WASHINGTON – Surprise, surprise, Gilbert Arenas says, most of his professional peers use their MySpace pages to sift through the pool of possible companionship. For him, though, there's been a different calling. Along the way, the Washington Wizards star discovered his personal page – where he asks himself the eternal question of bball or 900 girls making out with you? (bball, of course) – had transformed him into the patron saint of lost basketball causes for young players.
"Every kid who's gotten cut, whose coach has passed them up, (writes) to me," Arenas said Tuesday.
Sometimes it amazes Arenas how much time he takes to write them back, how their stories and struggles keep him close to his core. Perhaps part of the reason is that Arenas still sees so much of himself in them, still finds so much more in common with those fledgling teenyboppers than the most glamorous names in the sport.
Arenas still sees himself as the kid whose mother abandoned him as a baby, who struggled to get scholarship offers and didnt get picked in the first round of the NBA draft – the guy that was told to get lost from Team USA over the summer. He's still the outsider, fighting his way in, mocking the whole culture of stardom with a flick of his wrist and a roll of his eyes.
Arenas dropped 60 points on Kobe Bryant on Dec. 17, and the Lakers star – the best in the game – still wouldn't give him his due, belittling Arenas all the way out of the Staples Center. Then on to Phoenix where Arenas hung 54 to end the Suns' 15-game winning streak on his way to 34 points per game and a franchise-record 12 victories in the month.
"It's hard to go at somebody who is the best player in the league," Arenas said. "That's just like Dominque going at M.J. It's like, 'Come on, you know you're not even in his league.'
"There's no point."
Here is the beauty of Gilbert Arenas: In a league too thick with preeners and posers, too top-heavy with coroneted prodigies, Arenas is a truth-teller. As much as anything, he has emerged as a dangerous man to the establishment. He isn't Kobe, nor Lebron, nor D-Wade.
No, Arenas is the guy who scares them, who is inspiring a renaissance in Washington where he and his running buddies, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, have thrust the Wizards near the top of the Southeast Division with the most thrilling basketball show east of the Mississippi.
December is done, and the sport's most scorching scorer has set his sights on January and beyond. So locked into his shot, so sure of the game's blanket inability to stop him, this most superstitious star wonders about changing back to the leather ball.
"Once they made that rule that we were changing back on January 1st, I was like, 'Why did we complain so much?' " Arenas said. "We just never learn. It's like we're fighting for something that we don't want.
"I think it was just pride that we wanted our old ball back."
Old ball, and old scores to settle for Arenas. He lives for vindication. The Wizards' slow start – 5-9 beginning December – mirrored Arenas' stumbling to begin the season. The word Wizards coach Eddie Jordan uses is "distracted," and Arenas agrees. He didn't take Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski cutting him from Team USA well, but then, it was a little more fuel for his ferocity – just a reminder of how it always goes for him.
Above all, it brought back those memories of rejections past. It hurtled him back into the gym where he'd go as a kid when he was tired of crying over a mother whom he'd never meet until she showed up at one of his NBA games, and back into the gym last summer where, he said, "I just beat my body up."
Too much lifting, too much running of stairs at the Verizon Center, too many hours shooting and shooting and shooting. He kept thinking about the time lost in his summer regimen traveling and practicing with the pre-Olympic team before a groin injury gave them an out to cut him loose. So he tortured himself watching those Team USA basketball games on TV, relentlessly replacing the players on the screen with himself. No Kobe, no Kevin Garnett, no Tim Duncan and he still didn't belong on the roster? It drove him mad.
"I was getting so frustrated that I wasn't there, I'd just come to the gym and shoot it off. I'm thinking, 'If LeBron takes 15 shots, that's the only 15 he's going to get today. So if I go to the gym and shoot a thousand, that'll be 985 more than him.' "
Welcome to the wonderfully warped basketball mind of Arenas, who confessed to something on Tuesday that no one else of his stature in the sport would dare do. Three years ago, he traded two pairs of his sneakers and his Wizards jersey to a sporting goods store for a box of all-star game ballots. He just sat down and went to work.
"I just know I can be a starter," he told himself, and he kept punching the holes in the ballots for himself and his teammates, Jamison and Larry Hughes. What's more, he said he's heard stories of NBA all-stars hiring people to fill out ballots, backing trucks into garages with busy-bee pals working to manipulate the vote. To Arenas, it didn't sound like a bad idea. He just wishes everyone would stop acting so cool, so above it all, and get over themselves already.
"There's Kobe, Allen Iverson, LeBron, D-Wade and Shaq. Other than that, we're all normal. If you're not M.J., you're not Magic, you're not Bird, you're normal."
Washington coach Eddie Jordan is listening to the constant clatter of celebration over Arenas' scoring, and the Wizards coach is sounding a clarion call to get so much more from him: More game-night defense and practice-time intensity. Asked how Arenas had grown as a leader, Jordan, an eloquent man, stammered.
"I'll have to think about that one," Jordan finally said.
"I'll have to think how to answer that one."
As it turns out, that was all the answer you needed for the truth. Remember, Jamison is the captain of these Wizards, not Arenas. He hasn't earned it. Jordan loves Arenas' spirit and drive, but he's still trying to keep his young star on the right course. Arenas can be a joy to coach, and Arenas can be downright maddening.
So there was Arenas waiting around the Verizon Center on Tuesday, wanting to hear word that he had been voted the Eastern Conference player of the month. What? He's supposed to pretend that he doesn't care? He does. They all do. He admits it. And for his 25th birthday later this week he's throwing a starry bash in his honor, with P Diddy as host and Busta Rhymes and lil' Wayne on the music. Happy birthday to me, the loner, Gilbert Arenas decided.
They love him in Washington, where he belongs to the people much more than Michael Jordan ever did here. He's planning to give away 20,000 Arenas jerseys at a late-season sellout at home, just to give everyone in the house a little piece of him. For all the advice that Bryant gave him on shot selection after blasting the Lakers for 60 points, Arenas had some for Kobe on connecting with the souls surrounding the sport.
"I was telling, Caron (Butler), 'How does Kobe get his Mojo back?' Well, if he gave out 20,000 jerseys of that No. 24, oh man, L.A. would eat it up because of how powerful he is. But he doesn't do it."
Kobe will always be a great player, always be more popular, but he'll never connect with the common, struggling soul the way that Gilbert Arenas does. People get it with Arenas because they understand his story, his journey. He's one of them.