Arenas energized by trade to Magic

After joining the Magic, Gilbert Arenas said he no longer has "the pressure of trying to fit in where I’m not wanted."

ATLANTA – About 45 minutes before his first game with the Orlando Magic, Gilbert Arenas(notes) sat in the team’s locker room beaming.

“I’ve been doing a lot of smiling lately,” Arenas said.

Not even a 91-81 loss to the Atlanta Hawks could temper Arenas’ enthusiasm about his trade to the Magic. He leaves behind a franchise in Washington that’s in the throes of a rebuilding project, as well as the memories of a firearms violation that stained his career, not to mention his legal record. In return, he joins a team still intent on challenging for a championship – one that is also run by a general manager whom Arenas considers to be the “the only person that actually believed in me.”

“I don’t have the pressure of trying to fit in where I’m not wanted right now,” said Arenas, who came off the bench and missed nine of his 11 shots to finish with 10 points and three assists in his debut.

“They welcomed me and wanted me to just be me.”

Magic center Dwight Howard(notes) declared it a “fresh start” for Arenas, and Arenas agreed. When he makes his home debut in Orlando on Tuesday, it will mark one year to the day from when he brought guns into the Wizards’ locker room during an argument with teammate Javaris Crittenton(notes). The NBA suspended Arenas for 50 games because of the incident and he was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house for his felony charge. He lost nearly $7.5 million in salary during his suspension and millions more in endorsements.

When Arenas returned this season, the Wizards had made No. 1 pick John Wall(notes) the new cornerstone of their franchise.

“It was weird at first because I didn’t know how I was going to be welcomed back in Washington,” Arenas said. “Nervous, scared, not trying to do anything [other than] fit in. And I think I felt I lost my aggressiveness just trying to fit into something where I felt early that I wasn’t a part of. I just tried to do everything just to stay out of the headlines and stay out of people’s way.

“You’re going back to a team where you don’t know if you’re welcomed. Everyone is trying their hardest to make you feel welcomed, but when it’s forced, it’s never going to work.”

Arenas was given another opportunity by Magic general manager Otis Smith, a long-time mentor to the former All-Star. Smith was part of the Golden State Warriors’ front office when the team drafted Arenas in 2001.

“I’ve been a friend, a mentor,” Smith said. “We’ve been through a little bit of everything together. I kind of watched him through his early years when he wasn’t playing and his big years, through all the silly things he’s done over the years, the trouble he’s had off court with the gun stuff.”

Jason Richardson(notes), who joined the Magic with Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and Earl Clark(notes) in the team’s other trade with the Phoenix Suns, also was with Arenas and Smith in Golden State. Richardson said the two quickly built a “father-son relationship” that has endured over the years.

“Otis and Gilbert had a special bond,” Richardson said. “They were always close to each other. They would always talk.”

During the summer, Arenas privately told friends he was hopeful of joining Smith and the Magic. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks made significant moves to improve their rosters in the offseason while Orlando stayed quiet.

With Vince Carter(notes) and Rashard Lewis(notes) struggling this season, Howard complained about the Magic’s problems to Smith and his teammates, sources said. When the Magic recently lost five of six games, Smith realized the roster he had assembled wasn’t capable of winning a title. He convinced Howard, the coaching staff and the team’s ownership that it was time for a dramatic change.

Most GMs would have been tentative about trading for Arenas, especially with four years and $80 million left on his contract. Smith thinks he knows enough about Arenas – including the details of the gun incident – to gamble on him, but admitted the decision “wasn’t easy.” He sent Rashard Lewis, who has his own cap-killing contract, to the Wizards and traded Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat(notes) and Mickael Pietrus(notes) to the Suns.

“[Smith] staying in my ear really helped me get through last year,” Arenas said. “The one person who actually believed in me the whole time. I’m grateful that he came and got me.”

Arenas paid attention to the trade speculation surrounding him, but said he didn’t know a deal was imminent. When he did learn he’d been traded Saturday, he didn’t waste time in getting to Orlando.

“I got traded, I went to the airport and left,” Arenas said. “I didn’t even get to say bye to anybody. I didn’t even say bye to the kids. I just left.”

In the end, Smith might end up doing more to help Washington than Arenas. With Arenas no longer on the roster, the franchise can fully focus on building around Wall. And while Arenas may want to bury any memories of last season, the public likely won’t let him forget his gun incident.

“They needed to move the franchise forward,” Smith said of the Wizards. “They had kind of a cloud over them. …He’s going to have to deal with [the incident] the rest of his career. It’s never going to go away.

“It’s sort of like [NFL quarterback] Michael Vick. He had the best game of his life and the headline in the [Sunday New York] Post is all about the dogs. We’re quick to forgive anything but a professional athlete in this country.”

Arenas made his debut to a smattering of boos and hit his first shot, a 3-pointer. During a timeout in the second quarter, the arena’s “Kiss Cam” found Arenas and Richardson. Richardson blew a kiss to the camera and Arenas put his arm around his teammate.

Yes, Arenas is smiling once again. Check back in four months to see if the Magic are too.