Monday, February 26, 2007
Updated: April 15, 5:04 PM ET
The Wizard Of It
By Chris Palmer
The Ritz-Carlton in the heart of DC is buzzing. Just before midnight, Gilbert Arenas gets off the elevator and steps into a throng of friends and family he's flown into town. Dressed in a snazzy white tux, he makes his way through the hotel's underground garage. Tonight's the night for his invite-only, black-tie birthday bash, the big 2-5, and his freshly detailed, black 2006 Lamborghini Murciélago is going to take him there.
"I'm the black president," Arenas announces to no one and everyone.
But his constituents aren't smiling. "The car won't start," someone says. "We gotta jump it." Forty-five minutes later, after a date with the jump box, the $300,000 V-12 rocket roars to life and Arenas and his entourage race off to Love.
He receives a hero's welcome upon his arrival at the nightclub. Then again, not many heroes have ever had to deal with a VIP booth that has no room for them. Or had to spend their big night rescuing all the guests who showed up in jeans or without their black Arenas Express card invites. Or making sure the trio of A-list performers—Lil Wayne, The Game and T.I.—play nice. After the party, some of the models hired by 0-2 Talents (an agency owned by Arenas and teammate DeShawn Stevenson) have no rides home. Arenas packs nine into one of his two Maybachs and eight into the other.
So this is how the NBA's latest It Boy rolls?
Actually, yes. This is, in fact, life when you're the guy everyone turns to, the guy responsible for all of this. Not just the party, but the mood. Not just the numbers, but the wins. Not just the fun, but the ride home. "When you're the one, it all falls on your shoulders," Arenas says. "But I'll take everything that comes with this job, because I'm the people's champ. I'm Robin Hood. This is the role I was born to play."
And this is the season he has officially grown into it. Arenas is the NBA's newest supernova, earning the distinction with a slew of 40-plus-point games and daring buzzer-beaters, and solidifying it with charm to burn and endearing idiosyncrasies few others could get away with.
Plus, there's another important and fresh element, at least in the nation's capital: winning. For the first time in 28 years, the Wizards find themselves with a legit shot at the Eastern Conference title as they head into the All-Star break. And that puts Arenas squarely among the front-runners in the race for MVP. "It's incredible what he's been doing," says twice most-valuable Steve Nash. "He deserves all the attention. The 54 points he scored on us was astonishing."
Arenas has an ice-water-in-the-veins temperament when it really counts, like the 13 times this season he has drilled a shot at the end of a quarter, half or game. Seven of those shots have come from beyond 30. "What can you say about Gil?" asks close pal LeBron James. "He's an incredible talent who's really hot right now." ( The Magazine polled 116 NBAers and asked them to ID the game's It player: Arenas took 51.9% of the vote. Kobe was a distant second with 8.6%.)
Being man-of-the-moment is as much about timing as anything else. Staying there is the result of thousands of hours in the gym and the film room. "He's gotten better by leaps and bounds in everything," says Wizards head coach Eddie Jordan. "He used to just walk the line; now he's stepped over it."
Arenas can reel off a seemingly endless list of once buzz-worthy players who've fallen into the abyss before their time—Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway, Darius Miles—and he is intent on not joining them. "He's one of the hardest-working players in this league," Kobe Bryant says. "He's earned my respect with the amount of preparation he puts into his game. I've seen many come and many go. He's special."
These days, Arenas routinely pushes his fellow Wizards to lift weights or get up shots on offdays—and he walks his talk: The night before a recent game, Arenas made 500 of 538 threes. Pros notice such habits; fans notice the results. Fueled by endless replays of his 51-point, buzzer-beating performance on Jan. 15 against the Jazz, Arenas supplanted Vince Carter in the East's starting lineup.
Small wonder his No. 0 jersey is the eighth-best seller in the league, despite the fact that Arenas gives away hundreds during the season. "Fans love me because I connect with them," he says. "No other superstar can do that." It's not uncommon for Arenas to sign autographs for 20 minutes at a gas station, or show up unannounced at pickup games in some decidedly unglamorous section of town. He has also said in a recent blog post that he ordered 100 All-Star game jerseys with "Agent Zero" on the back just so he can give them away to fans.
His game-saving alter ego aside, Arenas insists he's just plain old Gil. "To LeBron and Wade and Carmelo and those guys, I'm the same clown I was last year," Arenas says, adding that his new status hasn't gotten him anywhere with regard to his pals. "I called LeBron last summer," he says. "He just called me back."
He's joking, but Arenas has made a career of turning slights into motivation, then delivering in must-see fashion. But what do you do when the doubters disappear and you've earned more respect and authored more highlights than you ever thought possible? "I'll just make stuff up."
On a recent off day, Arenas stands alone on the Wizards practice court, gently lofting threes from five feet beyond the arc. Five, six, seven in a row. He closes his eyes. Eight. He backs up to 35 feet and snaps his wrist as if shooting a free throw. Nine. On his 10th shot, he stands on one leg and hoists the ball with one hand. It ricochets off the backboard, missing badly.
"I guess I still have something to work on," he says, chuckling.
And he will. Bank on It.