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Zero Tolerance

Gilbert Arenas brings a lot to the table, including a chip on his shoulder, but with his talent, work ethic and a 29.3 scoring average, what team wouldn't put up with a few insecurities?

April 25, 2006|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

There may be no I in team, but there are two in insecurity, which is just the way Gilbert Arenas likes it.

No. 0 in your program, No. 1 in the hearts of people who saw him start his trip from obscurity at Grant High in Van Nuys, he just finished No. 4 in the NBA in scoring, trailing only Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Allen Iverson, ahead of Dwyane Wade.

Having just turned 24, Arenas is a five-year veteran and a two-time All-Star, halfway through a six-year, $65-million contract -- on his way to making some real money -- although little inclined to acknowledge that he has arrived.

"You know, I'm still that guy," he said recently. "It's just like a hard-working guy hit the lotto.

"I'm not going to turn into a millionaire. I just want to be that regular old guy. That's how I feel. I'm still No. Zero, no matter how far my career goes."

His recent All-Star appearance was not untypical. Left off the East squad, which was loaded at guard, Arenas made the usual announcement about using it as fuel for his fire. Then the league upset that plan by selecting him to replace injured Jermaine O'Neal.

At the East squad's practice, Arenas gave fans $2,000 worth of his All-Star jerseys, which he'd bought personally. For the game, he taped over the Adidas logos on the sneakers he's paid to endorse in what he called a "silent protest" over the company's failure to renegotiate his deal.

Arenas and Adidas are friends again now but that's just how it goes with Gilbert, once fondly called "baby Ron Artest" by Golden State teammate Jason Richardson.

Of course, if you came from as far out in left field as Arenas did, it might take you awhile to get used to stardom too.

At Grant, where Coach Howard Levine ran an exemplary program that had never had a player like Arenas, he was passed over by the local colleges and got to Arizona only after a late offer from Lute Olson. Wearing zero -- for the number of minutes people said he'd play, Arenas explained -- he shouldered aside the Wildcats' incumbent shooting guard and took the job as a freshman.

Declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore year, he bought a loaded SUV in anticipation of going in the first round and was crushed at being passed over again.

Taken in the second round by Golden State, he was moved to point guard, became the starter as a rookie, averaged 18 points in his second season, then signed with the Wizards.

In his second and third seasons at Washington, the Wizards made the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 1988. His 2,346 points this season were the most since the franchise moved from Chicago to Baltimore in 1963, more than ever were scored in a season by Earl Monroe, Elvin Hayes or Bernard King.

He may not want to think about it and he may have a few things left to work on but Arenas is a franchise player.

"He's more of a point guard," says Wizard Coach Eddie Jordan. "He's more of a leader. He's playing better defense. And I know why Lute Olson has white hair."

The Original

Gilbert Arenas

He's a very sweet kid, good natured, big heart, very giving when given a chance but he's got some issues.... He challenges everybody to, "What are you going to do? Are you going to leave me?"

Howard Levine

Grant High coach

This story didn't start when a basketball coach passed Arenas over. It started further back, just before he turned 3, when his father, who was then 22, drove to Miami from his Tampa home and picked up the youngster from his mother, from whom Gilbert has been estranged since.

"When I came and picked him up, he said, 'Are you my daddy?' " says Gilbert Arenas Sr. "I said, 'Yeah, how'd you know?'

"He said, 'I don't know.'

"He just started smiling. It was like the biggest load off his back that I had ever seen, he was so happy ...

"On our way back, I don't think he fell asleep. I told him, I said, 'Why don't you go to sleep?'

"He must have thought at the time I was going to take off on him so he didn't go to sleep."

It's one thing to be raised by a single parent but another thing when it's your father. Gilbert Sr., who still lives in North Hollywood, was good enough in football to try to walk on at the University of Miami when Jim Kelly and O.J. Anderson were there. After moving here, Senior had gigs as an actor and model, besides working his day, or actually, his night, job at UPS. In an age in which basketball players are groomed from infancy and often held back a year, the Arenas family had enough to do to make ends meet. Gilbert, whose birthday was in January, hadn't yet turned 14 when he started his freshman year at Birmingham High in the San Fernando Valley and played on the junior varsity.

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