With his unique personality and alter ego, Gilbert Arenas isn't your average superstar

The Baltimore Sun

The uniform number says a lot about Gilbert Arenas.

Zero.

That was how many minutes some recruiters told him he'd play for a major program. And he never wanted to forget, so he slapped it on his chest as a freshman at Arizona.

But these days, the number is a big part of his "superhero" identity. He's Agent Zero, the phenomenon who bursts past the fastest guards, floats shots over the fingertips of the tallest centers and swishes three-pointers from the remotest environs of a basketball court.

Despite his widely accepted superstar status, Arenas said his uniform number means the same to him as it ever did.

"It's the same as it was in college when nobody expected anything of me and I led my team in scoring and we went to the championship game," the Washington Wizards star guard said. "That zero is what I'm a part of. Every little kid knows zero. You see it in playground games all over."

When pressed for more explanation of its significance, Arenas said, "It's somebody who fights. Somebody who fights for everything they have and hasn't been given anything easy. It's knowing that I deserve everything I accomplish, because I had to work for it. Like the All-Star Game. The fans aren't voting me in, so I have to fight for it. That's who I am."

The fans actually did vote for Arenas to start tonight's game in Las Vegas and, by almost any standard, his fight for respect has progressed phenomenally well.

He's averaging close to 30 points a game for a second straight season and is a serious Most Valuable Player candidate. He scores those points with elan, routinely drilling buzzer-beating 25-footers. He's in the fourth year of a six-year, $65 million contract. And he's the first basketball hero to develop in Washington since the days of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes in the 1970s.

"What a unique player and what a phenomenally special person," said ESPN analyst Bill Walton, whose son, Luke, played with Arenas at Arizona. "In a world gone bland before our eyes, he has a remarkable ability to capture an audience and deliver on his promise."

Wary of fame

Success has not transformed Arenas into a generic NBA superstar.

He is enormously confident in his ability, the sort of guy who expected greatness of himself long before anyone else saw it.

"Nothing really fazes him at all, no matter what the situation is or who might be doubting him," said Antawn Jamison, who has played five seasons with Arenas for the Golden State Warriors and the Wizards. "He's never lacked that confidence."

But Arenas also offers flashes of perspective that seem foreign coming from an athletic demigod.

Being in the NBA is like being a leaf on a tree, he once told fans in an online chat. Every season leaves blow off the tree and new ones grow on.

He made headlines with his 25th birthday, held at a swank nightclub in Washington, and emceed by hip-hop eminences P Diddy and Lil Wayne among others. The lavish affair was said to cost $1.5 million.

But those who know Arenas say he'll seem just as happy about chatting up a stranger while biking in Rock Creek Park.

"I told him once, 'You're Elgin Baylor,' " said Arenas' high school coach, Howard Levine. "And he looked at me like I was crazy. I said, 'To me, Baylor and Jerry West were like gods. They're why I do what I do. You're that for a lot of people now.' And he just said, 'You're nuts.'

"Sometimes, he doesn't realize he's Gilbert yet, and that's a kind of great quality to have."

Arenas remains wary of the sort of fame that would make him a shut-in or force him to micromanage his image.

"It seems like guys who are built up to be too good just end up falling hard," he said. "I'm just trying to show that I can be regular. That's all I want to be."

Star power, appeal

"Regular" isn't how teammates or coaches describe Arenas.

He lives life as if plugged into a power cord that no one else can access. After a recent win over Seattle in which he played 44 minutes, Arenas emerged from the shower area to find a pack of reporters around little-used forward Andray Blatche.

"Look who's a star now," Arenas chirped with a high-pitched lilt. Arenas, clad only in a towel, proceeded to gyrate at the edge of Blatche's interview ring.

He then taunted DeShawn Stevenson about a contest he'd won by making 73 of 100 from three-point range ... shooting one-handed. Stevenson managed 68 shooting with two hands. (Check it out on YouTube.)

"There's a 'swagfest' going on," said a Wizards spokesman, playing off of Arenas' own term for his confidence - "phenomenal swag."

When asked if he worried about Stevenson taking his money, Arenas scrunched his face in a mock sneer.

"I don't even worry about that," he said, "because I don't lose."

