Gilbert Arenas returns to D.C.: Ho-hum

Washington, D.C., had something else to do besides ponder its collective response to Gilbert Arenas's return.

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(Photo: Associated Press)

Long story short

Despite his new start with the Orlando Magic, Gilbert Arenas considers Washington home.

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Call it meh.

Arenas came back to Verizon Center---the building that, for a couple of years, he owned---with the Orlando Magic Friday night. The Magic's dominance was established early and often in a 110-92 spanking; even on the second night of a back-to-back on the road, while Washington sat ready at home, Orlando got every shot it wanted and every rebound it needed.

The Wizards are so lacking in toughness they'd make Quentin Crisp seem like Schwarznegger; Washington's bigs took turns barely making contact with Dwight Howard, so fearful they seemed of getting jackhammer dunked on, or having their feeble post-ups swatted into the third row. (Flip: play Trevor Booker until he drops, give him a cup of water, and then put him back out there until he fouls out. Every night.)

But the story of Arenas's return, and how D.C. fans would react to the guy who led them to the playoffs four times--but also imploded the team with Gungate and spent much of the last three years rehabbing a series of knee injuries--dominated the pregame story lines. But as with most NBA comebacks, it was underwhelming. When Arenas came in with 1:31 left in the first quarter, he received many more cheers than boos--though there were some boos. A fan held up a sign that read "We still love You Gilbert Arenas." Many people, though not all--maybe fewer than half--of the announced 18,940 stood.

It had all the emotion of a going-away party for Bill in Accounting--the guy that almost no one had lunch with for 30 years. It was fine, but it didn't produce any lumps, not the way Madison Square Garden roared in 2001 when ex-Knick Patrick Ewing returned wearing the unfamiliar green of the Seattle SuperSonics, or Chicago Stadium the following year, when Michael Jordan came back to town as a Wizard. Arenas didn't seem especiallly moved, and the crowd didn't seem especially nostalgic. But it did appreciate his seven seasons of service.

"I worked hard here, I would say," Arenas said afterward. "I got injured. I couldn't do nothing about that at the time...When I was trying to heal, I was out there playing hard. I made a mistake. And now it's over. And now they move on. At some point, they had to. L.A., at some point, Kobe (Bryant)'s going to be gone. They're going to have to move on. You gotta deal with it. This is John Wall and the Wizards' city, and he's going to be great for them. He's going to have his memories here. And then, someday, he's going to be gone. That's just the way the NBA is. People come and go."

Friday was a better day for Arenas than Thursday, when the Magic lost to Miami in Orlando and he was served with papers by his former fiancee, Laura Govan, at halftime, seeking custody of the couple's three children and child support for those children and an unborn child. Govan lived with the children in Virginia until just before Arenas was dealt to the Magic in December. (Arenas's attorney told the Associated Press that it was "unfortunate" that the division of his assets was made public. It is unfortunate; that should be between the two of them, which is why I will not discuss it further here.)

So Arenas is left to ponder his new role with the Magic, where he comes off the bench for Stan Van Gundy and plays point guard. Yes, he came off the bench for a month here before the deal, but no one believed that it was a role for which he was suited or was comfortable. But Orlando has a starting point guard in Jameer Nelson, and a good two guard in Jason Richardson, and Van Gundy doesn't want to mess with the chemistry of his starters.

"That's a big adjustment for him, to come off the bench and having to sort of inject yourself in," Van Gundy said. "The guy's been a starter his whole career. That's a lot harder adjustment than people understand, I think. So part of it is he's just got to get comfortable with that. He got to come in and be aggressive right at the beginning, and that's not real easy. He's usually a little stiff when he comes in, with that leg and everything. It takes a while for him to get going."

Meanwhile, the Wizards' Date with Destiny continued apace. With Cleveland's 23rd straight loss Friday, tying the NBA's single-season record for consecutive losses, the irresistable force--the Cavaliers' incredible ineptitude--is about a week away from meeting the immovable object, Washington's 25 straight road losses to start the season, the third-worst road streak in NBA history. The Wizards don't play on the road again until Feb. 13, the Sunday following the Super Bowl, when they travel to....Cleveland. Perversity demands that the Cavs lose each of their next four games--a distinct possibility--to set up a game between a team that's lost 27 games in a row and a team that's winless in 25 tries on the road. You have to root for this. Just have to.

Friday, a visibly frustrated John Wall got tossed from his first pro game, and Andray Blatche (10 points, six rebounds) and JaVale McGee (two points, one rebound) should have been. For what it's worth, Arenas isn't sure the Wizards' plan to build through the draft is the way to go.

Asked how far the Wizards have to go, Arenas said, "if I'm running the team, I'm looking at Wall and I'm going to put veteran players around him. That's how you build him. You can't have him out there playing alone in bad basketball. It's just like putting a young player in the D League. You're going out there just throwing up shots and learning bad habits. It's like (Boston guard Rajon) Rondo, his second year, he got put with those All-Stars, he learns playing winning basketball. That's what they need to do. Derrick Rose, same thing. You eventually put veterans around him, so he can learn faster. You keep young players the same age, they all learn bad habits."

Arenas looked better Friday than he had for much of his stay in Orlando; in his previous five games, he'd shot just 14 of 36 from the floor. He was just 4 of 12 Friday, missing all four threes, but he played under control for the most part, shooting when open. And he did a lot of other things, finishing with six rebounds and six assists in 25 minutes. He took a charge on Kirk Hinrich in the first half and came up with a steal. In the third quarter, he assisted J.J. Redick on a three and Earl Clark on a dunk. And he showed some of the offensive arrogance that he had in Washington in 2006 and 2007, and that Orlando wants from him now, hitting a tough runner in the lane.

"I thought it was his best defensive game since he got here," said Orlando general manager Otis Smith, Arenas's longtime friend who gambled quite a bit by bringing Arenas and the remainder of his $111 million contract to the Land of the Mouse. At 29, with several knee surgeries in his rearview mirror, Arenas isn't a kid anymore and he has a lot to prove. But no matter how things ended in Washington, or how they turn out for him in Orlando, this is where he became an NBA star, and this is the city that embraced him after a lifetime of looking for a place where he fit in.

So what will Washington mean to him from now on?

He pondered.

"That's a good one. Haven't gotten that question," he said.

"I mean, home," he finally said. "I mean, it's home. I mean, this is, technically, this is the longest place I've been in. When I moved to California at 10, and I moved back and forth, so I wasn't really...I've been here eight years. So I consider this home."

Does everyone, you wondered, have to leave home at a certain point in their lives?

"No," he said. "Just because something bad happens you don't run away from it. If everybody ran away from everything that happened (that was) bad, nobody would be stable. Because something bad happens during your life. So if you keep running away from it, no one would be stable."

But Arenas has left home, to whatever future his talents, Van Gundy's coaching and Dwight Howard can forge for him. Either way, he will be fine, well-compensated and on a team that has a chance to go deep in the playoffs. While the Wizards have so far to row, and their boat is so small.

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