Will they forgive me?
This was the question Gilbert Arenas couldn't stop asking himself. It was the morning of Oct. 12, the day of the Wizards' preseason home opener against Atlanta. Arenas hadn't played before a home crowd in nine months, since just before he was exiled from the NBA for the final 50 games of last season for bringing four guns into the locker room and then mocking the severity of the incident. He picked up the newspaper and was unsettled by statements from Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and coach Flip Saunders about the city's willingness to welcome him back. Would Washington really absolve him for detonating the Wizards' 2009--10 season?
Arenas didn't want to find out.
Last Thursday, after practice in Washington, Arenas told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that the real reason he sat out wasn't, as he originally told reporters, to rest his thrice-surgically-repaired knee, nor was it the excuse he gave the next day, that he wanted to give backup point guard Nick Young the chance to play. "I was really scared of getting booed," says Arenas. "It's a little crazy because I was here with Kwame Brown when Kwame was scared to go out there. I used to be like, Man, it's just boos. Now here I was six years later, and I was him. I was scared to go out there."
The day after Arenas offered the story about his desire to be a good teammate, Saunders dressed him down in front of his teammates, and the Wizards slapped him with a $50,000 fine. It was hard not to think, Same old Gilbert. The episode overshadowed rookie point guard John Wall's 19 points and seven assists against the Hawks. It was the kind of dynamic performance that made it hard not to wonder (again) if, with Wall on board, there was any room—or need—for Arenas.
Gilbert Arenas and John Wall can't coexist.
The words have been written and spoken often since the Wizards made Wall the top pick in the 2010 draft. They're both 6'4" guards who are at their best with the ball in their hands, and, the argument goes, there is only room for one such alpha male in D.C. And there is this: Arenas is the past; Wall is the future.
Arenas sees things a little differently. When the Wizards drafted Wall, Arenas viewed the prodigy not as a potential replacement but as a complementary piece. "I said to my friends that I wish this happened four years ago," says Arenas, 28. "I wish it happened before the knee injuries, because this team would have been fabulous. I always kept saying I wanted another two guard that can take on the scoring or for them to bring in a point guard so I can go to the two. When they drafted him, I thought it was the smartest idea."
For his part, Wall was a little anxious about meeting Arenas. Over the summer the two swapped phone calls and text messages, but they didn't start working out together until a week before training camp. In the interim Wall peppered teammates and staffers with questions about Arenas's aloof personality. Their first meeting was an awkward exchange of head nods in the Wizards' locker room, like a couple of online daters taking their relationship out of the virtual realm. "It was a weird moment," says Arenas. "But guards get along. We have this camaraderie because we both look at the game the same way."
Wall and Arenas have indeed become fast friends. Arenas says the two are together 24/7 on the road, often hanging out in each other's hotel rooms talking hoops. Arenas has embraced the unlikely role of mentor. He constantly encourages Wall to have confidence in his jump shot, telling him that once teams have to start respecting that part of his game, they will be helpless to stop him when he uses his speed to attack the rim. He gives Wall individual scouting reports on how certain defenders will try to keep him out of the paint, and he comes in early before practice so they can shoot together. "He has been great," says Wall, who became the first rookie since Oscar Robertson in 1960 to have at least seven assists in each of his first five games. "He's helping me out as much as he can, and I'm learning a lot just by watching him play."