who learned rejection as an infant -- and who, in ways real and imagined, continues to see patterns of rejection -- suddenly cope with prosperity?
"I AM GILBERT ARENAS, AND THIS IS MY STORY," the commercial intones. As a sweet, lazy guitar riff builds, Arenas uses a felt-tipped, black marker to draw a cartoon portrait on clear plexiglass. The bearded, squat figure, which looks remarkably like his father, becomes animated, its actions and events mirroring his words.
"The first 40 games of my career, I sat on the bench . . . They thought I was a zero. Instead of sitting there being bitter, I just practiced, practiced. If no one believes in you, anything you do is a positive . . . The reason I wear No. 0 is because it lets me know that I need to go out there and fight every day."
At the end of the Adidas spot, an angelic smile crosses Arenas's face. A loping drumbeat and violin strings finish the background music, which is now bluesy, soulful. He traces the 0 that completes the written phrase "Impossible is 0." It may be the most genuine commercial starring an athlete in the past decade.
By using Arenas in the campaign, Adidas is emphasizing that it's okay to start from the bottom. The struggle makes succeeding that much sweeter.
Arenas's "Impossible Is Nothing" ad debuted in March, when he spent three hours of an afternoon in a small theater on the upper level of the Verizon Center. In its ongoing attempt to battle Nike, Adidas had neared completion of its endorsement deal with Arenas. But the holdup was the shoe design. Two designers opened a duffel bag full of bright colors and wild patterns. The goal was to have the five players who were part of Adidas's "It Takes Five" campaign -- Arenas, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Chauncey Billups and Dwight Howard -- pitch and wear the same shoe. Arenas didn't like it.
"Well, I understand the concept," he told the two 20-something design entrepreneurs. "But this league is so individual. You can't have my shoe, Kevin's shoe, all looking the same. Mine's low top. We need individuality, something that represents solely me."
"We'll get to that," said one of the reps. "Right now, though, this is what we got. But, you know, we got your back. When we go back, we'll talk to them about what you want. But right now . . ."
Arenas shrugged his shoulders. He eventually picked a crazy pink fluorescent shoe he thought would suit him. The Adidas crew stared at the ground, deflated.
"I'm trying to tell them, 'You've been in second for the longest,'" Arenas told me later. "The NBA has a contract with Adidas for the next 10 years. This is a golden opportunity. Let's go a different route."
Two weeks later in his hotel room in Indianapolis, Arenas, who had just seen the film "300" by himself the night before, got on the phone with the Adidas people. He told them to go see the movie.
"Three hundred men fought against a nation," he said. "They didn't win the battle, but they won glory. That's what we need to do. We're not beating Nike now. We can beat them in 10 years. That's what I'm trying to get [Adidas] to understand. And they're trying to do this little campaign, put all their guys in the same shoe."
Now, sitting in his room, Arenas the pitchman was talking. He had an idea for a commercial in which a college coach recruits the five of them to play for him.
"Bob Knight, an Adidas guy, he's the recruiter," Arenas said. "We all have that warrior look. We look muscular and cut up. It's like the Fantastic Four. Now, I'll be the Flash, the fast one; I'm burning. T-Mac is the Hollywood-looking guy. Kevin Garnett is Stretch Armstrong, because his arms are so long he can dunk from half court. Dwight Howard is Baby Boom. When he walks, his part calls for the ground to shake. He's the young one who's strong for no reason. The rims break.
"A guy like Tim Duncan is Xavier. He can outthink you. Because that's his personality, he's just a methodical thinker. You're the mind-controller.
"And it's like we're attacking Nike. This is where you have to bring it now."
How in the world could anyone fit such imagery into a 30-second spot?
"That's their job," Arenas said. "I can't do everything for them."
IN THE LOBBY OF THE TEAM HOTEL IN INDIANAPOLIS, 18-year-old Jared Levi was waiting for his philanthropic donor. He met Arenas in Chicago some time ago by knocking on his hotel room door.
Rather than shoo the kid away, Arenas listened to his pitch. Levi had reproduced hundreds of 8x10 action photos of Arenas. If he would sign them, Levi and his friend would use the profits from those pictures to put themselves through college, they said.
"And he did it," Levi said, adding that he was blown away that Arenas actually paid attention to the enclosed written directions -- where to sign on the photos, what kind of pen to sign with, anything to maximize their value. "I'm actually going to get into the University of Illinois at Chicago because of him."
It is not uncommon for professional athletes to create their own foundations, for charitable and tax purposes. Arenas has his own charity -- the Zero Two Hero Foundation, which, among other things, provides money to Washington area grade schools. (He pledged $100 a point he scored.) He also serves as a reading mentor in the league's community service outreach program, NBA Cares. But it is his day-to-day encounters with his fans -- five- or 10-minute segments of his time and generosity -- that separate Arenas from most of his fellow players.
