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A long list of snubs--including a near miss for this year's All-Star Game--didn't make Gilbert Arenas bitter. It made him better
Where are the jerseys?" Gilbert Arenas asked before the Eastern Conference All-Stars took the floor for a practice session last Saturday morning. Arenas had spent $1,000 for 25 Washington Wizards uniform tops emblazoned with his name, and after practice the point guard walked a slow lap around the court inside Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center, autographing each of the shirts before tossing them into the stands. On his way off the court, he stopped to sign programs and basketballs while most of his fellow All-Stars blew past pleading fans. "I don't think I'm better than them," says Arenas of his relationship with the audience. "I was a fan too--I am still a fan. [But] I'm one of them who's actually playing."
No player was more grateful for his All-Star invitation than Arenas, who went from hard-to-explain snub to 11th-hour sub. Though he ranked fourth in scoring (28.3 ppg), 17th in assists (5.9) and seventh in steals (1.8) for the playoff-bound Wizards, Arenas was passed over by the East coaches. Unable to sleep the night the All-Star roster was announced, the 24-year-old Arenas showed up at the Wizards' practice facility the next day at 6 a.m. and spent the next five hours hoisting nearly 2,000 shots while soft mood music played on his headphones. "It was hard to swallow because I thought I worked and improved my game," says Arenas, who was an All-Star last year despite averaging 2.8 fewer points and nearly one fewer assist. "But I said I'm not going to let this break me." His reprieve came quickly. That afternoon commissioner David Stern selected Arenas to replace injured Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal.
By last weekend any traces of bitterness about the snub had disappeared. When the NBA needed a last-minute replacement for Raja Bell on the eve of the three-point contest, Arenas eagerly jumped in; he finished second to Dirk Nowitzki in the event. On Saturday afternoon Arenas volunteered to give autographs at a league-sponsored event at a shopping mall. He doesn't understand players who hide in their hotel rooms and shun contact with fans. "They probably think they got too big for the average person," says Arenas. "But if the average person stops loving them, stops talking about them, stops asking them for an autograph? They'll be heartbroken."
Humble but ambitious, Arenas still wears number 0 as a reminder of the number of minutes some people believed he'd play at Arizona. (He was given a scholarship only after another recruit backed out of his commitment and was a second-round pick of Golden State, thus the name of his charitable foundation, Zer0 2 Hero.) "Like he needed something else to get him going," said Miami guard Dwyane Wade of this year's All-Star diss.
Arenas rates himself as no better than the "20th to 25th" best player in the league, which explains his frenetic off-season schedule. After taking a week off at the end of last season, he spent the rest of the summer playing "every day, all day" in his native L.A. and in the D.C. area. Among his favorite haunts in the nation's capital is the Berry Farms rec center in Southeast D.C., whose murder rate is one of the nation's worst. "I was the first NBA player who ever walked through those gates, and I've gone there three years straight," he says. "The players there go hard at me--they've put me on my butt a couple times."
As his visibility outside D.C. grows, however slowly, Arenas wonders if he won't be happier being almost famous rather than Kobe-famous. "When you get [so] famous that you can't go out in public and enjoy yourself--I don't ever want to be that famous," says Arenas. "Right now I can still go to Blockbuster. I sign 50 to 60 autographs, but I still get my movies."
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