Arenas didn't stop talking for more than 15 seconds between then and his departure for a Ruth's Chris steak dinner 30 minutes later.

For many, Arenas' nonstop spark is a big part of his appeal. "He's so refreshing," Bill Walton said. "I don't want lethargy or stoicism, some placid demeanor where I can't tell if you're alive. Give me somebody who makes me care."

Walton is hardly alone in caring about Arenas, whose quirks are as big a part of his growing legend as his play. His No. 0 jersey is the eighth-best selling in the league.

His restlessness transfers to the offseason, when, on an average day, Arenas puts himself through three shooting sessions, practices a list of 30 dribble moves and performs a more traditional physical workout.

To aid his quest for unmatched fitness, he had the air in his Northern Virginia home treated so it simulates high-altitude conditions. And he travels with a tent that can produce the same effect in a hotel room.

No one questions whether Arenas' drive has made him a great player. But sometimes, his relentless self-confidence and openness put him in less pleasant situations.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan has praised his star's demeanor for most of this season, but a spat last weekend suggested that he still sees room for growth.

"First of all, we didn't have the leadership out there that we needed with Antawn [Jamison] out," Jordan said after an ugly 94-73 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. "And no one else has stepped into a leadership role."

Arenas had intimated that Jordan's requests for more defensive effort have killed his offensive flow. "You lose focus because you're scared to actually play basketball," he said.

Jordan called those comments "stupid."

"I just look at it as a sign that he's still maturing," Jamison said. "Over 82 games, there are going to be days when you're frustrated and you want to say something. But you really have to watch what you say and do, especially when you're the face of the team and, really, the league. I talked to Gilbert and he knows that."

Early signs of talent

Arenas was born in Florida and lived with his mother until age 3. At that point, his dad, Gilbert Sr., took custody for good. The pair moved to Los Angeles four years later so the elder Arenas could seek acting and modeling work. He started a routine in which he'd rise before dawn to load boxes for UPS and then audition in the afternoon.

But Arenas' father also loved sports (he had been good enough to try walking on to the University of Miami football team in the early 1980s) and the son inherited that passion. The younger Arenas gravitated to football first but turned to basketball as an adolescent. The first time Levine saw Arenas, he told him he could be a pro.

"He just had this gear where you thought he was going hard but then suddenly, he'd explode like a rocket and go by everybody," Levine said. "I hadn't seen that before from a player in this area."

Arenas didn't yet love the game but found his passion while firing 300 jumpers a day by himself in the school gym.

"I used to tell him, 'Gilbert, you know so much more about this game than I do and you don't even know it yet,' " Levine said. "He just had this instinct, and he sensed that he had it."

A standout high school career, highlighted by three all-league selections and a 33-point average as a senior, followed. But Arenas didn't play in the most competitive league or make good grades, so he drew scant interest from top college programs.

Even UCLA, sitting right in his backyard, preferred to hold its scholarship spots for more touted prospects.

That was Arenas' first exposure to the notion that others didn't share his vision of ultimate success. Fortunately for Arenas, Arizona coach Lute Olson saw the same talent Levine had three years earlier.

As soon as Arenas arrived in Tucson, he dominated the guys who were supposed to relegate him to the bench.

Walton described Arenas as a "barely unearthed gem" at that stage. The former NBA great saw a shy kid who deferred socially to more outgoing and touted teammates such as Richard Jefferson. He remembered how when his son's teammates piled into the Walton house, Jefferson always made sure he got a bed and sent Arenas to the couch.

But Walton remembered just as clearly the NCAA tournament regional final against Illinois when Arenas was the best player on the court.

"He just looked at those guys and said, 'You have no chance,' " Walton said.

That tournament run set up Arenas' departure for the NBA, against Olson's advice.

2nd-round snub

Pro scouts weren't sure what to make of him. He was unusually strong and fast and certainly showed a knack for scoring. But he never played the point at Arizona, and that's what 6-foot-4 guys are expected to do in the NBA.

Arenas didn't sense those reservations. He saw impending glory so clearly that he bought himself a fully loaded SUV. Come draft night, however, he became one of those poor souls who watches first-round dreams fade into the reality of a second-round selection with no guaranteed contract attached. He wept.