Since Michael Jordan's second retirement, in 1999, and the labor standoff between owners and players that lopped 32 games from the 1998-99 season, the NBA has worked hard to combat an image problem: The public feels no sense of connection with many of its players.
Nowhere was this dynamic more evident than in the November 2004 brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, where a Detroit Pistons fan hit Indiana forward Ron Artest with a beer, and a melee broke out between players and spectators.
The free-for-all between the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden last season brought back the NBA-thug stereotypes. Telegenic smiles were out; death stares and haymakers were in.
Even two of the league's anointed torchbearers -- LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony -- have had missteps that hurt their personas. Anthony threw a sucker punch in the Garden fight and was suspended for 15 games; after former player John Amaechi announced he was gay, James said that he couldn't trust a teammate who hid his sexuality.
Kobe Bryant has evolved into the game's most breathtaking talent, and whatever jeers were once reserved for the player brought up on a sexual assault charge in Colorado -- a charge that was later dropped -- have almost completely dissipated. But, given well-documented tensions with former Lakers teammate Shaquille O'Neal and a recent YouTube vent echoing Bryant's bizarre trade demands, Bryant is continually fighting the perception that he is aloof and unhappy.
"Kobe's the best player in the world, but a lot of people don't like his attitude," Arenas says. "That's where he falls. But I feel that if you come into this league with a good attitude, you leave with a good attitude. People respect that . . .
"When we're out of this league, the same people you pushed away are the same people who are going to push you away. Your name is not going to be as big anymore . . . It's not like you're going to be in this league forever."
The People-Pleasing Express was up and running during last year's NBA all-star weekend in Las Vegas, where Arenas continued his campaign to become the commoner's champion. At a practice of Eastern Conference all-stars, Arenas plucked 100 customized Agent Zero jerseys he had obtained from the NBA from a box and traipsed up and down the court, flinging jerseys to the crowd, where grown-ups fought over them like squealing, 13-year-old girls.
During a timeout in the game, Arenas suddenly ran over to a trampoline being used by a mascot and grabbed a ball. He lunged off, threading the ball between his legs, and completed a windmill dunk -- a bizarre and highly dangerous act that was surely a first in all-star game history. Who else but Arenas would risk serious injury for the sole purpose of delighting a crowd in an exhibition game?
Benaza, watching the scene unfold in Las Vegas, said: "The whole weekend, all you heard from most of the players and their people were, 'It's awful. We have to walk through crowds in the casinos.' Gilbert loved it. He ate it up. That was his world."
WILLIAM "BLUE" ROBINSON SHARED A CRIB WITH GILBERT AS A BABY, and he wanted to meet his famous brother again. Blue was one of seven children -- by four different men -- who Mary Frances Robinson gave birth to after she had Gilbert. In the same Overtown apartment where Gilbert's father picked up his son 22 years earlier, Blue sat next to his mother as she sobbed while talking about abandoning Gilbert.
"She was young and immature," Blue, now 23, told me. "She was a street person all her life. She knew she couldn't take care of him, so she gave him up. If Gil got any questions, you can have him call me." He paused for a moment, dropping his nonchalant veneer.
"Is Gil asking questions?"
I said I would pass Blue's number along. As we sat there, Mary Frances Robinson did not dispute having troubled years around the time Gilbert was an infant. She said she occasionally drinks beer now, but had been off drugs for several years.
Now, months after I gave him his half brother's number, Arenas says he has lost it. "And I think I know why. I don't want to open that door right now. It's not the time."
After the fact, he was tipped off that one of his two sisters had attended the final game the Wizards played in Miami last season, but he never saw the girl, who is now 16. "I didn't even think about it," he says. "I'm not sure of anybody's motives right now."
In January, Arenas threw himself a $1 million birthday party at Love, a hot club in Northeast Washington -- a party that Diddy and other hip-hop icons attended and which was the source of endless national buzz for weeks before and after. At one point, he grabbed a microphone and yelled, "Get drunk and make bad decisions," as the crowd howled with laughter. He then went home alone.
I ask Gilbert how it is that the public extrovert -- the same guy who rips his jersey from his torso after each game and tosses it into the stands -- can be such a private introvert. He says that he likes giving of himself to people. "I want that love" they give back, he says.
When I asked if he retreats when people get too close, he says, biting his lip -- in a way that a young boy who is afraid to admit he likes a girl might -- "Um, yes."
