WASHINGTON, D.C. Dec. 17, 2006-Jan. 17, 2007. Exactly one month. Over those 31 days and 32 nights, Gilbert Arenas put on shows we haven't seen in the NBA in a long time, if ever.
Sixteen games. In those 16 were two 50-plus games (54 on Phoenix, 51 on Utah), one 60-point joint, seven other games in which he dropped 30-plus, a 35 with 12 assists against the Clippers, and two walk-off games when his 3s at the buzzer sent everyone home for the night.
On Jan. 4, I got this text message: "Gilbert Arenas is doing some of the sickest #@$% in the league right now since Mike!"
On Jan. 15, I got this e-mail: "Gilbert Arenas for president Puff is his running mate he crazy man, 51 & another game-winner r u serious Give me him, AI & Amare and I'm putting da money up for a three-on-three vs. anybody!"
The "Did you hear?" and "Did you see?" phone calls. The "Wassup fam, I know I ain't seen you in a few years, but you watchin' the Wizards game tonight?" visits. The "Daddy, when can I get a Gilbert Arenas jersey?" questions.
The high pitches in the voices that voice-over his highlights the hoarseness of the voices of those who've covered his games it got to a point where what he was doing was more than special. Beyond rare. You knew it was one of those surreal lightning-in-a-bottle moments that only iPhones and potential black presidential candidates have.
There are times in life when you have to see things for yourself. With your own three eyes, your mind being the third. You have to be there -- in that place, in that moment -- to say that you were there; to at least say you were a part of it.
So I got on a plane.
To watch him go through this. To watch him look away before a game-winning shot from 35 feet drops straight through the net. Knowing. To watch him defend comments like, "Once I let it go, I was like, 'I don't need to look at this one.'" To watch him take it another step further and throw his arms up before a 32-foot game-winner goes through the net. To watch him hit three 3s in the last 3:12 of that same game before the fourth trey ended it. To watch him write on his blog, "The next 50-point game is going to be against Portland." Date: Feb. 11. To watch him take bows.
To watch how he swings the ball around his waist three times before every free throw, after being haunted by free throws all summer long. To watch his facial expressions, to watch his jaws puff like Dizzy when he blows by people, to watch that perfect "O" his mouth makes after two more points go up on the Jumbotron. To watch the smile that came over his face after he split a double-team and dropped Caron Butler a dime against the Knicks that's probably going to make Butler a first-time All-Star next month.
To watch how he streamlines almost aerodynamically to the hole when he drives, never giving any defender a true chance at stopping him from scoring. To watch how his wrists don't snap on the release of his jump shot, but his fingers bend forward. To watch, in the final 12 seconds of that Knicks game, how all five players on the Wizards touched the ball. To watch Butler dunk the ball with 2.4 left and get the glory. To watch Gilbert be more excited about that than he was about the game before, when he flatlined Utah. To watch him be a decoy. To watch him fool all of us.
I came to D.C. to be at that moment in somebody else's life.
To feel what it feels like to kiss the sky.
THE TIPPING POINT
After the last game of this month of his, the one against the Knicks, Arenas posted up at his locker, holding court with every writer within a 22-foot, 9-inch radius. Unlike most two-minutes-of-questions-and-leave-me-the-hell-alone ballplayers that rep 90 percent of the NBA, Gilbert stays until the last stop-button is pushed.
I had two questions. Only two. "How does it feel to be you right now?" and "When did you know?" The second one searching for the moment when he began to make this "moment" happen.
He paused on the first.
"Um truthfully, uh [breathe out] it's hard because it's like I expected it."
When he said this I looked at him. I saw his father's eyes, his father's beard. I saw the pursuit of unhappiness that he and his father lived at one time.
"Because when I said I was going to take over the league, you know, I was expecting it. [But at the same time] I was trying to be normal, I wanted to stay the same ol' guy when all of this happened. And I do, I feel the same."
No different than before your moment began?
The same as you did last year?
"The same. For some reason, I don't know why, I feel the same."
With the second question I was looking for the tipping point -- the moment Arenas knew this would happen, when he knew he'd personally turn eight media requests a game into 48, when he knew the spotlight would bypass everyone else in the league and finally land on him.
I asked Arenas if he believes there was a tipping point for his having this type of season.
"Yes," he said.
Now, it's here when I realized that Gilbert Arenas is more Wizard of Ahhs than the Wizard of Odd he's constantly portrayed as in the press. Most life-altering moments that lead to greatness in sports are negative ones, sometimes even tragic: MJ being cut from his high school team, Larry Bird's father's suicide, Penny Hardaway getting shot, Allen Iverson going to jail, Kobe's three air balls against Utah his rookie year, Dwyane Wade being down 0-2 and trailing with 6:34 left in Game 3 of last year's NBA Finals
Instead, Arenas' experience, the opposite. Non-Malcolm Gladwell.
"Mine was back-to-back. The shot [a game-winning, walk-off jumper] against Chicago in Chicago in the playoffs [in 2005], and then the defensive play up here when I blocked Kirk Hinrich when they could have gone up by six in that game and instead we went down and scored. That was the tipping point for me. Kobe's life changed when he hit that shot against Indiana [in the 2000 Finals]. That's when everyone noticed Kobe. The same thing for me, everyone began to notice me after that shot against the Bulls.
