BOSTON – Gilbert Arenas(notes) flashed those bemused eyes, raised an eyebrow and let an uneasy smile curl across his lips. “I didn’t score today?” he responded to an inquisitor outside his locker on Sunday.
Part of him looked like maybe he didn’t know, and part like maybe he had hoped no one else noticed. For a star once obsessed with hanging 40 and 50 points on opponents – who pursued shots and baskets like a drowning man does driftwood – it was easy to be dubious of the Orlando Magic guard confessing to such ignorance on something so interwoven into his identity.
Once, Arenas proclaimed himself to be an alter ego, Agent Zero. Now, it was no longer the number on his back, but the one in the box score. This hadn’t happened since a peculiar scoreless night in March of 2004, and never in his memories of his pre-NBA life.
Maybe middle school?
“Nah, I scored in middle school,” Arenas said.
The future of the Magic hangs on the perilous possibility of Arenas’ ability to transform himself, his game, and make the biggest trade in franchise history something besides the biggest mistake in franchise history. With three years and $60 million left on his contract, there’s one guarantee: Unless Arenas makes profound progress, he may linger on the Magic roster well beyond Dwight Howard(notes), who can become a free agent in the summer of 2012.
“We know, I know, they brought us here for a reason,” Arenas said. “Dwight understands that … it’s going to take some time.”
Howard has his eyes on Los Angeles and New York, sources close to him have insisted for months, and nothing short of championship basketball may be enough to compel him to re-sign with the Magic. Since trading for Arenas on Dec. 18, the Magic have had a nine-game winning streak, some real moments of promise, but this will never work unless Arenas has the staying power to evolve into a scaled-down, efficient model of his old explosive self.
Right now, he’s far away. The worry’s whether he’s too far gone.
Arenas was completely lost in the 91-80 pounding from the Boston Celtics at the Garden, a complete wreck on the floor. Seven shots, seven misses and a spotty floor game in 15 minutes. Across 24 games with the Magic, Arenas is shooting 37 percent from the floor and 29 percent on 3-pointers. Without the quickness, the explosion, to get to the basket, he was left shooting queasy, flat-footed jump shots. His defense was terrible, his ability to run these Magic with Jameer Nelson(notes) on the bench has been wildly up-and-down.
“He’s struggling to fit in and has to change his game, because the old Gilbert is not coming back,” one Eastern Conference executive said.
For all the concerns about Arena’s body, especially his arthritic knees, his discombobulated, disjointed personal life has infiltrated the Magic. On his way to the locker room at halftime of Orlando’s loss to the Miami Heat on Thursday night at Amway Arena, Arenas’ ex-girlfriend Laura Govan had him served custody and child-support papers.
This has devolved into a vicious, nasty public spectacle. When the Magic desperately need Arenas’ full focus, need him to help fortify Howard’s future with the franchise, he’s calling into D.C. radio shows suggesting that Govan – or someone – killed his pet sharks by launching pennies into the tank.
“I guess that person is not paying attention to their lawyers, and just trying to chunk up everything for the world to see,” Arenas said. “I can’t pay attention and go back and forth. I’ve got kids to worry about. That’s what humans decide to do these days in today’s media world. They use media to get their points across.”
Well, she probably learned that somewhere in their household. After several personally embarrassing elements of the lawsuit were leaked last week, Arenas has gone on the defensive, and it’s clearly clouding his state of mind. He says no, but Arenas is so smart, so aware, he’s always born the brunt of his own baggage. Magic general manager Otis Smith goes back a long way with Arenas, back to their Golden State days, and perhaps has ultimately put himself on the line with this trade.
Smith pushed for this trade over the trepidation of his coach, Stan Van Gundy. For now, Smith is giving Arenas an out. “I think basketball-wise he’s fine, but he’s dealing with real-life things that we just have to get through,” Smith said. “It all bleeds into each other.”
Arenas’ public debate over who killed his pet sharks can be called a lot of things, but let’s be honest: This isn’t real life. This is a self-made train-wreck. Wherever the blame falls in his failed relationship with Govan, no one but Arenas brought this mayhem into Howard’s championship chase.
As for Arenas’ basketball woes, he rattled a list of reasons why he’s been sluggish to make a consistent impact on these Magic. For Sunday, there was the 2:30 p.m. tip, which meant his body wouldn’t allow him to eat breakfast. There were his arthritic knees too, Arenas said, that make joints swell and stiffen in the cold weather.
“Anybody who has arthritis says, ‘I know when it’s raining. Well, when we’re flying over cold cities I can feel it. But being down in Orlando, right before we came up here, I’m running, dunking, moving great. …It’s like night and day for me.”
Just let him get to the rest of February in Orlando with lots of home games, and watch his explosiveness and pop return. That’s Arenas’ story now. Just wait, just be patient. He missed 50 games to the gun suspension a season ago, and almost all of the previous two seasons with knee injuries.
“People are looking like, ‘He’s really struggling and I expected to struggle a little because I have to learn how everyone plays,’ ” Arenas said. “I can’t just go down and play my basketball. That’s not what we do here.”
He can no longer think shoot first, pass second. “I’m going to shoot and if I see somebody I’ll pass it. That’s how I used to be. When you’re a scorer, and you’re thinking about scoring, everything comes easy. It’s just … weird. I catch myself not being aggressive, and when I do turn it on, I don’t have a rhythm.
“When I’m alone shooting, I feel like I can’t be beat. That’s how I shoot. But in a game, I’m so worried about missing shots, that’s what I end up doing.”
Part of the reason that people still want to root for basketball’s fallen class clown, still want to believe every one of his plausible explanations for the things that go wrong, is the man’s charm. The guns in the locker room? Ah, just a practical joke gone awry.
The missed shots? The empty floor game? The arthritic knee?
All coming around nicely, Arenas reports. All promising to change.
As for how Arenas sees things, it was too early on Sunday afternoon, too cold in New England and too early in the process of constructing a second act to his career in Orlando. Nevertheless, his personal issues are humiliatingly public and that makes it an Orlando Magic problem now. Together, they can all blame his ex-girlfriend for being some kind of nuisance, but she comes out of Arenas’ world, out of his sordid past.
This is no one’s real life except Arenas’. There was a time when a team would consider the risk-reward of having him in uniform, but no more. These days, Agent Zero isn’t an alter ego, nor the digit on the back of his jersey. It’s a line in his box score, and it hung over the Garden on Sunday – over the future of this Orlando Magic franchise – like an anvil.