By the time he showed up in Oakland, Calif., in 2001, he was over the anguish and ready to prove the doubters wrong another time. He donned his No. 0 Warriors jersey and proceeded to outplay the starters in practice and during the brief in-game stretches he was allowed. Those who saw his per-minute statistics sensed a hidden star.

"I was definitely surprised at his talent as a second-round pick," Jamison said. "And his work ethic almost embarrassed you. Here was this second-round guy, and he was showing up to shoot at midnight almost every night. You almost felt bad that you wanted to go home and relax."

Arenas played more his second year and won the league's Most Improved Player Award. That summer, he signed his six-year deal with the Wizards. An abdominal injury cost him 27 games in 2003-2004,his first season in Washington. But Arenas' star has only risen since.

"At every level, he's faced a period of adjustment, but then he flies," Levine said. "He came back a few years ago and said, 'It's just like high school now, only I don't get double-teamed as much.' He had reached that point where he just flowed."

Arenas has a near-perfect anatomy for a basketball star. His upper body looks like a large V, with broad, muscular shoulders sloping down to a slim waist. His legs are long and lean but corded with muscle. He has the wingspan of a man 6 feet 9.

"The way he can change speeds with the ball, and his body control combined with his strength, it's really unbelievable," Jamison said.

Through repetition, Arenas has developed superb mechanics on his jump shot and dribble moves.

"There are not many guys, in the history of the game really, who are as good as he is off the dribble and who shoot 40 percent from the three-point line," said ESPN.com analyst David Thorpe, who serves as a personal performance coach for several NBA players.

"Who's the toughest player in the league to guard?" Thorpe asked five pros after a workout last summer.

Arenas, they agreed.

Unmatched swagger

Thorpe was surprised, but when he looked at film of the Wizards' star, he saw why. He noted Arenas' ability to lull a defender with a slower dribble, crouch low and explode to the hoop with quickness matched by only a few players on earth.

He saw his absolute confidence in pulling up behind the three-point line when defenders played farther off to prevent those drives. And he saw a player always on the attack, probing defenses with his dribble like Joe Frazier probed Muhammad Ali's ribs with his left hook.

And one can't forget the phenomenal swagger.

"He's terribly confident," Thorpe said. "You can be a great shooter, but if you don't believe it, it only does you so much good. Gilbert has that edge, that factor of believing that he should be the one to take the toughest shots."

Arenas is happy to expound on his confidence, even after a poor outing.

The Wizards had just been scorched at home by the Phoenix Suns in January, and Arenas had struggled.

He hit his first shot but then missed a spate of four jumpers as the Suns raced to a lead. In one third-quarter sequence, he missed a layup and then dribbled the ball off his leg after breaking free on the next possession.

His opposite number, Steve Nash, was as brilliant as Arenas was discombobulated. The scrawny Canadian didn't miss a shot in the first half and kept darting around screens to feed his teammates near the hoop.

Before the game, the Suns' coaches had written on their locker room board that Arenas should be allowed to fire away from outside. Just keep him from driving and spending the whole night at the free-throw line, they urged. Arenas seemed to play right into this strategy, pulling up for jumper after jumper, even though his shot proved errant much of the night.

Agent Zero hardly seemed humbled. He recalled how, after one drive, he asked an official why he hadn't called a foul. The referee replied that the defender was capable of guarding the basket without illicit contact. "But nobody can just stop me," Arenas retorted.

His eyes danced mirthfully at the memory.

He seemed equally delighted that the Suns had hoped to keep him off the foul line. "That means they wanted to play off me, and that's perfect, because I'm a shooter," he said.

In other words, he has such belief in his game that no matter what an opponent plans, Arenas is sure he possesses the counter.

He had just spent half an hour praising Nash. "But no matter who we're playing," he said, "I think I'm the best player out there. That's the way you have to be in this league.

"I've always had that confidence," he continued.

And that's why Arenas is the guy least surprised that Agent Zero has become a superhero.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Welcome to Vegas

What -- 56th NBA All-Star Game

Where -- Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas

When -- Tonight, 8:30

TV -- TNT

Wizards' All-Stars --G Gilbert Arenas, F Caron Butler.

Rosters, PG 6D

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