On anniversary of infamous gun incident, Gilbert Arenas moves forward
Gilbert Arenas's drive to work will be a lot less stressful on Tuesday morning. He'll show up for to play a game for the Orlando Magic against the Dallas Mavericks, rather than taking those familiar roads from his home in Great Falls home to the Verizon Center and stepping into the locker room a year after the worst decision of his career placed him and the Wizards in a situation that few could've anticipated.
On this Dec. 21, the Wizards will celebrate a rare blowout win over the Charlotte Bobcats and Arenas play his second game with the team he has longed to play for ever since he was suspended for bringing guns to the arena in a dispute with former teammate Javaris Crittenton. As the anniversary approached, Arenas's mind was thankfully elsewhere.
"What's funny is I didn't even think about it," Arenas said after making his debut with the Magic on Monday in Atlanta. "That's something that happened in the past and I can't think about the anniversary and all this. That's for you guys to write about, not me to think about."
The past 12 months have been difficult for Arenas, as he's lost millions in salary, gained an unfortunate reputation, lost his estranged mother, and completed a divorce with the Wizards after more than seven years. Arenas admitted that he struggled trying to find his place within the organization.
He wanted to part ways before the season began, but understood that there was nowhere for him to go. The challenge was harder when he never trusted that the Wizards had plans of keeping him around for the long term, no matter what owner Ted Leonsis of President Ernie Grunfeld may have said publicly.
"It was weird at first, because I didn't know how I would be welcomed back in Washington," Arenas said. "I was nervous, scared, trying to do anything just to fit in. I felt that's where I was just trying to fit into something where I felt really that I wasn't a part of. I tried to do everything to stay out of headlines and stay out of people's way."
Magic general manager Otis Smith observed closely how Arenas appeared uncomfortable as he returned from his 50-game suspension. Smith felt that Arenas needed a fresh start somewhere, and that the former three-time all-star could help Orlando get back on the right track. "I think he was trying," Smith said. "I'm not sure if he was trying to do everything everybody was telling him and then some, I thought. So I had a tendency to take some of the fun out of the game for him. I think he'll try to get it back here, with the guys we have and the guys in that locker room, I'm sure he'll enjoy playing with them on a nightly basis. He's excited about the opportunity to get back what he once had. So, we'll get it back."
Arenas changed his jersey to No. 9 to symbolize a new beginning with the Wizards, but said that the uncertainty of his role -- he started, came off the bench, played off the ball, then played point guard -- put him in a dark place that he couldn't overcome. "Maybe more mental darkness than actual, for me. It was just the mental darkness, because I'm looking at everything. I'm seeing what's going on and I'm like, 'Aw, this again.' It's like, well this isn't a fresh start. You guys are still judging me. It was just frustrating at times. I was like, 'I thought this was a fresh start, but it's really not.' "
Dwight Howard, a former high school teammate of Crittenton, approved the Magic's acquisition of Arenas and has encouraged him to be aggressive and not try to ease his way into the fold. He also said the team is not worried about any of Arenas's past baggage. "Why bring it here? It's a fresh start for him. He's looking to get going. We're just going to welcome him with open arms. We don't have any ill will toward him or whatever happened while he was in Washington."
Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy said that he was focusing on what Arenas can offer Orlando. "More than anything, he loves to play basketball and he's a great competitor. He loves to be in situations at the end of the game and is afraid of nothing. If you want to be a great team come playoff time. Those are the guys you need."
Now that he's with the Magic -- which already has an established franchise cornerstone in Howard -- Arenas feels unburdened. "I don't have the pressure of anything right now. I don't have the pressure of trying to fit in where I'm not wanted," Arenas said. "Everybody welcomed me and they just want me to be me. You're going back to a team where you don't know if you're welcome. Everyone is trying their hardest to make you feel welcome. When it's forced, it's never going to work. Here, everyone has the same personality. It's easier to come to a team where everyone is upbeat."
And he no longer has to look back on the day that changed his life, and the course of the franchise he once ruled. "I think both sides are free from it," Smith said. "I don't know if it's a one-sided thing. I think Washington is probably more relieved than he is, because you don't have that hanging on your head. You can rely on your young guy [John Wall] to grow into his team, without that every day. I think it's a win-win for everybody involved."
There was an almost odd coincidence that Arenas made his debut with the Magic on the same day that the Wizards trounced the Charlotte Bobcats and Gerald Wallace, since Arenas's fall began when Wallace fell on his left knee in April 2007.
But Arenas was unable to hide his happiness about wearing the same jersey of his favorite player growing up, Penny Hardaway. His teammate Jason Richardson said Arenas is smiling like he hasn't smiled in years. "Probably since I got hurt. That injury stopped my career cold," Arenas said. "This is the first time, I'm proud to play basketball."
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