His inner circle is small, mostly three people. There's Benaza, John White, a high school friend who lives with Arenas in a 10-bedroom Virginia spread and has become his personal assistant, and Gilbert Sr. He fired Dan Fagan, the only agent he's had in the NBA, in the summer of 2006, over concerns Fagan was not promoting him aggressively enough.
Benaza is the only person whose call he always returns, and that's because she demanded it almost two years ago. She sat down with Arenas after he sank the Bulls in Chicago with his last-second shot and told him, "Things are going to change."
"I told him people are going to start knowing your name, that you're not just a basketball player anymore," she says. "You're a professional athlete whom people want to know and endorse. I told him when my name flashes on the cellphone, we have a 30-minute rule to return the call. He just switched gears after that, became more aware.
"He's still childlike, and he still remembers what he dreamed about the NBA growing up. But I think he's matured in the last three years. And either way -- good choices, bad choices -- I'm going to be there for him."
Gilbert Sr. says there was a time "when I thought I lost my son to the world." It happened soon after Gilbert left Golden State for Washington, and Gilbert Sr. noticed a gaggle of friends suddenly interested in his newly minted $65 million son.
"There was a lot of people who got in his ear about certain things, how life should be," he says. "I didn't want to be part of it. I didn't want to be in the posse. At some point, I just figured you got to leave the nest to progress."
Today, those temporary friends are gone, and Arenas and his father speak often. "It's all love between me and Gil. I had a very different relationship with my father, so I'm thankful for what we have -- especially because he's now a father."
Alijah Amani Arenas was born in mid-March in Oakland. The boy was Arenas's second child with Laura Govan, who gave birth to Izela Semaya in December 2005. Their relationship has been tumultuous in the seven years since they started dating, but Arenas recently moved Govan and the children into his home. Which, given the couple's history, is major progress. After Izela was born, Govan hired an aggressive lawyer -- who threatened to serve Arenas with a paternity suit on national television during a Wizards game at Sacramento in March 2006 -- before cooler heads prevailed. Arenas says he never thought of anything but providing for Izela once he was certain he was her father.
"It's something you always want, but you always think, 'Man, I hope I can be a great dad to him like my dad was to me.'" He says he realizes his mother leaving has affected his life and relationships to some extent.
"I could have been against the world, 'Oh, my mom left me,' and blamed everything on that. But I'm not like that."
One of the few people he has spoken about his past with is Bruce Bowen, a veteran forward for the San Antonio Spurs. In the summer of 2006, the two were trying out for the U.S. national team in Las Vegas and ended up sharing the bus from the hotel to practice.
Bowen, Arenas was surprised to learn, also became estranged from his mother at a young age. They had both seen -- and were deeply affected by -- "Antwone Fisher," a movie based on the true story of an angry young man who eventually locates the drug-addled mother who left him.
"He told me he had to suck it up because he wants to break that cycle with his kids," Arenas says. "I could definitely relate."
"There are issues he hasn't come to grips with yet," Bowen says. "For me, I was able to deal with it by talking about it. That became therapeutic for me. For Gil, I just don't think he's ready yet. He didn't really say much when we talked; he was just real short.
"I'm just glad he knows there are other people out there like him, who have to overcome that and move forward. When I told him about breaking the cycle, I meant we can't afford to point fingers at others. It's up to us to do this."
Bowen warns of a difficult adjustment ahead for Arenas. "In this game, so many guys want their credit, respect, their street cred. For people like me and Gil, it goes deeper than that. We want people to recognize us for what we've overcome. We carry that around. When what you've been taught is what you won't be, what you won't achieve, that you weren't good enough, your whole work ethic becomes about proving people wrong. Which is great -- until you don't have anybody to prove wrong anymore.
"When people start treating him great, I wonder how he'll deal with that."
HOWARD LEVINE, ARENAS'S HIGH SCHOOL COACH, TELLS A STORY. "Lute Olson took me aside after a UCLA game and said, 'What do I do?' I'm thinking: 'You're asking me, the piddly high school coach? You're Lute Olson.' He told me Gilbert would fight him on everything and just seemed to be pushing him away. He'll push to see how far he can push."
Olson remembers the conversation. "There was never a problem in regard to playing," he says. "He did what you asked him to do. It was away from the court. It was his kid stuff that he would do and staying on top of him academically. If you didn't have the thumb on Gilbert, he'd get himself in difficulty."
Levine says he finally told Olson: "Gilbert has to know you're going to be with him all the time. In Gilbert's mind, he's thinking, I want to see if you let me go, like my mom let me go . At some point, if you're going to get close to Gilbert you have to tell him: 'You can push me away, you can fight me, but I'm not going anywhere. I'm here for you. I'm staying.'"
Mike Wise is a Post sports columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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