The Incredible Lightness of Being Gilbert
His routines are eccentric, his workouts defy logic and his jokes inspire teammates to choke him. So how is it that Gilbert Arenas is the driving force of the resurgent Wizards?
from Sports Illustrated; 3/21/2005; by Chris Ballard
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When Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was a rookie with Golden State, teammate Troy Murphy decided to give his mother a tour of the Warriors' practice facility one afternoon. "We came into the workout area, and music was blasting, and the place was empty," Murphy recalls. "Except for Gilbert on the treadmill." Nor was Arenas alone. His two pit bulls were on treadmills beside him, tongues swinging to and fro. "It was like he was their trainer," says Murphy, shaking his head at the memory. "He was bragging how he got them up to 3.7 miles and he'd have them at 4.0 the next week."
Three years later Arenas remains just as unorthodox, not to mention just as zealous, about his training. When the team is idle he often works out three times a day: first with the team at practice, then to do drills at 8 p.m. and a third time around midnight, when he hoists 300 jumpers with the rebounding machine. His rationale: Since most of his peers don't work out during the season, this is his chance to overtake them. And the key wrinkle to this master plan for NBA domination? Starting with the 42nd game -- the season's precise midpoint -- Arenas stops the extra workouts. "So while everyone else is burning out," he says with a conspiratorial nod, "I'm finally getting my legs."
Asked about this logic, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan offers a resigned shrug. "Chalk that up to Gilbertology," he says. "There's ideology, and then there's Gilbertology." Indeed there is. Even in the warped world of NBA players, Arenas is eccentric -- a hypercompetitive, big-hearted prankster who marches not only to a different drummer but also to a rhythm section all his own. Take his elaborate pregame routine: He gets his meal from the same place (Boston Market), gets dressed in the same meticulous order (jersey first), listens to the same music in the same order (Lil' John last) and, when the team huddles up, reaches under forward Antawn Jamison's jersey to tickle his underarm in the same spot. That most teammates embrace him as "different" (guard Larry Hughes) or "colorful" (center Brendan Haywood) is due in large part to the fact that the 23-year-old Arenas is also very, very good. At week's end he was averaging 25.4 points (seventh in the league), 4.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.97 steals to lead the Wizards -- who won 25 games last season -- to a 33-27 record, the third-best in the Eastern Conference.
At 6'4" and 205 pounds, Arenas is powerful enough to bull his way to the basket -- "a straight-line assassin," Jordan calls him -- as fast as anyone in the league not named Iverson or Parker, and able to dunk on anything that might get in his way. He can hit both the midrange jumper and the three, a rare combination in the dunk-or-distance NBA. "A bitch to guard" is how Houston Rockets guard David Wesley grimly described Arenas, who scored 33 in a 101-98 Wizards win on March 2. Warriors guard Derek Fisher, who at times appeared to be wading through three feet of water while chasing Arenas two days later, was worn down by his "relentless attacking" even if he'd taken a bad shot on the previous possession. "That," said Fisher, "is mental fortitude."
Arenas might chalk it up to something else, though who knows what. He believes his strength comes from not lifting weights: "I'm mentally strong." He sleeps only three hours a night: "I just got a ticking mind. That's how it is with all the great ones, like Jordan and Iverson." And though he watches tape of opponents, he does so selectively: "I have the mind-set that a guard can't stick me. So I watch the bigs and see how they like to play. If you're a shot blocker, then I jump into you. If you take charges, then I pull up for the midrange."
He blends seamlessly with Hughes and Jamison, former Golden State teammates in 2001-02 who were reunited last summer when Jamison was acquired from Dallas; they're on pace to become the first threesome since 1990-91 to each average 20 points. In Eddie Jordan's version of the Princeton offense, Arenas and Hughes slash to the basket while Jamison flips in his array of leaners, jumpers and floaters. While Arenas is technically the point guard, Hughes might handle the ball on any possession, which frees both of them to play off the ball, making both harder to defend. At the other end Hughes (first in the league in steals through Sunday) and Arenas (fifth) form the equivalent of a two-man security checkpoint at half-court: No matter who you are, you're getting hassled, if not patted down. "They're almost like Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton with Detroit," says Jordan. "Larry plays the passing lanes a lot, and Gilbert plays off of that passing lane. They're like twins out there."
Though Arenas will tell you he always knew he'd succeed -- in February he became the first player from the 2001 draft class to make an All-Star team -- he might be the only one. He left Arizona after his sophomore season but wasn't taken until the 31st pick. His response, after a brief cry on the phone with one of his coaches, was to head directly to the gym. (Did we mention that Arenas likes the gym?) With the Warriors he chose the same number he'd had at Arizona, 0, because "that's the number of minutes people predicted I would play." By midseason of his rookie year he cracked the starting lineup. He also made quite an impression on his teammates.