"And from there it just began to build. And then when I missed the two free throws "
Ah the two free throws. Those two free throws Arenas missed in overtime of Game 6 against the Cavs in last year's playoffs, the ones that opened the door for LeBron to humanize the hype. The two free throws I knew for sure were Gilbert Arenas' tipping point.
"Yeah, those free throws haunted me," he said. "When I missed those two free throws, it was like, 'OK, we need to watch where his life goes now. Is he going to be another Nick Anderson [whose basketball career was never the same after he missed four consecutive crucial free throws in a row in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals] or is he going to turn into something great? Let's see where his motive goes.'
"And that's what I was thinking. When I did eventually start shooting free throws again -- three months later [laugh] -- I was missing 'em. And I was like, 'Ah man, damn.' And every time I went to go play [during the summer] they were yelling, 'Cleveland! Cleveland series!'
"And it was funny, because it was holding on me and I kept missing and missing free throws. That's when I was like, 'This is not going to work. Let's try a new approach.' And that's when I started working on everything else. Didn't even worry about free throws, didn't even practice free throws. I said to myself, 'I'm not going to let my life, my career, whatever I've done in basketball go down the drain because of two free throws.'"
He wasn't going to be Nick Anderson's remix.
"Everything that happened to me last summer, it was kinda funny," he added. "How everything that was happening I knew was going to lead me to where I am right now. With the Miami thing [he was arrested on May 29 for resisting without violence], with the Olympic thing [he was cut from the U.S. national team], I sat back and looked at everything and said, 'This is going to be a great year.' I just felt it! My name was being thrown around too much for something not good to be about to happen."
Which leads us to where Arenas is right now. In separation of damn near all the other players in the league. Sitting on an MVP that might be his to lose. Living inside a moment that doesn't happen for most professional athletes.
Living where everyone wishes, imagines, hopes and dreams to be. If only just once.
"FEELIN' HIMSELF RIGHT NOW"
It took Mike Wise of the Washington Post to take it there. To put what Arenas is doing in perspective, while at the same time indicating how absurd it could get over the next 31 days and 32 nights.
So caught up in Arenas' moment, Wise wrote: "Now that Gilbert has thrust himself into historical discussion it's time to take stock where he is in franchise history. I would put him right now number three behind only Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes and ahead of Earl Monroe."
(Wise's response to his own comment, so beautiful, so tongue 'n' cheek, so serious: "Was I taking drugs at that particular moment? Yes. Did I really understand what I was writing? No. Did I forget who Black Jesus [Monroe] was? Yes. I admit all of these things. But I will say this, Gilbert's coming into his fourth season here, and once he gets this team past the second round of the playoffs and into the Eastern Conference finals, I think he'll be a legitimate top three all-time; if he wins them a championship, I'll put him above Elvin Hayes.")
As god-like as he's balled, perfection was far from found. Even though Arenas averaged 30.8 ppg during that 16-game span, only once in the last 10 games did he shoot more than 50 percent from the field. And although he gave the city (and surrounding area) a spark they needed almost as much as New Orleans needed the Saints to win games this season -- "When I signed here and said that we were going to make the playoffs, you know, I was trying to put it all on my back. I was going to try to be the guy to turn this franchise around," Arenas said -- he hasn't reached that Iverson stage where he can throw up any shot inside of half court and still get love unconditional.
One young man stopped me in the streets while I was there and said, "Gilbert is the best guard in the league, but I'm going to tell you what Gilbert's problem is ." One young sistah who just recently graduated from Lehigh University rolled up on me and said, "I think Gilbert is feelin' himself a little too much right now. I love his confidence, but it's starting to cross over into arrogance."
Still if you've watched him play this past month, you must concede: Yeah, they may be right, but to hell with that. This month, these 32 nights, he's earned the right to be the most arrogant athlete in professional sports.
THE AUDACITY OF HOOP
I arrived in D.C. on a day when all the talk was about an exploratory committee. It's his town now. On the cover of the Post, the Financial Times, in Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room," on Anderson Cooper's "360," on Georgia Ave., on Capitol Hill -- his name flows off the people's tongues in a way it never has before.
"Barack Obama." What once sounded strange now sounds beautiful. Never thought it would be this way. Never imagined it would come to this. Damn it feels good to see people up on it. Damn it must be good to be him right now.
But as omnipresent as Obama is right now, as important as he is -- as important as he is about to (possibly) be -- this is not his moment. It actually belongs to someone else.
It was one month to the day when Gilbert Arenas dropped a bomb on the sports world with his "out-of-nowhere" 60-point game against the Lakers that took on a life of its own. All of a sudden, the light was all on him.
A monthlong aberration? Or what it's about to be like in D.C. on the regular?
Arenas knew the minute it happened which one it was going to be. He knew he was about to fool all of us. He's had this all planned.
He says in his adidas spot that it's not about one player, that it takes five.
He tries to make you believe that it is about them, not him.
That he's not the one to occupy the spotlight, that he's not in this moment of his alone. They all are. The team. Together.
But you're not a fool, are you?
Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He'll also be the host of ESPN Original Entertainment's "NBA Live: Bring It Home" which debuts on Feb. 11. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.