WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Ask Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas if he has tonight's date circled on his calendar and he reflexively spouts the normal athlete cliches about how no one game means any more than another.
But then a sly grin slowly crosses his face, and you realize that Arenas, in his first game against the Golden State Warriors since leaving the Bay Area in August for a six-year, $65 million free-agent contract with the Wizards, is going to be a little stoked to meet the Warriors.
"I'm not really worried about that [playing Golden State]," said Arenas. "You're not always going to play with one team forever. It's an important game for us just to win, because we've only won eight. The little jitterbugs are going to be flowing through you, but you can't take it personal."
Arenas, last year's NBA Most Improved Player, was able to leave Golden State after two seasons through a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement that grants second-round draft choices freedom to switch teams faster than first-round picks.
The 6-foot-3 Arenas, taken 31st in the 2001 draft after his sophomore year at Arizona, has had a stop-and-start two months in Washington, mostly stop.
He has led the Wizards in scoring all year and notched his first career triple double with a 25-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist gem in the Wizards' 100-90 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 5.
But Arenas suffered a severe abdominal strain in a Nov. 23 loss at Seattle and missed eight games. He attempted to come back Dec. 12 against Minnesota and scored nine points in 24 minutes, only to go back on the injured list with a recurrence of the strain.
Arenas' absence even hurt in less tangible ways. The hyperkinetic guard was sitting on the Washington bench, wearing a Wizards road jersey during a home loss to Orlando last month, when he was ejected in the first quarter for bench-jockeying with an official.
Arenas returned in Tuesday's 83-73 home loss to Atlanta with 14 points on 5-for-19 shooting. Though he took pains to note that he wasn't singling out Arenas, Washington coach Eddie Jordan said that while the struggling Hawks had played hungry as a team, the Wizards had played hungrily as individuals.
Arenas, in his defense, said he was trying to find his rhythm as well as re-establish contact with his teammates.
"The mind-set hasn't gone anywhere. Everybody is trying to dust off the rust. I'm trying to dust off the rust from sitting out a month and a half. My players are trying to dust off the rust and figure out where I'm supposed to go and what they are playing like. There are 82 games in this league, and if you start out bad, that's OK as long as you end up good."
Whether the Wizards can turn around their 8-21 start will be partially contingent on if Arenas can spread his infectious spirit to his young teammates. So far, he seems up to the challenge.
"I like the philosophy that we have here," Arenas said. "We've been going and losing games that we should have won, but they are still fighting and they are still energized and they're still happy.
"I've been on a team where you lose 10 or 20 in a row and they don't want to play basketball any more. But they still come in early and they're still playing."
Opponent: Golden State Warriors
Site: MCI Center, Washington
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WTNT (570 AM)