To say Arenas enjoys a good practical joke is like saying Timothy Leary enjoyed the occasional recreational drug. He responded to the veterans' orders to bring doughnuts to practice by buying plain ones and sprinkling baby powder on them -- that is, when he wasn't buying frosted ones, licking each one and putting it back in the box. He also took great joy in stealing his teammates' keys and hiding them in, say, a bottle of water. Then there was the time Arenas showed up on the team charter wearing a Fran Tarkenton jersey -- make that forward Chris Mills's Fran Tarkenton jersey, a specially ordered throwback that Mills had been talking about for months. Arenas had sneaked into Mills's house the night before and pilfered the prized shirt. Once on the charter, he opened his jacket to unveil what he loudly proclaimed "the best jersey in the world!" and proceeded to attack the lunch spread, making sure to wipe his hands all over Fran. "Talk about someone getting choked. I got choked for like five minutes," Arenas says, then nods appreciatively as if remembering a particularly good Merlot. "It was funny, though."
Despite his antics, teammates say they love playing with Arenas because, like the puppy who pees all over the couch and then wags his tail furiously, he's consistently good-spirited. "You can't get mad at him," says Warrriors guard Jason Richardson. "You just have to laugh."
As immature as Arenas may have been off the court, he was playing beyond his years on it. In his second season he won the Most Improved Player Award and signed a six-year, $64 million deal with the Wizards in the off-season, a decision he made in characteristically bizarre fashion: He flipped a coin 10 times to decide between the Los Angeles Clippers and Washington. When the Clippers' side came up eight times, Arenas says he knew what he had to do: go "against the odds" and join the Wizards.
After averaging 19.6 points last year, during which he missed 27 games due to an abdominal injury, Arenas has improved markedly at both moving without the ball and making decisions with it. Through Sunday, his turnovers were down to 3.0 per game from 4.1. Though he remains emotional ("the designated hothead who gives us that edge," says Hughes), Arenas has benefited from the calming presence of Jamison. He has cut down on his technical fouls and ceased taking halftime showers in his uniform -- something he did with the Warriors when, upset because he thought his teammates weren't trying, he needed to "cool off his head." (Naturally, he wrung the jersey out and wore it in the second half.)
Arenas's upbringing was -- surprise! -- anything but conventional. He was raised by his father, Gilbert Sr., who took sole custody of him just before his third birthday. (Gilbert says he's seen his mother only once since, when she showed up at a game during his rookie season.) Gilbert Sr., who played baseball at Florida Memorial College and was briefly a walk-on with the Miami football team, was a part-time model who, after landing bit parts in TV shows (including Miami Vice), packed up the two-man family when Gilbert was eight and drove cross-country in his Mazda coupe, heading for Hollywood, where dreamers go to make it big. Of course, it's also where dreamers go to sleep in their car in some forlorn Burbank park, which is what dad and son did for the first two nights. Eventually, they settled into a routine. Gilbert Sr. would get up at 3 a.m., work at UPS, come back to their San Fernando Valley home, sleep and then audition all afternoon. Gilbert Jr. would play ball and raise hell, not necessarily in that order. Still, he took a lesson from his father. "He was an inspiration," says Gilbert, who says his dad remains his best friend. "He showed me, without even saying it, what hard work does."
Though Gilbert is, by his account, very single -- "I'm on the market!" he says, rubbing his hands together -- he also has an innate paternal, or at least fraternal, instinct. Before this season he bought enough jerseys so that, after home games, he can take one off and toss it to someone, usually a young fan, in the crowd. For the second Christmas in a row, he spent the day with 200 kids; this time he took them to see The Spongebob Squarepants Movie before giving each a gift. While there, he met Andre McAllister, a 10-year-old who was the only member of his family to escape a December house fire. "I took him under my wing and decided that I would be his big brother," says Arenas. So he bought Andre clothes and set him up as a frequent ball boy at Wizards games. Andre can now be seen sprinting through the MCI center halls, shagging rebounds during pregame shootarounds and, at halftime, inhaling the giant banana splits available in the media lounge. Asked on a recent night about Arenas, Andre described him as nice and funny and "a whole lot of other stuff" in between spoonfuls of ice cream so large that he had to stop periodically to ward off brain-freeze. Andre then added that he'd played one-on-one with Arenas. Asked who won, Andre answered as if it should be self-evident: "I did."
Only, according to Arenas, that's not how it happened. "Of course he'd say that," Arenas says with a big, incredulous smile. "But I'm not going to let him win."
For once with Arenas, the message was straightforward: If you want success, you have to earn it. Just the way he did.