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. ?